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LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: The battle at the border and contemplating immigration in America

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North Carolina’s history is founded in immigration, so why should that change now?

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“It’s a great season, but how do you get people to come see it who aren’t already on board with its message?” I remember asking Big Dawg Productions’ artistic director, Steve Vernon, about a previous season he put together, including “The Laramie Project” (about the Matthew Shephard hate crime) and “Twelve Angry Men.” I spend a lot of time thinking about how art should challenge and enlighten, but also how it’s approached as commerce. Those who present it have to convince others to spend money to engage with it. So how do we get folks who have decided they disagree with its message (like in, say, “The Laramie Project”) let alone pay for it?

immigration in nc: last summer’s production of Old Colony Players’ ‘From This Day Forward’ in Valdese, North Carolina. Photo, courtesy of Old Colony Players

IMMIGRATION IN NC: Last summer’s production of Old Colony Players’ ‘From This Day Forward’ in Valdese, North Carolina. Photo, courtesy of Old Colony Players

Oddly, Benedict Cumberbatch seems to have figured out how to do an end-run around that question. Now internationally famous for his television and film roles, also he is a talented stage actor. In 2015 he played the title character in a much-discussed production of Shakespeare’s “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.”  Like many people unable to travel to London to see it live at the Barbican Theatre, I waited with baited breath for The National Theatre Live! broadcast (thank you, Osher Lifelong Learning Center). After the curtain call, Mr. Cumberbatch read an excerpt from a poem by Warsan Shire, titled “Home,” and asked the audience to donate to Save the Children. It is an incredible piece of poetry that makes real the decision-making process that leads people to seek asylum.  We don’t have permission to reprint the entire poem (which is extremely powerful), but here are a few quotes:

“no one puts their children in a boat / unless the water is safer than the land

“no one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well.”

It also became an unexpected answer to my quandary. Because what Mr. Cumberbatch did was use his celebrity to reach people with a message that many would not have sought out on their own.

Looking at the images of refugees getting tear gassed at the US/Mexican border last week …

Looking at the images of refugees getting tear gassed at the US/Mexican border last week …

Looking at the images of refugees getting tear gassed at the US/Mexican border last week …

Well, I’m not sure how to try to finish the  sentence.

From myriad struggling and conflicting emotions my brain and heart throw up in response, I find this:

Dear gods, what must a mother fear to flee with two toddlers on foot through a desert to confront this? And still try to move forward rather than backward? When is tear gas and an armed wall a better option than what you are leaving?

The twin thought: How can the people wielding the tear gas follow such an order? How can they sleep at night? How are they going to live with this for the rest of their lives?

It has rendered me sleepless and thus I have been back to my old late-night internet trolling grounds: The NCPedia, developed by the librarians at the NC State Library, to answer frequent questions about the Old North State. For some, it is pornography; for others, late-night online shopping. For me it is North Carolina history. We all have our buttons.

Dig this as an opening sentence from the NCPedia article on immigration:

“Immigration has been the means by which North Carolina came into existence, steadily grew through decades of changing population trends and expansion, and ultimately emerged as an ethnically diverse modern state in the early 21st century.”

In our collective American mythology, we tend to think of ourselves as all somehow descended from the first British colonists that landed with the Mayflower. Even when we individually know families arrived at different times from different locations, it fits more comfortably into a national narrative that can be more easily taught and assimilated to a collective racial idea. Yet, somehow, it manages to exclude or gloss over people who were brought here forcibly, against their will and separated from their loved ones permanently, bound and chained in the belly of a slave ship. Just to put it into perspective, the census estimates about a quarter of North Carolina’s population is African American.

Yes, the Colony of North Carolina was administered by the Lords Proprietors from England. However, very early on (roughly 1710s) a major wave of immigration came to the area now known as New Bern from Swiss and Germans fleeing their homelands.

“The Swiss were paupers whom the city government of Bern looked upon as undesirables and wished to remove from the area,” according to NCPedia.

Mmmmm.

