Dangerous Ground

When confronting matters of race, some boundaries are more easily breached than others

Photo-Illustration by David Herbick
Photo-Illustration by David Herbick

Recently, Hurricane Florence has focused the nation’s attention on Wilmington, North Carolina, the setting of the following essay. As of Monday, September 24, many streets remain flooded, and the swollen Cape Fear River is expected to approach its record level of 8.2 feet. Some residents have returned, though the process of recovery and rebuilding will likely last for quite a while.


Certain borders should not be crossed. Some are clearly demarcated by signs and walls and other barriers. Some are not marked at all, mostly invisible and almost laughable at first, absurd, but real. And some have signs that we, or some of us, simply ignore.

Here is the sign I am ignoring today:

warning: you are trespassing on private property and are subject to arrest

I have reached the halfway point of my regular bike ride, a loop that carries me out to the coast under live oaks dripping Spanish moss and past some historic plantation houses, then down into a more modern though still ritzy neighborhood right on the water. The neighborhood has its own little harbor with docks for the residents’ boats, and often I get off my bike when I reach the docks and have a sip or two of water. Sometimes, if there are birds over the ocean or the light is nice, like today, I walk right out on the docks to be closer to the action—despite the big sign warning me not to and despite the camera pointing down at me from one of the pilings. Sometimes I even wave for the camera. I am a middle-aged white man with a professorial goatee. I trespass without much worry that a cop car will greet me when I return from the end of the docks. For me this is not a serious sign.

But today, as I walk to the water’s edge in search of ibises and ospreys, I do not wave to the camera. I am thinking of my student Will. How Will, given his recent history, might not be so cavalier about ignoring the sign and strolling out on these privileged docks. How we all have places we can walk where others shouldn’t.


Will, handsome, early 30s, charming but sometimes a little shy, a recent grad student at the southern public university where I teach. Oh, and not incidental to this essay, African American. Will, with his dreadlocks and nice smile, has more than once been featured in promotional photos on the school’s website that are meant to boost our image and to, pardon the expression, whitewash the fact that the school is not fully integrated.

But Will’s relationship with the university is a little more complicated than that. Twice now, university policemen have pulled him over and questioned him. A few years ago, back when he was an undergrad, Will was driving to school when an officer stopped him, asked him what he was doing on campus, and checked his license and student ID. This first encounter, in Will’s mind, was more forgivable than the second, because the officer at least explained that police were looking for someone who might have matched Will’s description in connection with an incident. When his ID checked out, the cop lamely tried to talk sports with Will—it was basketball season after all. And that was pretty much it. Other than telling a couple of close friends, he kept quiet about it. Will is a writer, mostly of speculative fiction, but it wasn’t until the second incident that he went back and wrote about the first. “Never did I cry race or make anything of it,” he wrote, “because maybe, just maybe, they were simply doing their job and looking out for us.”

That second incident, when Will was in grad school, was different. He was walking on the bike path near the basketball stadium, a backpack full of books over his shoulder. And though you could describe what he was wearing as a hoodie, it was a blue hoodie with the hood down and the school mascot’s name emblazoned in teal across the front. This was the middle of the day in a wide-open part of campus, and without a second thought, Will walked right past the campus cop car that was pulled over on the side of the road. He wasn’t even all that worried when the cop slowly drove by. But then the cop pulled up on the sidewalk in front of him, got out of the car, and walked back toward Will.

The cop asked for identification, then studied Will’s student ID for a while.

“What were you doing back there?” the cop asked. “Why were you looking so suspicious?”

“I was walking,” Will said.

“Are you a student here?” the cop asked.

This was when Will started to get upset. Who would go to the trouble of faking a student ID? Of dressing up as a student and using a backpack and school sweatshirt as a disguise?

“What does my student ID say?” Will asked.

“There’s no need to get smart,” the cop said.

The cop spoke into the radio on his chest. At this point, it occurred to Will that he should simply run. He’d done nothing wrong, of course, but the impulse was there, was real. The cop turned back to him.

“What did I do wrong?” Will asked.

“Stay right there and be quiet,” the cop said.

“I have to go,” Will said.

“What’s your major?” the cop asked.

Will was truly upset now, but rather than stay quiet, he let his whole story spill out in increasingly agitated tones. He explained that he was a graduate student in creative writing and so didn’t have a major, but a concentration, and that his concentration was fiction. He explained that he worked as a tutor in the writing center and that he had also been an undergrad here.

