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Ed Winstead: Empty and Blue and Serene

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June 18, 2012

Even supporters of North Carolina's gay-marriage ban know it won't last 20 years. Ed Winstead reflects on the South, the past, and when legislation plans its own obsolescence.


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Image courtesy of Ed Winstead

By Ed Winstead

The hour of U.S. Highway 1 between my parents’ house and Raleigh, like most of the highway, is an unbroken slab of asphalt—clean, smooth, almost elegant. There are no cracks, no interruptions. I’ve been all the way south on the highway, to the sign that marks the terminus in Key West, seen the people crowd around it as people always do around the ends of things. I felt the pull of home there, close. I imagine the road, that single object, as a means of direct connection to distant things.

The highway wasn’t always like that. When I was a child it was concrete. It existed as a collection of smaller things, like dominos, or teeth. The tar knuckles in the gaps between the slabs would thump against our tires, and the rhythm of their passing would put me to sleep, or keep me from it. The tires kept the time: an hour to the city, and an hour back again. A thousand destinations, a hundred thousand, but with nothing in between them to get close to.

Another road also sticks in my memory: the one that goes up to Chapel Hill. In Pittsboro, a little over half way, there is a traffic circle that rings the county courthouse, in front of which sits a statue of a young Confederate. The engraving on the pedestal reads simply, “C.S.A. 1861-1865.” The Confederate monument in Pittsboro is significantly shorter than the one in Oxford, Mississippi, and the engraving much simpler, but I couldn’t help but think of it when I first read Faulkner.

Faulkner’s world is gone now… The old growth is uprooted, and the forests are planned and cut and planned again. And there are strip malls everywhere, far less beautiful because they are far less dangerous.

On coming to the end of The Sound and the Fury, where Oxford’s courthouse square, with its Confederate monument, features so prominently, I thought of the one in Pittsboro and found myself wondering why it is that the South so vigorously recalls its past. There are the obvious things, the things that can’t be forgotten because they’re still with us in so many ways: slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow; the collective memory in the vice of trauma, grappling with its consequences, unsure of how to proceed in light of it, even after so many years. But those things, to our universal shame, are not so unusual, and certainly not particular to the American South.

I think instead that it has something to do with the land itself, with those small private places beneath our feet that connect us and that necessitate, as well, our many conflicts. It makes people stubborn, the land. It gets damn hot, and it can be hard. I have never dealt with the land in the adversarial way that people used to and that some still do, I’ve never had to wring my livelihood out of it, or defend myself from it in a primal way; still, I can feel the tension. But Faulkner’s world is gone now. Machines have muzzled the hard, barking clay. The roads are new and fast. The old growth is uprooted, and the forests are planned and cut and planned again. And there are strip malls everywhere, far less beautiful because they are far less dangerous.

But the old world, Faulkner’s world, is not entirely lost. There are echoes of it in the empty mansions, the gray shacks with their rust-red roofs fading back into the trees or lost to ivy, the old downtowns with their empty storefronts and abandoned warehouses. And, of course, in the museums and the statues. But where Faulkner’s South is still a living thing is in the people, even in those who never saw it. The stubbornness, the fear of change that breeds it; those things that people turned to in the distant past.

And there’s Christ of course, vestigial, not so necessary now as he was before, but still lively, and like everything else that you can’t lay hands on, very difficult to change. Christ breathes heavy breath over the long-shuttered textile mills, the bought-out farms, the foreclosed houses, and the failing schools. North Carolina has the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the U.S., the third-lowest rate of income growth, and less than a third of eighth graders in the state’s public schools read at a “proficient” level. What a lot of people want, with the old hard times in their blood and the new ones in their wallets and in the wild eyes of their illiterate kids, is control, so they go out looking for it somewhere else, in something more approachable than their own lives.

In Texas they go hunting for it in the courtroom, and the execution chamber, and at the school board meetings. I remember following the intrigues of Don McLeroy and his gang of revisionists as they rewrote the state’s history textbooks and wondering how things down there had become such a Scopes trial farce. In North Carolina they have hunted for it, most recently, in the state’s marriage laws.

I confess, it’s been a while since I’ve spent much time in North Carolina. I grew up there, and in the process of growing up I decided that I wanted to leave, worn out with what seemed, particularly to an 18-year-old, a very back-asswards place, and so I did. I left for school; I took the highway.

When I read the description of Amendment One, it was on an absentee ballot just over a month ago. It went like this: “Constitutional amendment to provide that marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State.”

Of course the amendment passed, and of course I, young and godless and liberal, voted against it. But what strikes me in retrospect is not so much that it passed—after all, similar amendments have passed in the more liberal states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and California—but that everyone involved recognized it as a temporary measure. Thom Tillis (R), the Speaker of the North Carolina House of Representatives and a supporter of the amendment, said publicly that it would be repealed within twenty years. Even so, anticipating obsolescence, he supported the bill, more comfortable as part of the past he knew. It was “a generational issue,” he said. That everyone knows it is evidence enough that something visceral and reflexive, almost childish, was at work.

These are the paroxysms of an old way dying.

Though the Amendment passed by a huge margin—62 percent in favor, 38 percent opposed—it is already dying, fading into the mesmeric past with the rest of the shames and the mysteries, condemned by generational turnover and the interstate highway system. Faulkner’s South is still very much with us, but it motivates us to lesser degrees with every generation. We are too much together in this new place to keep shutting doors.

It was Twain who predicted the death of the Old South, and Faulkner who chronicled it. And then the New South came in its place, and brought suburbia and Civil Rights and the collapse of the Agrarians’ dream. And now something new is coming, something we have never known and something I cannot fully envision.

That something new is not yet arrived. Take Rep. Larry Brown and Sen. James Forrester, both supporters of the amendment as it made its way through the legislature. In 2010 Brown wrote in an email of a more liberal colleague: “I hope all the queers are thrilled to see him. I am sure there will be a couple of legislative fruit loops there in the audience.” That same year, Forrester commented to the Iredell County Young Republicans that “homosexual lobbies and African American lobbies are running Raleigh.” These are men better suited to earlier times. The old order that they knew is fading; they are getting it in while they still can.

These are the paroxysms of an old way dying. North Carolina was the last state to secede from the Union, and it was the last Southern state to pass a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage, and that means that a war is coming. And after the war, reconstruction.

After I left North Carolina for college in Virginia, I kept going: to the suburbs of D.C., then Shanghai, and then New York, where I live now. But I have the sense that my trajectory is parabolic. I feel home calling; I’m not fundamentally of the city, and my life feels, at times, like that of an exile. I sometimes have to be reminded that it is an exile that I chose.

The Old South will persist as it always has. There are still wild places where the roads don’t run, and some of them are within us. Whatever steps forward we take, we will always have an eye on where we have been. The echo of the old highway beating in our ears. The young man in the slouch hat, rifle tight against his chest, will be standing there long after I am dead. I’m not proud of North Carolina for what it’s done, but some things take longer to pave over than the roads. But it is, after all, my home, and I will go back for good some day. I want to be there when the sun comes up on the thing that comes next. I want to say, when all people are made equal under the law, that it is beautiful to be home again.

Ed Winstead is Fiction Editor of the Washington Square Review. His work has appeared in Guernica and The Rumpus. He lives in Brooklyn.

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