In Search Of North Carolina's Identity: From Civil War Dance To Drag Queen Strut

Jun 9, 2016

When you look closely, what does the face of North Carolina look like?

 Some say North Carolina, one of the fastest-growing states in the nation, is facing an identity crisis. And the controversy surrounding House Bill 2, the new state law that limits transgender access to bathrooms, hasn’t helped the state’s changing identity.

The battle for the "soul of North Carolina" is ongoing, and even though people have been migrating here in droves for work, 57 percent of current North Carolina residents were born here and they celebrate it in many ways.

The old and new North Carolina

Two recent events helped illustrate the divide between the new and old North Carolina. They were held just one month apart, but seemed more like 150 years apart.

Bennett Place State Historic Site in Durham recently sponsored a Grand Blue and Gray Ball, a fundraiser for its programming and visitors center.  

Ricky Pritchett and his wife Nancy, of Providence, North Carolina, jumped at the chance to attend the ball.

"We just found out about 10:45 last night, by Facebook. Social media is a wonderful thing," Ricky Pritchett said. "We called this afternoon to see if we could get a ticket at the door and the lady said 'Yes you can.' So we just went to the closet, got our outfits and we’re here."

At the ball, Nancy Pritchett wore a teal hoop gown. Ricky Pritchett wore an infantry captain’s, three-quarter length gray coat.

"I know this was advertised as the Grand Blue and Gray Ball, although so far, I haven’t seen any Union outfits here," Ricky Pritchett said.

Diane Smith, site Manager at Bennett Place, organized the event at the Bennett farm. That's the historic site where negotiations took place for the surrender of some 89,000 Confederate troops, the largest surrender of the Civil War.

"This is a Civil War era ball, it doesn’t really take place in 1865, this is just during the Civil War when ladies wore hoop skirts and gentlemen wore the uniform," said Smith. "It’s a very romantic time period."

Just about everyone dressed up for the party. The barn was decorated in patriotic bunting and different period flags of the confederacy. But for the five African Americans working the event, the symbolism took on a different meaning.

Shelby Moore worked as a bartender at a recent Grand Blue and Gray Ball event in Hillsborough.
Credit Leoneda Inge / WUNC

Greensboro resident Shelby Moore worked as the bartender that night.

"When I told my friends what I was doing tonight, they were like, 'Yeah, you’re working that'?" said Moore. "I’m like, 'Yes, I’m working that.'  And they were like, 'Hum.' They had a different outlook of it."

Still, Moore said the main reason she was there, was because she was getting paid. You see, during this romantic period Smith referred to, African Americans were slaves, unpaid labor.

"I guess in a way you can see where African Americans still have some issues related to the war," Smith said. "And again that was the reason for a ball is to bring everybody together without any of the politics involved."

War is politics. And it took a lot of political fighting before the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed, officially ending segregation in public places. And that was almost 100 years after the Civil War.

House Bill 2 and North Carolina’s new identity struggles

Today there are no "whites only" signs on bathrooms and water fountains. But there is House Bill 2, which became a sweeping North Carolina law preventing cities from enacting anti-discrimination protections for members of the LGBT community.

Some say the law has its roots in racial segregation. Many refer to the legislation as the "bathroom bill."

"I was peeing in the ladies room all night so it was great," said Alaska, a drag queen, as she posed for pictures with fans at the recent RuPaul’s Drag Race event.
 

Drag Queen Alaska at a recent RuPaul Drag Race event in Durham.
Credit Courtesy of Salima Al-Ismaili

Alaska wore a long, blonde wig with a bow on top and a tight t-shirt. Drag queens from the cult television show performed in Charlotte and at the Durham Performing Arts Center last month.

"I wouldn’t want to, like, not do a really big gay fabulous thing in a place where people are being discriminated against because they’re gay or trans or fabulous or whatever," Alaska said.

Dozens of businesses have decided not to expand or come to the state because of HB2 and many entertainers have canceled their performances, from world renowned violinist Itzhak Perlman to Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.

But the new law didn’t stop one event, the "RuPaul’s Drag Race."

Nicky Bargabos brought her family from Charlotte to Durham to see the show.

"The fact that they decided not to cancel the show because it was more important not to, meant the world to all of us," said Bargabos.

For observers like Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University, the events help shed light on the state's changing identity.

"It’s not surprising that we would see a Blue and Gray Ball occur at the same time that we’re seeing RuPaul’s Drag Race occur," said Mark Anthony Neal, professor of African and African American Studies at Duke University. "That’s the reality."

Neal has been following the politics surrounding the controversial house bill.  He said issues of identity can be messy.

"There are folks who are close to the confederacy and believe in those politics that are believing in it even more now, because they want to have the freedom to celebrate the confederacy," Neal said. "Quite honestly, I don’t have a problem with that. As long as that doesn’t translate into public policy."

But North Carolina’s latest controversial "public policy" looks like it will be debated and decided as others addressing identity - in the courts.