By Farooq A. Kperogi
In our eastward ascension to Rhode Island, the first state we passed through was South Carolina, Georgia’s immediate eastern neighbor. I had never been to South Carolina before; only read and heard about its stunning beauty and the legendary pleasantness of its people—in common with the rest of southern United States.
These qualities— that is, the proverbial amiability of South Carolinians and the breathtaking magnificence of their state— are encapsulated in the license-plate slogan the state cherishes about itself: “Smiling faces. Beautiful places.” Almost every car and truck (yes, Americans love to drive trucks, not for hauling, but for pleasure) I saw in the state had this slogan inscribed on its license plate. I thought the catchphrase was just as enamoring as the place and the people it describes.
South Carolina, which has the honor or the dubious honor—depending on which side of American politics you stand—of being the first state to secede from the United States in the 1860s, is a rattling rural state. Greenville, its biggest city where we stopped over for about an hour, is only a mid-sized city with less than one million people. But it’s a charming, entrancing, and historic city nonetheless.
We also had layovers in other historic towns and villages in the state. I will bore the pants off you if I give every minuscule detail of my encounters there. But it suffices to say that in this state, like everywhere else I have been to in southern United States, most people—black and white alike— wore infectious smiles on their faces, were overly polite, called every man “sir” and every woman “ma’am,” and seemed happy, even excited, to help strangers.
Then we got to North Carolina, South Carolina’s twin—in both geographic and historic terms. North Carolina is a much more urban and progressive state than its “twin.” It has many big cities, several notable universities, and many industries. It’s probably southeast America’s most urban state. (Even in the state of Georgia, Atlanta is the only big city).
It has also produced at least three American presidents—Andrew Jackson, the 7th president of the United States; James Polk, the 11th U.S. president; and Andrew Johnson, the 17th U.S. president. This record is outrivaled, I think, only by the states of Virginia, which has produced eight American presidents; Ohio, which has produced six American presidents; and Massachusetts and New York, which each have produced four American presidents.
North Carolina, unlike—indeed in contradistinction to— its “twin,” also has the distinction of being the last southern state to secede from the United States. In a racially sensitive country like the United States, that is a feat to make a song and dance about, especially given that the immediate cause of the Civil War between the North and the South was over the abolition of slavery. The then rural and agrarian South wanted to continue the enslavement of Africans to service their plantations, while the urban, industrial—or industrializing— North saw slavery as not only immoral but also anachronistic.
Well, that’s the official line. Some people say it’s more complex than this. But I think it’s significant to note that even to this day the display of the Confederate flag in the South, that is, the flag of the Southern secessionists, inflicts deep emotional injury on most African Americans. It is, for them, not only a symbol of racial oppression but also an emblem of nostalgia for the return of slavery in the South. But I digress.
North Carolinians tell anybody who cares to listen that Hiram Revels, the first black person to be elected to the U.S. Senate between 1870 and 1871, was originally from their state, even though he actually represented the state of Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. To this day, Revels is one of only five black people to have served in the U.S. Senate. Does that tell you something about how much progress has been made in race relations in this country?
North Carolina is also home to the famous “Research Triangle Park,” the world’s biggest high-tech research and development center. It is the product of a collaborative endeavor of local and state governments in North Carolina, North Carolina-based private sector operators, and three well-known universities— Duke University, the University of North Carolina and the North Carolina State University, all located within close proximity to each other.
This Research Triangle is situated near the cities of Durham (where Duke University is located), Raleigh (the state capital, which is also home to the North Carolina State University) and Chapel Hill (home to the University of North Carolina). I passed through all of these cities and even had a glimpse of the Research Triangle. Thrilling experience!
We laid over for about an hour in North Carolina’s biggest city, called Charlotte, which competes with Atlanta as the southeast’s unofficial headquarters. While it is decidedly behind Atlanta in size, population, and sophistication, it is clearly a splendid and gorgeous city—and a worthy competitor to Atlanta. It is the banking capital of southeast United States, being host to the Bank of America, America’s second biggest bank, and Wachovia Bank, America’s fourth biggest bank.
The hometown of the famous Rev. Billy Graham, Charlotte is also often called the "The City of Churches" by its residents.
The next state we passed through after North Carolina was Virginia. Even though this state is geographically in the North— at least by my cartographic imagination— it is historically regarded as a Southern state and, in fact, functioned as the headquarters of the Confederate States of America, that is, the group of secessionist Southern states that wanted to break away from the United States between 1861 and 1865. (The Confederate headquarters was originally in Birmingham, in the state of Alabama, but moved to Richmond when Virginia joined the Confederate side).
Virginia is far and away America’s most historically significant state. As I said earlier, it has produced eight presidents, including the first president of the United States, George Washington— after whom the American federal capital is named. This distinction earned Virginia the epithet “Mother of Presidents.”
But that’s not all. It is also home to the historic Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in the United States. It is, in other words, the birthplace of modern America. And it is customary for Americans to refer to the state as the "Mother of States and Statesmen" because the states of Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan as well as some portions of Ohio were carved from it.
I had traveled to parts of the state, precisely to Arlington, home to USA Today—America’s first and only national newspaper. This was when I first came here on a U.S. State Department-sponsored International Visitor Program.
But this journey afforded me the opportunity to see Richmond, the state capital, which I had never been to before. This city is so mesmerizing in its imaginative mix of old-fashioned grandeur and colorful art that it detained my admiration for a longer period than any place had done in recent times. It’s the only American city I have visited which lavishly honors its Native American aborigines in its architecture and arts. Call it tokenism, but I think it’s worth noticing.
I had always had some difficulty accepting Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. as parts of southern United States. But this voyage eased that difficulty. These places, far as they are from the “core” South (to borrow a Nigerian media expression), are decidedly Southern in culture, customs, and even regional accent.
They remind me of states like Kwara and Kogi which have more cultural affinities with states in the far north of Nigeria than they do with their immediate western neighbors. Sub-national regional identity is not simply about geography; it is, more importantly, about history, culture— and, well, politics.
The American south and the American north are remarkably different in culture and customs as you will see in the final installment of this series next week.
To be concluded next week
1. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (I)
2. Voyage to America's Most Patriotic Town (III)