Margaret Hair: Obama takes the Helms
November 7, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Just less than 24 hours after U.S. Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., was elected the first black president of the United States, North Carolina was just less than one month away from officially declaring Obama’s victory in that state.
By late Wednesday afternoon, the state was leaning far enough toward Obama – he was ahead by 14,000 votes, with outstanding provisional ballots expected to push totals further in his direction – that North Carolina unofficially was added to the president-elect’s tally of wins.
This might be a good time for a break: I don’t have anything to say related to arts and entertainment this week. That’s partially because it’s mud season, and I don’t have much to add about anything going on – though this weekend there is a good bit going on, with First Friday Artwalk, Pirate Theatre and several fundraisers.
Mostly, I’m thinking politics because in a presidential election that seemed to end so quickly, my home state is one of two the New York Times still was showing in not-yet-decided-but-leaning-Obama light blue Wednesday evening. And that fact is occupying 97 percent of my mind (the other 3 percent is occupied by exhaustion).
There are plenty of culturally significant elements to the closeness of the presidential race in North Carolina that I can’t relate to. I haven’t lived there in more than a year, I grew up in one of the state’s more urban areas, for four years I lived in one of its most liberal counties, and I am white.
But as the state wavered between whitish-blue and pinkish-red on Election Night, I imagine generations of North Carolinians – regardless of political affiliation – felt a tide reversing. Where Obama’s sweep might have meant hope or change to left-leaning residents of Colorado or Indiana, it meant a slap in the face of history to so many other previously red-leaning states. For the Tar Heel State, it meant cheering in the face of decades of hatred and bigotry perpetuated by former Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C., now deceased). This was a man who, in his race for re-election in 1990, ran an ad shunning racial quotas as a pair of white hands wrung a pink slip (Helms won that race). This was a man who stood against civil rights, who refused to consider funding the arts, who declared, in 1966, “Buildings and houses don’t make slums. People do.”
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On Tuesday night, where one man seemed single-handedly to have held a state back, another seemed single-handedly to be moving it forward.
It felt like all kinds of cultural heritage now could be unearthed, like there wasn’t anything keeping old blues musicians from getting paid or young artists from getting the resources they need. It felt like you could drive through a small textile town without seeing century-old racial divisions, or like the state could be known for producing John Coltrane or George Clinton as much as it is for producing NASCAR and Andy Griffith.
In an election that’s been all over everything and everywhere for 21 months – on both sides, well past the point of saturation – it was a historic moment that even CNN couldn’t over-sensationalize.