North Carolina has never been just one thing

Extremists are running for office here, but North Carolinians aren’t fools.

Gwen Frisbie-Fulton
4 min readMar 19, 2024
“Main Street, looking North, Tarboro, N.C.” by unclibraries_commons is marked with Public Domain Mark 1.0.

About a year ago, maybe two, I stood waiting for two cars to pass so I could cross the street.

It was an early Spring day, sunny but muddy, and I balanced my boots on the curb. It was early in the morning and the street was not busy, just me and the two cars, downtown in Tarboro, a town with a long history, a town on the way to the beach. I held a coffee in one hand, a croissant in the other.

The cars took forever, one coming from my left, one coming from my right, and I wondered if I should just cross but I wondered about it so long that it became too late and there I stood. They passed in front of me, these two cars, one a new SUV with flying a thin blue line flag on its hitch, the other an old faded Buick with a “Y’all Means All” sticker on it’s bumper. The drivers waved at each other, then, because I was there, at me. I waved back and that’s the whole story.

The story ends there and that is the point, a slow Saturday morning down east, in a town like many towns, in the state I call home.

North Carolina has never been one story, it’s always been a collection, an aggregate, there’s always been our brilliance, we’ve always had our shadows, the sun has always risen up over our muddy water, set over our sinking mountains.

Most of us stand here, balancing on this curb, in towns made up of a thousand stories, in places inhabited both by heroes and by ghosts. My neighbor is in her seventies, a white grandmother with Black grandchildren, who sometimes marvels at the broad reach of her expanding family, unimaginable decades ago. The thought comes to her briefly when she stands in the yard, watching them toddle around a baby pool in their diapers, the sun on their shoulders, but most days she simply wipes their chins with a washcloth and bounces them on her knee, until their mother gets off work, the slow turn of family.

My other neighbor, a Honduran man who fixes his cars in the driveway to Adele, tells me his boss calls him lazy after 15-hour work days and tries to short him, but his wife apologizes for her husband, says he’s just a mean old man, a dying breed, and slips my neighbor what he is owed at the end of the day in a bag of warm biscuits. They’ll do it again tomorrow, my neighbor says, this indignity, this crude contrition, this dance with all the wrong steps. I shake my head but “It will be alright,” he says.

We are told we are a purple state, a swing state, a place where the politicians will come and spend their money. We know this, vaguely, we are reminded of it constantly, we see it play out during the commercials on our TV, but mostly we try to get a shower in before work, we scrape the frost off the window, and we hope the car will start.

We are mountain people, we are tobacco farmers, we are Family Dollar and Food Lion workers, we are home health aids pulling our rattling Pontiacs into the driveway and crease faced fishermen pulling Amberjack out of the sea. We elect Democrats and Republicans and, increasingly, we are independents, resistant to what we are offered, cautious of what we are sold, holding our friends close, our families closer, bringing sweet tea to our neighbors; we are just trying to pay our bills on time, go strawberry picking in April, put our toes in the sand in July, plant the collards before the cold.

Because of all this they mistake us for neutral; they imagine we don’t know or we don’t care. They’ve always thought this about Southerners, especially those of us who live in the fading bungalows and mill houses, our porches sinking, those of us who drive the trucks and work in the shops, who organize markers in the classrooms and staple together the lesson plans, those of us who fall asleep fast and hard at night. They imagine us as something vacant, unfulfilled, as empty pitchers into which they can pour whatever it is they are offering.

The extremists fill up our ticket, selling the snake oil of culture war. They give us shoes to try on, telling us we could be taller, but the souls are missing and our bare feet drag on the hot concrete. This isn’t what we were waiting for.

Balancing on this curb in Tarboro, looking at our stories and histories pass each other, things that don’t add up neatly, we are complicated, we are contradictory.

We’ve lived like this a long time.

We’re a make-do people in a make-do place, but we are not fools.



Gwen Frisbie-Fulton

Mother. Southerner. Storytelling Bread and Roses. Bottom up stories about race, class, gender, and the American South. *views my own*