2012 Democratic National Convention Logo

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Before leaving home and heading off to college, I mastered the art of making that staple of any good, Southern, home-cooked breakfast—grits. Just the right amount of butter melted in a small pot of water, a tad (or more) salt, set atop a low-burning eye for God-knows hoowwwww long. Additional instructions? “Just keep stirrin’.” Lumpy grits are an insult to the Southern soul.

If Southerners are united in one thing, it’s food. Good, solid, home cooked meals. We know our delicacies. While I eventually left the South, having grown up in South Carolina, attended four years of college in Georgia and six years of graduate school in North Carolina, it’s still a part of me. Folks on the boardwalk, where I run, often catch a glimpse of my “GRITS” t-shirt bearing the acronym “Girls Raised In The South.” Wherever you end up, home is in your DNA.

It’s been nearly ten years now, since I’ve woken up consistently hearing the sound of frogs and crickets out my backyard window. Seems I’ve traded those musings for that of traffic (tooting horns, EMS vehicles, and police sirens) on I-93 headed into and out of downtown Boston. Some of my new neighbors think less of the South than I’d hoped. Backwards, overweight, racist, religious zealots is the unspoken animus that at times pervades their probing questions and misguided fascination with my place of origin. From reports North of the Mason Dixon, you would think that all Southerners are as united in their outlooks on life as they are on their food. This is a misperception. And opinions on things as prickly as religion and the much-ballyhooed “progress” of the South are among the biggest examples of division.

North Carolina, in particular, has been celebrated as a much more “progressive” region of the South than others. Perhaps, then, it comes as no surprise that this week it hosts the Democratic National Convention, taking place in Charlotte. Obama won North Carolina in 2008 with 50 percent of the vote (compared to McCain’s 49 percent), an astonishing victory given that it had been 32 years since a Democratic presidential nominee—Jimmy Carter, a Southerner—carried the state. The Obama campaign and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) have invested heavy resources in keeping the swing state blue during this election cycle. It seems that while Republicans like to tout notions of “tradition,” Democrats bolster notions of “progress.” But what does progress mean in North Carolina, a state with so many different landscapes and communities? And what factors are at work in this narrative of progress?

The South, for its part, is vested in notions of change that distance it from the harsh realities of its past—from slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, sharecropping, police dogs, midnight KKK rides, rape, lynching, and the host of other mechanisms of social control, political malfeasance, and economic exploitation instituted to harness black freedom and advance the interests of white Southerners. Much of this behavior, shrouded and condoned by white Protestant Christianity—from burned crosses in lawns to the establishment of all-white Christian academies—coupled white Christianity with a form of bigotry that pervaded nearly every aspect of social life and tainted the faith’s sense of moral authority around the world.

African Americans, acknowledging what Frederick Douglas noted as the radical difference between “the Christianity of this land and the Christianity of Christ,” set out to advance their own expressions of Protestantism, through organizations like the National Baptist Convention, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Often thought of as “protest religion,” these expressions of Christianity were established as a means to advance the teachings of Christ with attention to the liberating message of the scriptures.

As people define what progress means, religion shapes part and parcel of that discussion. Religion in North Carolina frames the discussion, whether in reference to the integration of public school systems, the pursuit of economic justice, or more recently, Amendment One, which passed in 2012 and bars same-sex marriages in North Carolina. While much has changed in the religious life of the South, from the establishment of large integrated evangelical churches to the growth of Muslim, Bahá’í, Hindu, and various other communities of faith, the notions of progress that inevitably intertwine religion with politics remain.

In the context of these discussions “progress,” it turns out, is a word at times long on promise and short on practice. Progress happens, it seems, for some and not for others. Or it happens in some arenas and not in others. Or it happens at convenient points in times and not less convenient. Defining progress inevitably depends on questions like who, what, when, where, and why—the five W’s we learned in grade school that introduce any serious inquiry.

Progress in today’s South is encapsulated in its description as a “New South.” In many regards, it is the “Sunbelt” of the United States. Cosmopolitan centers such as Atlanta, Houston, Memphis, and Birmingham are just a few of the areas that have experienced rapid growth and economic expansion since the 1970s. In North Carolina, especially, this notion of progress is readily presumed and actively promoted. The historian William Chafe asserts that the changes North Carolina has undergone have resulted in a “progressive mystique.” He suggests that there is an overlay of progress that eclipses the reality of regression across parts of the state. According to him, the progressive mystique “involves a set of ground rules that support the notion of North Carolina as a more civilized, enlightened, and tolerant place than the rest of the Old Confederacy … This ‘progressive mystique’ has served as an exquisite instrument of social control, defining the terrain of political discussion in such a way that African Americans, factory workers, and field hands have found it virtually impossible to break through the veil of civility and insist on change.”