“There’s no need to get riled up,” the cop said.

Then he reached down and put his hand on his holster. Will is not certain whether it was a sidearm or a taser that the cop’s hand rested on. But Will was certain of the aggressively defensive stance: one leg forward, another back as the cop braced himself, hand on weapon.

He told Will to back up. Then he spoke into his radio as someone back at the station checked on Will’s ID.

When the cop finally finished talking, he handed Will his ID.

“Get out of here,” he said.


Let’s get something out of the way immediately. I am appropriating Will’s story for my own purposes. Yes, I am doing so with Will’s permission, but still I am taking it from him and using it for my own story. And you could say that I am doubly appropriating in a way, since I am not just a white man telling a black man’s story, but a teacher telling my student’s. The power dynamics are a little fishy. Professor and student. Mentor and mentee. Get your hands off the kid’s narrative.

Although we are told in the modern academy that this kind of appropriation is not allowed, I have decided that this is a border I must cross. Will and I talked openly about his experiences and the essay I might write, and I let him read and react to the manuscript. I am an essayist first, but as a part-time journalist I know that my job is to tell other people’s stories. The bigger, and for me more interesting, question is not should I tell Will’s story but why am I telling it and why now? Am I simply jumping on the cultural bandwagon, finding my own connection to a crisis bound up with the zeitgeist?

I said I am appropriating Will’s story “for my own purposes.” So what are my purposes? One of them is to tell you about where I live. Another is that by telling you where I live, I will tell you something about where everyone in this country now lives—a place more complex and deeply layered than most of us believe. A place with unhealed scars that we try to ignore, unless they are too red and glaring and obvious. And immediate. To understand these scars, we need to look back thoughtfully, and it seems to me that we, as a people, aren’t so good at looking back.

Where I live is Wilmington, North Carolina, a city whose downtown is nestled alongside the Cape Fear River, and whose larger whole is wedged between that river and the Atlantic Ocean. Because of this location, Wilmington is known as the Port City, and a thriving port it was in the late 1800s, when it was North Carolina’s most populous city, with more than 20,000 people, the majority of them African American. It was a good place to have dark skin 30 years after the Civil War, at least as far as the American South went. It wasn’t just the port’s cosmopolitan feel or the growing black middle class or the vibrant newspaper owned by two African-American brothers. The city’s government had started to reflect the town’s demographics, with several African Americans holding leadership positions in the police and fire departments and as elected members of the board of aldermen.

At this point, those telling Wilmington’s story usually rush ahead to what happened next, to 1898 and what is now often called the only coup d’état in American history, with the minority white population forming a mob and driving the black population from town, killing and exiling many in the process. But let’s push the pause button here and go back to a moment prior to the coup, and imagine an alternate future for the city. In that moment, Alexander Manly, the African-American co-owner of The Wilmington Daily Record, feels emboldened and continues to print increasingly strong, and sometimes even provocative, editorials. Black aldermen argue with white, sometimes winning those arguments and influencing the direction of the growing city. More of the city’s policemen and firefighters are black. The Fusion Party, an alliance between the Republican and Populist parties, is not overthrown by vigilantes but gets a deeper grip on the city. More blacks, hearing of this good place, come to Wilmington and further influence the city’s future. From Wilmington they sometimes travel around the world, and sometimes the world travels to them.

Let’s further imagine that one of those new Wilmington residents masters the art of silversmithing and then, let’s say, passes on that art to his son. Eventually they both build fine houses for their families downtown, off Market Street, where, in this alternate future, some of his descendants still live today. Through those years
Wilmington continues as the model, the beacon, it briefly was.

This future will not happen.


Here is Will reflecting on his second encounter with a university policeman:

What made me nervous was that he was nervous too. It was almost like we were both thinking about all the history between African Americans and police. And, you know, he’s probably thinking that I’m nervous and I’m already thinking that he probably thinks I’ve done something. So this makes this really nervous situation where neither of us can talk. And yes, I could understand him being nervous, but it made me not trust him.

That the place we have reached is a dangerous one is obvious, but it is also a complicated one. It is hard to stay calm and hard to be straightforward when you feel you are trapped inside a house of mirrors. We are on tricky ground, and missteps are easy. I have watched the alchemy of defensiveness into rage, not just among the far right but also among so-called intellectuals of all colors. The cop and Will aren’t the only ones twisted into knots by the issue of how to behave.

