Born in Wilmington, North Carolina, I grew up in the civil rights era conflicted and searching, in a family that read books and discussed issues and ideas. By the time I'd reached high school I played tennis, served on the Wilmington Youth Council, and nourished growing passions for literature, poetry, science and the violin—though not necessarily in that order. Though I derived from southern roots on both sides of my family, I'd come of age in the Sixties when every boy's hero was JFK, when most young people sang along with the Beatles, Smokey Robinson, Jim Morrison and "Peter Paul & Mary". For the most part, if there was anything to you, at the very least you knew Martin Luther King, Jr. was a nonviolent preacher and that the cause of civil rights was a just one whose time had come—though most of us had a rather limited understanding as to why. My deepest inspiration, however, derived from Yasha Heifitz, Issac Stern, T.S. Elliot, and Percy Shelly—still reckoned among the greatest by the power of their artistry. But then there was Vietnam, which I missed by the skin of my teeth. Turning eighteen in 1970, the war was downsizing and my draft numbers were high. I made it into college at UNC at a time when campuses were in an uproar. Then, college and learning became my passion. I majored in Philosophy and English, took many history courses that were cross listed in Physics, Art, or Philosophy. And of course studied Ancient Greco-Roman History and Medieval Europe (didn't everyone?) I thought Kenneth Clark was the greatest, poured devoutly over Aristotle's Metaphysics, showed up in Memorial Auditorium for all the Civilization films, and later personally met and conversed with Michael Harrington. Although I'd always been a Cold War liberal opposed to Communism, from that day forward I thought of America in the very least as a nation in which a man like Harrington should enjoy as much freedom as a Jesse Helms or a Newt Gingrich.
After college I travelled widely in the U.S., vagabonding across the West, camping out on the desert in Nevada and in the lush forests of the Yellowstone, backpacking through San Francisco, picking fruit in Washington state, working an oil rig in Wyoming, through two summers as a section hand on the Burlington Northern, and one winter planting trees in the rain forest on the Olympic Peninsula. I saw many places of almost indescribable beauty and also many historical sites that fired my imagination. Along with a travelling companion, we stood at the gravesite at Wounded Knee in the summer of 1976 on one strange and eerie sunless afternoon when the silence and gloom were so thick that the very wind seemed to speak to us. And later I read Black Elk Speaks by John G. Neihardt, and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown. Through those years I saw the struggles that defined the lives of workers, of Native Americans building new lives on the reservation and off, of African Americans in the South and in America's cities working to achieve full rights and equal citizenship, of environmentalists working to stop clear cutting and to curtail the effects of strip mining and community activists to build food co-ops and tree planters to restore the forests. And I came to understand that American freedom is not a simple tale of victory in a far off war. That it is also about human suffering in the daily lives of people in small towns and cities, in forests, mountains and prairies throughout the land. In Washington state I lived in a commune and experienced the love of my brothers and my sisters. For so many of us then, the generational experience turned sour as the distance between the New Left and the “sex, drugs and Rock N’ Roll” of the counterculture failed to offer a transforming vision of society.
Returning to North Carolina after these years of travel, I nevertheless brought back a new sense of a literary mission, and I plunged into the study of history with a determination to understand the social realities of the American South. My reading list included contemporary works and classics, both ancient and modern. I was strongly influenced by Russian literature, by Africa American writers and activists, and by Existentialist philosophy. As the case of the Wilmington Ten made headlines in North Carolina and the nation, I turned to the proponents of Black Nationalism such as Malcolm X, Albert Cleage, Stokely Carmichael, Eldridge Cleaver to try to gain new perspective on the black experience in the U.S.. While C. Vann Woodward's historical writing opened new avenues of self-understanding—I particularly sought out original source readings on the history of the South and its people. I read John Hope Franklin's Reconstruction After the Civil War, William Chafe' Civilities and Civil Rights, and John G. Barrett's Sherman’s March Through the Carolinas. Although as a child I'd read Sherman's March to the Sea, the civil war had never really engaged my interest, though virtually all young people in the South are reared with "Southern legend"—that less-than-fully rational sense of history that endows the Southern imagination. Reading Barrett's account of the Battle of Bentonville, and how in the spring of 1865, with Confederate illusions finally crumbling, thousands of young Carolina boys, ages sixteen years and younger marched off to war. And as I read this account and considered so many young boys called to give their lives in a cause so thoroughly unworthy—my heart fell to the ground. Study of the region’s history confirmed the centrality of the Civil War in the experience especially of Southern whites, yet also their need for greater objectivity and perspective.
Thus I could begin to understand the history of the region and of North Carolina and of Africa Americans as involving an immense tragedy of national proportions. And so for a time, the tragic sense of life seemed to predominate in my thoughts. As I became a student of history, I wrote a lengthy historical novel based on my research and interviews in Wilmington, N.C., attempting to portray the phenomenon of school integration during the riotous years of the Wilmington Ten fiasco. Containing elements of self-satire, there was murmur of comparison to John Toole Kennedy’s Confederacy of Dunces (1980), which was among the few complimentary observations in response to this badly overwritten first novel. My sense of the pervasive tragedy of life in the region made perfect sense as a literary mode of self-expression, but gradually this was replaced by a contemporary understanding of history that stressed crucial learning experiences and a search for objectivity. Although moved by stories of the Civil War, I came also to share the view that it was wrong for the South to remain fixated on the war. And so my study came to focus heavily on the 20th century civil rights struggle and the social history of the region. I came to appreciate the constitutional foundations of American democracy in the history of American law with its profound potential for growth and evolution in response to the stresses and the demands for social change. I also came to appreciate the importance of mass based, democratic action in U.S. government as a means to further the public’s interest in institutions that work and policies that make sense for people—a principle persistently resisted in the history of the South. And I came to appreciate the fact that unlike the tragic poet, the historian must never lose the sense of purpose that communicates the wider meaning of history on a universal scale, and projects it toward a plausible sense of a meaningful future in terms that are fully human. For an inclusive, dynamic society in an age of globalization, it is important to develop an inclusive history that looks at the role of African Americans, women, Native Americans, and other groups, just as it considers the role of workers in the overall life of the nation.
And so, the better part of my professional years have been devoted to both the study and the teaching of history. I began my study especially because of the challenge of coming to terms with issues of civil rights and the cultural realities of the 20th century social experience. From this time forward, I have remained a student of history, though not always so humble of heart as I might have been—yet always searching both intellectually and spiritually… In 2000, University Press of America published Black Wilmington and the North Carolina Way: Portrait of a Community in the Era of Civil Rights Protest, a condensed and modified version of my doctoral dissertation—a book that remains my most important contribution to date.
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