Who Here Is A Negro?
Michigan Quarterly Review
Volume 53, Issue 1 (Winter 2014)
Martha S. Jones, Arthur F Thurnau Professor, Associate Professor of History and Afroamerican and African Studies
University of Michigan
Last fall I made a migration south. The promise of a year’s sabbatical and an escape from the demands of teaching and administration lured me from my Midwestern academic post. “North Carolina?” my friends queried, their pursed lips conveying disapproval. I understood. Recently, North Carolina had earned distinction as the state most reviled by the left (edging out Arizona.) Deservedly so. We decried the legislature as it eviscerated what remained of the state’s liberal policies. North Carolina was quick to act when the US Supreme Court green-lighted the gutting of voting rights protections. “For shame,” my friends chided. I did not disagree.
But that was not my North Carolina, I insisted. My North Carolina was the land of my forbears. The Joneses had called Alamance and Guilford counties home since at least the 1820s, nearly two centuries. My North Carolina was the bucolic lawns and magnolia trees of a black college campus. It was afternoons in the hammock with a new comic book. My North Carolina was a cool bowl of orange sherbet on the steps of the back porch. It was fireflies dancing across the lawn at dusk. It was friends and neighbors, black men and women, who raised me up. It was my grandmother—Musie to us—who loved me fiercely. My North Carolina was heart. It was home.
In late July, just weeks before making the trek down I-95, memories of my summers spent in Greensboro came tiptoeing back. Had I brushed off too easily my friends’ trepidations? North Carolina was home, but perhaps over time I had idealized the place. Summers in the South were not always easy. My mother and father never said why they’d shipped me off from New York each June as elementary school ended. I thought they were mostly eager for a respite. Off went their three high-spirited kids to grandmother for a spell. I imagined them breathing a sigh, raising a glass, and grabbing a nap just as soon as we were out the door. It was a holiday for everyone. But, it was also the occasion for lessons about how I, a mixed-race girl, fit into a world fractured into black and white. Instructions about race, its politics and its etiquette, awaited us at Musie’s house…
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