The New Old South

Photo by Getty Images
Photo by Getty Images

Nov. 21, 2008—Being black in South Carolina is not the easiest thing I've ever done.


Until recently, my sister and I had two white cleaning ladies. And it seems so humorously ironic. My grandmother, the first in our family to move from the South to the North, made a living cleaning the homes of white people. I wished she had lived long enough to see my cleaning ladies.

My grandmother moved North in the early 1950s seeking better opportunities as a black woman. I moved back South four years ago in search of cheaper property, warmer weather and less traffic. Having two white women clean my house was an added bonus: Welcome to the New South!!

Now I believed South Carolina was the New South until I started seeing the results of post-election surveys: The South is not as new as I thought. In spite of knocking on doors, making calls and driving people to the polls, neither me nor the other Obama campaign volunteers here in South Carolina could turn the state blue. According to polls, the main reason is because of old-fashioned racist beliefs, the same kind that forced me and classmates to attend a sometimes unheated, crumbling and segregated elementary school when I lived in Beaufort, S.C. decades ago.

I harbor memories of sitting outside my junior high school at lunchtime as the white kids drove by yelling, "Nig-gaaaars! When my classmates and I got our new books at the beginning of the school year, they weren't really new books at all, but books discarded by the white schools. Get treated like that enough times and you become suspicious of white people. You see discrimination even when it isn't there, and you second-guess yourself more times than you know. If only all the racist people hung Confederate flags outside their homes or had "KKK" tattooed across their foreheads. But racism has gone undercover in the South, become more subtle, even fooling some of those afflicted by it.

A case in point: On Halloween night, I sat outside my house passing out treats with one of my neighbors. As we talked, she astounded me with the rumors she so easily accepted as truths about Obama. "Is he a Muslim or not? That's what I want to know," she said. In another breath, "Why is his birth certificate sealed? Was he born in the United States?"

This is a woman I love, a Republican friend who gives me the nicest Afrocentric gifts for my birthday and Christmas. We have traveled together, played Wii together some evenings and laughed a lot over glasses of wine.


As I listened to her, it struck me clearly that I was not the only victim of racism or the only one suffering from paranoia.

Still, not only am I fighting off paranoia, but I am also trying to not appear overly aggressive. One day I stood in line at the grocery store clutching four copies of a special edition of the Charlotte Observer with President-elect Barack Obama on the front page. There was a white woman in front of me with a basket full of items that she was just getting ready to place on the conveyer. She looked at me with a blank expression.


Why didn't she let me go in front of her since I only had the papers? I would have done it for her. Was she being racist or just inconsiderate?

I want to be free of all the paranoia, the terrible chains that bind both me and my neighbor. Most of the time I am hopeful, buoyed by the attitudes I see among young people. On Nov. 5, I went into my local coffee shop, and the young white woman who works there was still celebrating the Obama victory.


"What a great day," she said. "What a great time to be alive."

She invigorated me. My paranoia subsided, temporarily. Perhaps the South is changing—albeit more slowly than I would like or first thought. But just in case the young ones can't do it, I have a backup plan. I'm recruiting friends to move down from the North. My apologies to Harriet Tubman, but I'm bringing them back.


I'm taking a page from neighboring North Carolina, which I can see across the lake from my community. Pollsters say that North Carolina was pushed into blue territory by thousands of newcomers.

So pass the word: I know where you can get a three-bedroom, two and a half-bath townhouse in a gated community that is on the lake with a marina, golf course and community garden for $155,000.



Patrice Gaines is an author and journalist who lives in Lake Wylie, S.C.