Honest communication requires trust, yet many people venturing into a discussion of race do so not with trust but with fear. To even discuss the subject invites criticism of your ideas and of yourself. When I write, my best thinking grows out of openness and uncertainty, of barging around and trying out ideas and seeing if they sink or swim. But there is danger in this, in both the manner of thinking and the consequences. Misspeak and you are a racist. Which leads to the opposite of free, smart, creative discourse.

Many intelligent people, my wife included, have told me not to venture into the subject of race. It is not my place. Do not enter. And maybe it would be wiser and safer not to tread where I seemingly don’t belong. But I can’t leave it alone. Without free-roaming historical imaginations, we are cut off from other times, leaving us as temporal islands. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes of “the country I knew, which had acquired the land through murder and tamed it under slavery.” It isn’t hard to react defensively to a line like that. It is hard to really look at it and see it as truth. For most of us the imaginative effort to get there, to really get there, will be halting. Maybe “I am to blame” is asking too much as a first step for most people. Maybe “I am not not to blame” can be the first step.

It was easier to believe the past was the past before we traded in our old president for a new one, before cell phones and vest cameras allowed us to see up close so many encounters between African Americans and police. Of course, some people will still refuse to see, will prattle on about safety and crime, and fail to understand that what they are witnessing, far from belonging to some notion of The Past, is actually living history.


Will and I both live in Wilmington. This is the ground we both walk on.

Will grew up in Winston-Salem, 16 miles away from King, North Carolina, a town that had an active Klan. When Will’s youth football team, with kids’ ages ranging from 10 to 12, played the King team, parents would yell racial slurs from the stands. If you were driving from Winston-Salem to the beach—that is, toward Wilmington—in the 1950s and early ’60s, you would see a sign that said:

This is Klan country. Join and support the United Klans of America, inc. Help fight communism and integration.

I grew up roughly 800 miles to the north in Worcester, Massachusetts. I can tell myself that I am not from here, that my roots are in the Northeast, but the truth is that I have now lived here for 14 years, and my daughter has lived here her whole life. Maybe it’s time to stop defining myself by what I’m not, and to accept that this is my hometown. I often write about nature, and as I have tried to make myself at home here I have gotten to know the birds and trees, the waters and animals. In my attempt to inhabit the place, to develop some real fondness for it, I tell myself that indigenous people (without southern accents) lived here long before there was any such thing as the Confederate states, long before the institution of slavery flourished in this town, long before the laws of the place kept those freed from slavery from voting or gaining any real autonomy. I have learned a lot about the clapper rails and ospreys and the ibises and dolphins, but to ignore large parts of the place’s human history is to live in avoidance. To consciously pretend that I am not where I am. As if I have erected my own do not enter sign.

Wilmington has been revitalized in recent years, but the place still has the feel of a low-rent Charleston. The port will never be as vital as it was in the late 19th century. Downtown Wilmington is a crazy quilt of economic and racial disparity, the poor neighborhoods interwoven with middle-class and wealthy ones. Someone who knows the city better than I do could make a racial map—one full of small provinces, with many invisible borders. Without the map, there are no clear signs letting you know you have crossed a border. I like the idea of roaming freely, and often I do. But there are certain places downtown where I would not be wise to walk. The pale skin that lets me walk so easily out on the dock would not work the same way there. Will might do so with a little more confidence, but my guess is that he would choose not to. We warn our new grad students about walking freely downtown at night. More than one have been beaten and mugged. For a small city, crime is high, our murder rate shocking.

You can’t walk through downtown Wilmington without feeling the living past. No, that’s wrong. You can, and most people do. But it doesn’t take much of an imagination, historical or otherwise, to see that 1898 has led directly to 2018. What happens here now grew out of what happened here then, clearly and directly.

Other possible futures ended for Wilmington on the night of November 10, 1898, when a mob of more than 500 white men, including a Klan-like group called the Red Shirts, attacked The Daily Record. After burning down the newspaper building, the whites, their ranks growing to 2,000, turned their fury, and a Colt machine gun, on the black population, killing an unknown number, with estimates ranging as high as 60. Some blacks took refuge in the marshes off the Cape Fear River. Those who survived say that the river ran red with blood.