And the Germans? Well, this group had been caught in the crosshairs of multiple wars and then a starvation winter in 1708.  It looked like a case of “leave while you are still alive to do so.”

Our area, the Lower Cape Fear, was predominately settled initially by people out of the British empire: the undesirables.  The Welsh, the Scotch-Irish and Highland Scots.

NCPedia points out: “High rents, burdensome taxes, unemployment, and famine in Ireland had driven away the Scotch-Irish in particular.”

Mmmm. White immigration that built this state is starting to look strikingly similar to people from Latin America fleeing, war, famine and political/economic oppression.

Many of our early settlers came out of prisons and debtors courts. The use of Australia for criminal transportation grew out of the American Revolution, eliminating the American Colonies as a dumping ground for the British courts. In the 1780s the expansion into the middle and western part of the state began in earnest. The Piedmont attracted many Germans and Moravians who came down “The Great Wagon Road” from the Pennsylvania area.  The mountains began to see settlement largely from  the Scotch-Irish, English and German areas.

OUTDOOR THEATRE: Last summer’s production of Old Colony Players’ ‘From This Day Forward’ in Valdese, North Carolina. Photo, courtesy of Old Colony Players

OUTDOOR THEATRE: Last summer’s production of Old Colony Players’ ‘From This Day Forward’ in Valdese, North Carolina. Photo, courtesy of Old Colony Players

Several waves of immigration came to North Carolina to escape religious persecution. Should North Carolinians ever get a chance to visit Valdese, in Burke County, in the summer, check out the incredible outdoor drama, “From This Day Forward.” It chronicles the plight of the Waldensians escaping religious persecution in the Alps.  The now-defunct Van Eeden Settlement for German Jews in the late 1930s was one of Hugh MacRae’s immigration projects.

    IMMIGRATION IN NC: Last summer’s production of Old Colony Players’ ‘From This Day Forward’ in Valdese, North Carolina. Photo, courtesy of Old Colony Players

IMMIGRATION IN NC: Last summer’s production of Old Colony Players’ ‘From This Day Forward’ in Valdese, North Carolina. Photo, courtesy of Old Colony Players

Readers may be familiar with several other project names: “St. Helena” for Italian immigrants, “Artesia” for the Dutch and Polish immigrants, a place for German immigrants called “New Berlin,” until World War I when it was renamed “Delco,” and “Castle Hayne” for Dutch and Hungarian immigrants. All were plans for settling European immigrants in our area—part of MacRae’s desire to increase the white voting population. (He was one of the perpetrators of the 1898 coup on Wilmington.)

In a more modern context, the second half of the 20th century saw North Carolina accepting refugees from the US intervention in Southeast Asia. Though Asian immigration to the South began much earlier, the 1800s. But it was at such a trickle that the literally three people of Asian descent who served in the Confederate Army are identifiable—two were sons of the famous Eng and Chang Bunker, the Siamese twins who toured with Barnum, and owned both plantations and slaves in North Carolina.

When Jock was naturalized as an American citizen last summer, one of the most surprising and genuinely moving parts of the ceremony was the focus on the diversity of cultures that brought everybody to that room that day. John Kelly, then secretary of Homeland Security, delivered a pre-recorded speech and lauded strengths of a country that embraced diversity, accumulated wisdom and knowledge the new citizens brought with them to make America stronger and better.

I am prepared to say right now, I do not have the personal strength or reserve to face down tear gas while trying to protect my child. That is a force of almost superhuman will and desperation. Anyone prepared to come that far will go the distance to build opportunities for that child.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. kitty

    December 5, 2018 at 10:52 am

    Those are NOT immigrants being gassed at the border – they are INVADERS of my country being repelled. Invaders that put what few women and children at the front as shields. We are protecting our border from illegal invaders. And since there are NO real journalists left in this country, I doubt seriously anything that is presented publicly if it involves calling them immigrants. I’m sorry that you have been so ill treated with obvious brainwashing by the seriously mental far left.

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