Seeing Red

Obama's presidential victory is a huge step forward for our nation. But in the Carolinas, it's still North versus South.

By Stephanie Hunt

For decades and decades, the old Colonial Drugstore in Chapel Hill was a mainstay of the University of North Carolina crowd. Generations of students popped in for pencils and blue books before an exam, or breath mints and condoms before a keg party. The Colonial epitomized the Southern college-town quaintness of Franklin Street, a hoppin' main drag with a small-town feel--picture Mayberry Ph.D. It had big plate glass windows, a tattered awning and squeaking swirly stools at the classic Formica-topped soda fountain. It was there that black students staged a sit-in in the spring of 1960, and there that Martin Luther King visited not long after, igniting Civil Rights flames in this Tarheel town. And it was there, at the Colonial Drug Store soda fountain, that I had my first Big O.

I was a wide-eyed high school student in the early 1980s, thrilled to visit my older sister, an adventuresome UNC freshman who let me sample the intoxicating freedom of college life. But I was too naïve to catch the sexual innuendo when she trotted me down Franklin Street and said, giggling, "You've got to try a Big O!" I can still taste it—perfect crushed ice, not too slushy, not too chunky, and a lusciously refreshing concoction of fresh-squeezed orange juice, carbonation and simple syrup. Oh baby. Oh yeah. Yes, yes, yes. It was big, all right, and you wanted more.

The Colonial Drugstore closed in 1996, no doubt a casualty of Walgreen's and Wal-Mart, but its famed Big O was resurrected on November 4, in the form of Barack Obama's sweet, juicy, delicious, refreshing victory. Yes yes, yes! Around 11 p.m. when the election was called, students flooded into Franklin Street with the wild orgasmic joy that Tarheels typically display only after beating Duke in hoops or winning an NCAA title. Shirts were off and tears were shed. Whoopin’ and hollerin’ all 'round, and this, by damn, is North Carolina! Bedrock of conservatism. Ol' stomping grounds of the Klan. Hell yeah, savor a big sip of the Big O!

I've never been prouder of my home state than I was November 4. The clear-sky shade of Carolina Blue is now a deeper, richer hue, bluer and more beautiful than ever. As one who grew up this land of vinegar-based barbeque, furniture and hosiery mills, where the smell of tobacco processing plants gives a sweet, sharp punch to the air, as one who went to college in NC (at tobacco-endowed Duke, where family friends cautioned me to beware of "those New Jersey Jews"), and who endured the unabashedly-bigoted Jesse Helms as my senator for my entire life until I moved out of state, I was doubtful that Democrats would gain game-changing Tarheel turf. If Sarah Palin is the undeniable queen of NASCAR, as an Anchorage journalist dubbed her, then North Carolina is her throne. I hoped and prayed, I phone banked and made campaign donations, but I didn't hold my breath that I'd see North Carolina go blue. And I wasn't the only skeptic. “I’ll beat Michael Phelps in swimming before Barack Obama wins North Carolina!” claimed my current senator, the McCain-appendage Lindsey Graham, who can bark and whine, but can't swim. Well, Lindsay, better inflate those water wings.

It took a few days before tallies were conclusive, but Obama indeed carried North Carolina. I cheered from afar, from the other Carolina, the one where women in hoop skirts and canon-firing Civil War reenactors dominate my town's Christmas parade. The one that still flies the Confederate battle flag on statehouse grounds. The one where my neighbor, a former U.S. Congressman and SC state senator, once called the NAACP the "National Association of Retarded People." Here in robustly red South Carolina, my Big O election euphoria met its morning-after disappointment. On Wednesday my 13-year-old daughter came home from middle school emotionally beaten up. "You should hear them, Mom," she said, shaking her head. "Everybody, I mean everybody, was saying they couldn't believe Obama won. And that it didn't matter anyhow. 'Just wait,’ they said, 'He'll get shot.'"

I was beyond sick. 13-year-olds frothing at the mouth about their President-elect being murdered. I was seeing red.

Oh, the presidential race wasn't ever going to be close in this state—I knew that. Every yard in my neighborhood seemed to be growing McCain-Palin signs. I couldn't even get an Obama yard sign because the campaign wasn't wasting its collateral here. For the past eight years, I've become all-too accustomed to roads clogged with SUVs monogrammed with "W" on the back windshield. But I also knew most of these folks as good, decent, well-meaning, if politically deranged, people. They are my hairdresser, my carpool comrades, my PTA pals, my occasional dinner party guests. Still, the terrifying fact is that middle schoolers are such wimpy little sponges. My daughter's schoolmates were merely parroting their parents' conversations. Their parents, my friends and acquaintances, were the ones spewing these vile hopes and predictions.

Has my Big O become a Big Oh-Oh? Yes, history was made this election, but history also has deep, dark roots here in South Carolina, where the tourism-based economy is grounded in antebellum romanticism. "Our campaign began in the backyards of Des Moines, and the living rooms of Concord and the front porches of Charleston," President-elect Obama noted in his acceptance speech.

But that campaign didn’t end on November 4. It must continue. There's small victory in electing the first Africa-American president if the hearts and minds of those whom he leads aren’t opened and enlightened. We've got a lot of work to do here on the beautiful front porches of Charleston, where wealthy white ladies serve sweet tea and black women sweep up the pollen.

The post-election hysteria has subsided, and middle school hallway chatter is now back to who's going out with whom and have you seen High School Musical 3? But the longer discussion is just beginning, and I'm prepping my girls to chime in. At the PTA meeting tomorrow night, I’ll be wearing my "HOPE" Obama button, hoping not for a miracle, but just maybe to spark some conversation, get a dialogue going, keep the door to change open. If our neighbors to the north could dig in their tarheels for the Big O, I have to believe that one day, we can too. Yes, we can.

Comment on this essay here.

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Contributing editor Stephanie Hunt's last piece for SoMA was Missionary Reposition.

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