Many of those not killed were exiled, with more than 2,000 people driven from the town. In the days after the initial violence, the Democratic insurgents drove out the newly elected aldermen and took over the government, wasting little time in restricting the voting rights of blacks and putting in place a policy of severe segregation that hung on for 70 years and to some extent lingers to this day. It is fair to say that
Wilmington has never recovered.


“Do you think you have the right to write about other people?”

This was the question a freshman at an elite college recently asked a friend and colleague of mine. My friend is married to a man of another ethnicity, with whom she has three children, and she had recently written a book about her complex relationship with her husband’s culture. It should be added that she had also spent decades studying, thinking, and writing about that culture.

She didn’t know how to answer. Her first thought, which she stifled, was, “I can write about whomever I want to write about. That’s what writing, good writing, is. An act of empathy.”

Instead she gave a careful answer, explaining how much art, energy, and thought had gone into her own act of empathy. Explaining that one reason to write, and read, is to know worlds other than one’s own. She didn’t say what she came to believe: that the student’s question was a power play, an attempt to shut down the conversation. I don’t want you to talk. I want to talk. It’s my turn.

So much of our energy seems to go into splintering and separating, not unifying. And it seems fair to say that many of us don’t understand our own motives, don’t know what produces our angry energy. That fear and self-interest drive even the most supposedly high-minded of us seems obvious.

As does the fact that most of us have no idea how to even begin to talk about race. Our talk depends on our audience. Some of us carefully tread safe liberal paths. If we dare move off those paths, we find ourselves equivocating like stoned teenagers. Do Not Enter signs abound. Everywhere we have grown nervous about trespassing. Of roaming freely.

These days even mapping the territory is fraught with challenges. The simplest diagram would show a line with liberalism on one pole and conservatism on the other. But another would have open-mindedness on one end and closed-minded certainty on the other. Often the response of the left is to adopt the weapons of the right. Blustery, certain, loud, unnuanced thinking. I understand why we yell back. You can’t fight a bludgeon with a rapier.

Maybe this moment in history is too big for the individual thinker. I find myself flailing as I write this, unsure where I am going. Maybe my wife was right: maybe this whole essay is a mistake. Her instincts are sound. She wants to protect me. She wants me to retreat to safer ground.


Ten days after the incident with the second cop, a campus policeman finally explained to Will why he’d been pulled over. They had been looking for someone who fit his description—black, dreadlocks, hoodie—who had run onto campus.

“The officer should have told me that,” Will said.

As it turned out, the officer was also a grad student, in criminology.

A few months later, he walked into the writing center, where Will worked, for a tutorial session. Will had been assigned to be his tutor.

He reached out to shake Will’s hand. Will didn’t reciprocate.

“You’re, like, the guy,” the officer said to Will.

“It’s probably not a good idea that we hold this session,” Will said.

He retreated to another room and talked with his boss.

“That’s the officer who stopped me,” he said.

His boss was upset and immediately switched the officer to another tutor.

Did the officer/grad student come to the writing center intending to find Will? All of the tutors have their pictures and bios on the center’s website, so he could have seen who his tutor was beforehand. Will, for one, does not think the meeting was coincidental. Maybe the officer wanted to make amends, maybe he felt guilty, maybe he wanted to prove he was not a racist. Whatever the motive, Will felt that a line had been crossed, that his workplace, a place where he had always felt comfortable, had been violated.


In Wilmington even the cemeteries are segregated. Today Will and I enter through the wrought-iron gates of the Oakdale Cemetery, incorporated in 1852 and still housing the earthly remains of some of Wilmington’s elite, Confederate and otherwise. On this Saturday of Labor Day weekend, we walk down the rows of gravestones, enveloped in the usual deep humidity. My wife likens summers here to “living inside someone’s mouth.” Thunder rumbles as we walk beneath the magnolia trees. Then, between a grave marked “Taylor” and one marked “Lee,” we follow a shortcut I have taken before, dipping through a gap in the chain-link fence behind the graves.

Just like that, we have left Oakdale and are in another cemetery, this one called Pine Forest. Here the stones are closer to the ground, more haphazardly placed, and not as monumental. Another difference: on the side of the fence where we now find ourselves, all of the human beings who were put in the ground had darker skin than those on the other side. Time reveals not just tragedy but absurdity. The same zoning plan of nearby neighborhoods has been carried out here, those both above and below ground still clustered by color.

“Did they think black people went to different heavens and different hells?” Will asks.

