Esse Quam Videri, or, “To be, rather than to seem” is the state motto of North Carolina. In light of the simulacrum-saturated world in which we live, the expression carries considerable weight. From real blue grass to real barbecue, the difference between being and seeming is a contentious topic, especially among white people, and has been for a long time.
What meaning do these words take on in their designated southern context? In North Carolina specifically? What follows are some definitions and reflections on their meanings.
a : to equal in meaning : have the same connotation as : symbolize
b : to have identity with
c : to constitute the same class as
d : to have a specified qualification or characterization
e : to belong to the class of—used regularly in senses 1a through 1b as the copula of simple predication
a : to have an objective existence : have reality or actuality : live
b : to have, maintain, or occupy a place, situation, or position
c : to remain unmolested, undisturbed, or uninterrupted —used only in infinitive form
d : to take place : occur
e : to come or go
: to appear to the observation or understanding
: to give the impression of being
To Be 1:
To Have Identity With
To Constitute the Same Class As
To Have Specified Qualification
North Carolina got its motto pretty late in the state game; the other thirteen original colonies had had theirs for some time when the “Old North State” finally decided to go for it. In 1893, a jurist in North Carolina named Walter Clark drafted a bill that advocated for the state motto. Senator Jacob Battle took the bill to the senate and it was passed immediately. Clark had fought in the Civil War as a Confederate soldier at the age of 15. In 1885, he was appointed judge of the superior court of North Carolina and in 1889 won the election to join the Supreme Court of North Carolina. During his tenure, he bestowed North Carolina with its catchy and timely motto.
Clark’s ascendency to the Supreme Court and the motto deliberations coincided with the emergence of the “New South.” This “New South” embodied the industrial metropolis and mechanical production as a new way of promoting and doing business. The concept rapidly gained popularity amongst the southern white elite who, after Reconstruction, made harnessing black labor to work long hours at minimal pay in coal mining, agriculture and manufacturing industries their top priority. The process of building labor-ready populations relied on strict reinforcement of race as a principle way to organize society. Three years after North Carolina ponied up to having a state-motto, Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court Case decision that made segregation based on race enforceable by law, passed. “One drop” rules had been in place in North Carolina since the early 1700s, but in the 1890s, court cases began popping up about whether or not a lay person was capable of being able to determine someone’s race. In other words, court cases began deciding who could serve as an expert on race. In North Carolina, that was pretty much all the white people. These court cases were accompanied by myriad racist paraphernalia and media campaigns designed to inculcate the definitions of racial categories and strengthen white supremacy across the South.
The business of being catered to certain ends. The idea of seeming or passing as something you are not “really” would throw it all off.
To Be: 2
To Have Objective Existence
To Occupy a Place
To Remain Undisturbed
To Take Place
To Come or Go
In the early 1990s, North Carolina and South Carolina realized that they didn’t know where one began and the other ended. This conundrum had occurred before. In 1815, state officials encountered the same problem so the Carolinas got down to business; they surveyed the land, and marked up some trees to proclaim their truthful state lines. These purported trees are, regrettably, long gone. South Carolina and North Carolina have always had beef with one another, so this border issue is a real concern. Sorority girls have carried on bitter debates about who claim the real “Carolina Girl” title for generations, for example. The lines are still being worked out in both cases; within the last few years, some families have found out that they actually live in the other state which meant different school districts, taxes, and they’re probably still recovering from their former state pride complex. Gas stations were especially pissed; those that normally garnered the most customers due to the lower gas taxes (probably South Carolina at any given point, let’s be honest), suddenly got the short end of the stick with their competitors. So far, “South of the Border,” a strange, Mexican-themed amusement park founded in 1949 to extend alcoholic service to dry counties in North Carolina, still appears to be straddling both South and North Carolina. Thank god.
Other concerns about the NC state border: the OBX! (That’s short for the North Carolina Outer Banks, a chain of islands filled with wild horses and Ohioans, for those of you who don’t know.) Over the past few decades, the Outer Banks of North Carolina have been steadily disappearing. Some frame this as a “sands of time” issue. You know, the tide rises and falls, and so do the shores of the Outer Banks. Places like the Audubon Society, the Nature Conservancy, the UNC Coastal Studies Institute disagree. According to them, the overwhelming development on the islands in concert with global warming means that things on the coast are changing pretty fast. Ironically, this is causing even developers to “freak.”
To Seem 1&2:
To Appear to the Observation or Understanding
To Give the Impression of Being
Last summer, a friend who had also lived in North Carolina and I, started making the drive down from Rhode Island to NC. We were reminiscing the entire way. Ugh, the tomatoes! The peaches for christsakes! We were so psyched about having some Cheerwine that we picked some up for a swig in Pennsylvania instead of waiting until we actually arrived in the state proper. Heading toward Greensboro, we took Route 29 through the Shenandoah Valley with soft rolling green mountains framing our drive the whole way. For most of its way winding through Virginia, Route 29 is called the Seminole Trail. It is unclear why it has that name as the Seminole tribe did not have a presence in Virginia. In other portions of Route 29, it is called the Lee Highway after Robert E. Lee, the General-In-Chief of the Confederate Army just before the end of the Civil War. That area of Virginia is divine. Crossing into North Carolina, however, evokes a completely different feeling. The rolling hills peter out a little as you get closer to the state line. The greenness takes less a wide shape stretched out across landscapes and more a curly, intimate one as the trees hug the sides of the road more closely.
When we crossed the state line, we yelled a triumphant yell, and pulled over at the good old North Carolina rest stop to just feel the air and smell the NC smell….and pee. I had just cut off all of my hair, a good choice before you journey down South in late July, and it felt awesome. As if on cue when I emerged from the car, a little boy in a little country accent near me shouted in surprise, “Momma, it ain’t a man, it’s a wuman!” She looked at me, eyebrows furrowed, cheeks sucked in, like she was puzzling something else over. I waved.
“To be” is often used as a copula in simple predication. The definition of a copula is to link or to connect one thing to another. In other words, it links a name to a category like, “Sarah is a woman.”
Seeming seems a lot more fluid. It implies someone can appear to fit into a variety of different categories without being any given one of them.
To be rather than to seem
“Rather” highlights the favoring in this pairing and also posits that a choice exists between them. One can chose to be or one can chose to seem. Seeming is to associate with impostures. Being, however, is brave, honest, and patriotic.
We’ll never know what Clark had in mind when he rushed the bill that would become our motto to Battle in 1893. What message did he hope the inscription would carry over time? Would he be glad that the pressure to be rather than to seem, to be a category, rather than to seem like one, continues to bear relevance? In this respect, it seems that North Carolina, late to coin its motto, was ahead of its time.
 A poignant example
 I am referring to racial passing, though gender passing was pretty darn unpopular then too…