As in the rest of the South, the desegregation of public school systems and the advancement of African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities in North Carolina to key positions of leadership symbolize breaks from the past. In addition, the movement of industry has made middle-class suburban life a reality for many native North Carolinians and those relocating to the area. A key element in this pattern has been the growth of a black middle class, particularly around more metropolitan areas like Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, and Fayetteville. Absent from this presentation, however, is any discussion of the rapidly growing divide between the North Carolinian haves and have-nots. Radical disparities over school funding and income distribution, as well as failed attempts at democracy, are only some of the factors that give the lie to this notion of progress.

In our book on North Carolina, Local Democracy Under Siege: Activism, Public Interests, and Private Politics, a group of anthropologists from UNC-Chapel Hill and I set out to understand the ways in which social and political life operates in North Carolina under patterns of neoliberal economic development and changing forms of government and non-government intervention. We sought to tell the story of three different types of regions of North Carolina we termed sites of “production,” “consumption,” and “the state.” In these places, historic forms of economic development (farming and tourism, research and high tech industries and military installments,) are met with contemporary changes to the social and political landscape, at times wreaking havoc on small, poor, traditionally black and white communities alike—from the mountains of Boone to the low lying areas of the Black Belt. One of the ideas that struck me most in all of the research was the way in which “progress” comes to mean different things for different people. In Halifax County, where I conducted a year of ethnographic research, struggles developed constantly over issues of schooling, government spending, and industrial labor.

Interestingly, for the members of the Concerned Citizens of Tillery, a social change organization in Halifax County, these issues were addressed as faith issues. During their meetings the group of mainly seniors earnestly prayed, listened to sermons from local pastors, and sang Christian music before they engaged in discussions about the mistreatment of black farmers by the USDA, the living conditions of senior citizens in the county, the lack of running water in many homes, or the cost of medical care for residents.

Rallies were always coupled with prayer—often asking God to intervene on behalf of those less fortunate. Once when trying to decide upon a logo for the group, some wanted the picture of an open Bible to demonstrate that God was indeed their strength and the scriptures their guide. Others wanted an open hand symbolizing the unity of the community and the connectedness of the organization’s many different parts. One ornery senior rebutted rather loudly, “Are we a church or a social change organization?!” Eventually, they settled on an open Bible with a Kente stole draped through it, communicating that their activism is not simply limited to the Bible’s promise of achieving spiritual liberation. It is also connected to their quest for liberation in the material world.

Recently in North Carolina, the struggles of organizations like the Concerned Citizens of Tillery to address issues of poverty and injustice have been overshadowed by more enticing topics melding faith to political engagement, like same-sex marriage. Despite the social and economic inequality that exists across NC, hundreds of thousands of dollars were poured into the state in 2012 to establish a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage—despite the fact that it is already illegal. One local pastor and state chair of the NAACP made a public statement against the framing of that argument. In his proclamation, he suggested that the same-sex marriage issue was a Trojan horse, drawing people away from understanding the larger agendas and motivations of interest groups that help religious organizations fund campaigns against same-sex marriage.

While the minister didn’t expand on the idea of the Trojan horse, it’s not difficult to imagine the number of other issues that might have appropriately captured the religious zeal and indignation of the state’s faith community. Reports on the state’s poverty rate alone point to alarming trends across the state. Census data suggest that 15.5 percent of the population lives in poverty (a figure nearly two percentage points above the national level). According to the NC Conservation Network,  “the NC Justice Center estimates that fully one-third of North Carolina’s working families earn less than a living income—a higher rate of low-income working families than any other South Atlantic state except South Carolina.” Last year, a Duke Magazine article entitled “Poverty in the South: Unrelenting Despite a Half Century of Efforts” reported that “50,000 families in the state went hungry at some point during 2009, and ‘during the winter of 2010, more than 10,000 homes in NC had no heat, and almost twice that number had no indoor plumbing.’” These were some of the homes I entered while conducting research in the state.

Perhaps the politicians gathering in Charlotte this week will reference those in need in their speeches. Maybe they will tout policies designed to assuage such poverty in NC and beyond. Perhaps someday the faith community will fight just as hard and with just as much money against poverty as they did against same-sex marriage. Then, just maybe, we will see true progress.

Marla Frederick is Professor of Religion and of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. She is author of Between Sundays: Black Women and Everyday Struggles of Faith and co-author of Local Democracy Under Siege: Activism, Public Interests and Private Politics, which won the 2008 best book award for the Society for the Anthropology of North America.