A sign in the middle of the cemetery tells us of prominent African Americans from Wilmington buried here, including physicians, activists, and Dr. Robert Robinson Taylor, who was an eminent MIT-trained architect and was known as Booker T. Washington’s right-hand man at the Tuskegee Institute. In this ground lie some of the men and women who lived in Wilmington during the better days before the coup. One is named Valentine Howe, “a prominent local builder born in 1842 who was twice elected [a] Wilmington Alderman and also elected twice to the North Carolina house of representatives …”

Burnt Mill Creek, which wends through the back of the cemetery before joining with the Cape Fear River, was where many of the black citizens ran in 1898, when the white mob attacked and the newspaper was burned and the river ran red.

History is with us today and not just because of the cemetery. Less than three weeks before our walk through the cemeteries, white supremacists and neo-Nazis killed one person and injured many in Charlottesville, after which the president deplored violence on “both sides.” His ambivalence makes me question my own constant questioning. In this crazed moment, subtlety and ambiguity seem beside the point.

Wilmington is littered with Confederate landmarks, and our streets and parks are named not just for Civil War heroes but also for those who orchestrated the coup of 1898. My daughter’s cross-country meets are often held in a park named in honor of one of the coup’s main organizers: a man who, in the words of a novelist-historian colleague of mine, was also “a calculating and ruthless leader” and who, over the following decades, “along with a cohort of as many as a thousand others, denied black residents of Wilmington their basic rights of citizenship.”

Will and I make our way across Market Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, and down to Seventh Street before heading south. Large, slightly unkempt wooden houses give way to smaller, slightly unkempt wooden houses as white neighborhoods segue into black. After a 10-minute walk, we reach our destination. We stop at an empty lot full of nothing but dirt, grass, and weeds, located next to a brick building, the St. Luke A.M.E. Zion Church. The only thing unusual about the spot is that it remains vacant, this site where The Daily Record once stood.

“It would be a good place for a monument,” I suggest.

Will agrees that a statue of Alex Manley, the owner of The Daily Record, would fit well on the empty patch of dirt. But not even a small sign marks the spot where the building burned. Those who controlled the town for close to a century after 1898 had a particular narrative in mind, and the destruction of the newspaper was not part of that story. Not only were lives lost on that bloody night, stories were too. Those who might have written about it were silenced.

As we make our way back to Market Street, we talk about a draft of this essay that I had given to Will a few days before.

“When I read it, I felt scared for you, David,” Will says. “Writing about this. I mean I feel nervous. But after all that, I also feel it needs to be written.”

I make some lame joke about plunging blindly ahead in my own writing, damn the consequences, but Will stays serious.

“I really don’t know how to write about race,” he says. “I just realize how delicate it is. And what I want to say is going to anger both sides. I just feel a pressure to write about it. But I’m a fiction writer. I didn’t want to be forced into this conversation. I resisted. If I’m going to write about it, I have to get it right. And I don’t know how to.”

I am not the only one walking on dangerous ground here or the only one who should be afraid. Just as I fear being called a racist, Will fears being called something else. He still feels the sting of the reaction to the social media post he put up, in which he was critical of the police, the school, and white indifference, but also of African Americans who “cry race at every turn, which is essentially crying wolf.” Someone he respected, an academic at another university, responded to his post not with words but with a simple cartoon—a character named Uncle Ruckus from the animated series The Boondocks. A character known to be an Uncle Tom.

Such are the risks of our dialogue.

Will stops and turns to me.

“How does it feel to be here?” he asks.

I think he means Wilmington in general, and I launch into a spiel about what it feels like to be a northerner in the South.

“I mean how did it feel to be here? To walk through this neighborhood.”

I think about it for a minute.

I’m not frightened or anything, I say. But I am aware.

He nods. He knows what I mean. I mean I am aware that everyone we have passed on the street and that everyone who has driven by (except for one car—which I also noted) has been black. That I am aware of skin color in a way I’m usually not.

Soon we are crossing an invisible border, the houses becoming larger, the faces whiter. When we reach Market Street and head west to Third Street, a spot that could be called the entrance to downtown, we are greeted by a statue of George Davis. Davis was a senator and the attorney general for the Confederate States of America, where his role was to uphold a constitution that explicitly declared the institution of slavery as right and legal. His bronze statue, which stands in a center island in the middle of traffic, is eight feet tall and weighs 1,700 pounds and was “erected in loving memory by the United Daughters of the Confederacy” in 1911. One inscription on the base of the statue reads, “He exemplified, with dignity and simplicity, with gentle courtesy and Christian faith, the true heart of chivalry in southern manhood.” Another simply says, “scholar-patriot-statesman-christian.”

