Seeing in the Being

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,[1] 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.

“to be”

1

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

2

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[2]

…Rather than…

“to seem”

1

:  to appear to the observation or understanding

2

:  to give the impression of being[3]

To Be 1:

To Symbolize

To Have Identity With

To Constitute the Same Class As

To Have Specified Qualification

To Belong

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

To Be: 2

To Have Objective Existence

Live

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.[8] 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.

sob-header

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.”[9]

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.

Copula/Rather Than

“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.

 


 

[1] A poignant example

[2] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/be

[3] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/seem

[4] http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/402/entry/

[5] http://search.credoreference.com.revproxy.brown.edu/content/entry/columency/clark_walter/0

[6] https://pantherfile.uwm.edu/margo/public/FedlStatisticalSystem/1290008.pdf

[7] I am referring to racial passing, though gender passing was pretty darn unpopular then too…

[8] http://www.npr.org/2014/08/26/343484222/how-a-colonial-era-error-put-the-carolinas-at-odds

[9] http://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2015/slip-sliding-away

The Doors I Carry With Me: Part I

On Being Interviewed

The opportunity to consider my record, the journey that produced me (in the language of Baldwin) and the ways that journey stays with me in everything I do, doesn’t come around so often. As a white person, not only is that part of how my privilege works (I don’t have to think about it), but also there aren’t many times people care to hear about how I think my privilege has worked. No one wants to sit down with me while I detail the ways I see how I have been leveraged into certain places and positions because I am white.  Aaaaand I don’t blame them.  Mostly because it’s an incomplete picture.  So when I did have the chance to voice my histories through considering my journey, it was weird, a little bit awkward, and I sensed old specters of white guilt lurking. It was bewildering to hear myself being so honest with Alison and at the same time, as I fumbled through the ways my whiteness, class, southerness and “background” has been at work in the life I have lead thus far, I felt like I was arriving from a long trip–finally at home with myself.  It was nerve-wracking and, at the same time, invigorating because I was hearing myself think about what it means to be myself. What does this type of listening have to teach me about moving forward as a woman, feminist and ally to a variety of struggles from an honest place within myself. Listening to my oral history was like encountering a door, or many doors, actually.  Hearing myself come out of hiding in that safe space, walking through the door that day, I realized that it was a door I had created and that I have many doors I carry with me.
Coming Soon “The Doors I Carry With Me: Part II”

Dig Deep, Stand Firm: Part 1

On Being Interviewed

There is something special about being interviewed.

Hearing myself tell my life story is eerily familiar and refreshingly strange.

There is a comfort in the stories – in knowing the endings and the feelings intimately.
There is a newness in hearing my voice outside of myself.
Outside of my body — coming into me instead of coming out of me.
There is a discomfort in sitting in my past reality and letting it wash over me. Particularly the things I took care to fold, pack up, and walk away from.

I am trying to be generous with myself.
There is a tendency to cheapen things in the past, especially from my youth. I want to pass it off with a preceding, “Well, I was 13…” or “It was one of those teenage things…” or simply a “whatever.” As if any of these qualifiers mean I don’t have to account for “it.”
Deal with “it”. Acknowledge that at the time those emotions, experiences, people, fears were my full reality. I couldn’t dismiss them because they were all I had.

If I was listening to someone else, I would listen to their speech patterns and appreciate them without judgement as a part of the way that person expresses themselves. When listening to myself I am full of critique — why didn’t I finish that sentence, I mumbled here, etc. I am a performer after all, I want to be heard a certain way. But this is how I sound. I realized my mother is right, I do mumble. I don’t finish my sentences, numping from one thought to the next and daring my listener to follow.

Also, I say “you” when I’m really talking about myself. I give myself speeches, directing everything at “you” as if I am outside of myself.

I’m listening for poetry.

For monologues. For things to put in the choreo-poem I am writing. I’m listening to the oral history for parts to be used in the piece I’m creating.

I’m listening for poetry.

I was surprised at how “white” my voice sounds. I know that is a very problematic statement. And I’m not even sure what it means. But I couldn’t keep it from popping into my head. So even when people can’t see my blonde hair and light skin, hearing my voice probably cues them to think I am white, right? I have spent a lot of time thinking about how my body is seen racially, but not nearly as much time thinking about how I am heard and how that is coded.

Listening to this makes me want to do oral history with my mom.
Will my kids or grandkids listen to this?
I wish I could hear my ancestors re-tell their lives.


Part of me wants this essay to be a spitting out of who I am. A quick and dirty introduction to the “essential facts you need to know about Alison.”

Born in McAllen, Texas. Mother from Jamaica, raised in Jamaica, Queens, NYC. Father from outside Cleveland Ohio. Mother brown. Father white. Youngest of three. One older brother and one older sister. Raised in Carrboro, NC. Attended Montessori schools, Quaker school and a two-year stint in public middle school. Finished high school early to travel to Haiti. Went to Duke University for college (also went to UNC). Studied anthropology and public policy. Graduated 2012. Interned at the White House. Worked at the Kennedy Center. Was a barista and a waitress in DC. Move to San Francisco and NYC for an arts consulting fellowship. Landed in NYC. Working to be her full creative self as a freelance artists, arts administrator and teaching artist.

But in listening to my interview, I realize that a lot of the “juice” lies beyond the facts. And between the facts. And in the space created by the things I chose to tell, how I told them, and what I didn’t tell.

There is so much I chose not to say. And in hearing the absence of those parts, I realize that it is easy for everydayness to get lost in the retelling of memory. I remembered big events and ideas and I turn them into narratives and explanations. And then I dogear them in my mind, highlight them as “worthy” of retelling. In my oral history I heard these ideas and feeling analyzed and overlayed with broad strokes.

But those tiny details, the little dots — like how my mom yelled up the steps to me every morning. Or that brief period she made Pillsbury Flaky biscuits every morning. And the SlimFast shakes for snack phase. And the chinese dumping phase. (There were a lot food phases). Which seat was “mine” in our 1996 Honda Odyssey. Sitting and watching all of my sisters soccer practices. The couch in our living room. The fights over who would walk the dog.

These are the little everyday details that fill in those big lines. What really makes the tapestry and terrain of life.

I’m interested in this everdayness. Perhaps because it is often what we find so NOT interesting about our lives. Until we learn about someone else’s everydayness and how different it is from our own. This oral history is part of taking a deep dive into myself, and I realize this “deep dive” requires validating these everyday details just as much as the big picture. Acknowledging them as key shapers of my life and myself.

Read “Dig Deep Stand Firm: Part 2” here