In 1989, while a grad student in Ohio, I was asked to intern at the Biltmore Estate. After being told that the Châteauesque-style mansion, built for George Washington Vanderbilt, was in Asheville, North Carolina, I immediately said no! Air Force basic training, in San Antonio, Texas, was all the “South” that I knew and I did not want to know any more. I talked a friend into going. She loved it.
Recently, I visited Asheville, for the first time. Although new to town, I was not new to North Carolina. From 2002, until my retirement, in 2017, I lived in Durham. So much for not traveling South. In fact, my first job, after receiving my MILS degree, from the University of Michigan, was at The College of William and Mary, in Virginia. On this most recent trip South, I flew into Charlotte and then took the Hickory Hop, an airport shuttle service, to Asheville.
Once there, I settled into my hotel. The location (and cheap rate) was the only real selling point. My room had a street view, not the mountain one. This meant listening to loud traffic, all during the night. Luckily, I had no where to be and could sleep in as long as I wanted. I basically spent three days eating at the nearby Hawaiian poke restaurant, the old Woolworth’s diner, and Whole Foods. As for the Biltmore Estate, I spent half a day on the Gray Line’s Hop-on / Hop off trolley. One of the stops was the Biltmore Village.
When it was time to move on to Boone, I hired an off-the-books Uber. By the time I checked out, dropped off my key, and grabbed a coffee, from the breakfast area, my driver had arrived. He put my small suitcase in the trunk and I hopped into the back seat. Then, we got to talking. After about 15 minutes, the driver pulled over and had me switch to the front seat of the car. The talking continued, as we zigged and zagged the “local’s” way to Boone.
“Let me tell you what I don’t like about Black people,” announced the driver. “Why do they call themselves African Americans and not just Americans?” “Hum,” I wondered. Was this the best place, in the conversation, to say that I was retired academic librarian and in fact the former Librarian for African Studies and African American Studies at Duke University? Should I set my CRT phaser to stun or just ease into the topic?
I opened with a softball about America’s love of Tarzan and white supremacy. Would Black people, in the United States, growing up watching the popular ape man movies and television shows, side with the natives or Tarzan? You know, Tarzan, …. the white, raised by apes, child, who thrived, in the African jungle, more efficiently than any native. With just this one example of paternalistic imperialism, it’s easy to see how having African heritage was once viewed negatively, by both white and African Americans.
We were half way to Boone and still in deep conversation, when I told the driver about my first solo trip overseas. Late fall, in 1984, I flew from New York to London. Just before we landed, the flight attendants began handing out immigration forms. I borrowed a pen from the guy seated next to me and begin filling out one. Then, I was stuck. The form asked for my nationality. I was unsure as to what I could legally write. Up until that point, I had only been referred to as Black. My mother grew up being called negro or colored. And, although I had served, five years, in the United States Air Force, I had never been called American.
I then followed up with a short history of the term African American. I explained that in 1988 Jesse Jackson and a group of Black leaders decided that “African American” had cultural integrity. Jackson was a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, in 1984 and 1988. By 1988, mainstream America believed him to be the official spokesperson for all Black people living in the United States. The new term was quickly adopted. Personally, I still go by Black and the US government offers two choices, African American or Black, on official forms asking for one’s race.
Today, there’s a growing movement to drop the term African American all together. Vice President Kamala Harris has said that African American is a misnomer for native-born Black Americans and sounds as if someone has just immigrated here. In addition, the US has seen an increase of Black immigrants. These groups tend to identify themselves based on where they’ve come from, much in the same way that white Americans might say Irish American or Italian American.
All this, of course, circled our conversation back to the larger group of Blacks, in America, who have no idea of where, on the continent of Africa, to trace their ancestors. My Ancestry DNA test includes Nigeria, Mali, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Togo, and Senegal (totaling 95% African). African American is the only way I can answer the question, “Where’s your family from?”
When the car finally stopped, I had made a friend for life. We exchanged Instagram account information and hugged goodbye. We had survived two hours of Critical Race Theory, in the South! Perhaps it’s OK that I avoided Asheville, for all these years. It’s not that I wasn’t ready for the South, it’s just that universe needed extra time, for the stars to align, in order to place me in Asheville, needing that ride to Boone.