I first visited this spot a week after Charlottesville. As I was making a sketch of the statue, a gray truck with a Harley-Davidson sticker pulled up to the red light at Third Street. The driver leaned out the window to take a picture. I didn’t know what the driver’s motivation was, but the driver of a Honda, windows down, thought he did. As he cut in front of and around the truck, driving away from downtown, he yelled back:

“He’s a war hero, right? Fucking racist!”

The guy in the truck did not react as far as I could tell, and a second later, he drove off when the light turned green.

Around the corner, on Third and Dock streets, Will and I visit another monument, this one a tribute “To the Soldiers of the Confederacy.” A soldier stands nobly with a cape flowing from his shoulder while his fallen comrade lies at his feet. A poem below them reads,

Confederates blend your recollections
Let memory weave its bright reflections
Let love revive life’s ashen embers
For love is life since love remembers.

The monument is enormous, the figures more than life-size and made of bronze, and they are set against an 11-ton granite backdrop. Over the past couple of weeks, Andrew Bopes, an African American who lives and works downtown, has taped a white flag of surrender over the gun of the standing Confederate soldier. People keep taking it down, but he keeps putting it back up.

Bopes told the local paper that the monument “doesn’t have too much of an effect on me except my empathy. There is no context as to why it’s displayed. It’s a participation trophy for someone on the wrong side of history. It needed some context and the white surrender flag gives it context.”

North Carolina is different from other states in that this statue cannot be legally removed, even by the local government. In 2015 North Carolina passed a law, Senate Bill 22, that forbids the removal or even the moving of Confederate memorials.

From the memorial, Will and I head farther downtown. The Cape Fear River, running like a final wide avenue, parallel to Front Street, puts a stop to our wandering, presenting an uncrossable border. Signs warn against swimming.

“How about a beer?” I ask.

Will chooses the bar, the New Anthem Beer Project, one of the many new breweries that have cropped up downtown. Since race is the theme of the day, it is worth pointing out that of the 40 or so people in the bar, Will is the only African American.

Over beer, he tells me the story of a long talk he had with the chief of campus police, a kind of epilogue to his encounter with the young cop. It occurred about eight months ago during a forum held by the school’s chancellor to address another issue on campus, a right-wing professor who, under the guise of free speech, had been writing disparaging things about a Muslim student on his website. After the event ended, the police chief approached Will and asked, “How are you doing?”

“I said okay, and then he asked, ‘Is the campus treating you better?’ I said, ‘You ask these things, but we’re not seeing anything change. Nothing tangible.’ It just seemed like small talk to me. He was talking to me all casual, and he said, ‘Well, that whole thing’s been dealt with.’ No, it hasn’t been dealt with, I said. I wasn’t told anything about what happened. You can’t just sweep it under the rug. People need to know exactly what is going on. How the police are being trained and how they are disciplined. He said, ‘Oh, we just can’t talk about those things.’ ”

Will shakes his head, frustrated.

“The university kept asking me if I wanted the cop to apologize. But I didn’t really want an apology. I wanted to see something happen. It felt like a lot of it was just P.R. The police chief talked to me for a long time, and we never really got anywhere.He told me the officer had been disciplined, but he couldn’t tell me how. He said they were going to do station-wide training. As I understood it, the officer had been disciplined for not following protocol. Not for profiling. But I didn’t really know. And I wanted to know. It mattered. All of the officials I talked to, including him, seemed very concerned with one question: ‘If you were talking to other minority students, would you recommend coming to this university?’ And I said no. I wouldn’t. Actually, I would actively deter them from coming to this university.

“And I would. I would never suggest that someone from my hometown come here. I don’t think it’s a safe place. Nothing big has happened yet. But it’s happening in the shadows all the time.”

I nod, thinking that those words apply to the city as well as the school. When I moved here, I felt like I was being exiled, forced to the edge of America. Now I think that this town embodies the moment we are in, that this place is us.

I picture the river that flows by the city. The Cape Fear is a blackwater river, deep, slow-moving, tannin-fed. The waters, sluggishly tidal at this point, pass by the old buildings and streets of Will’s and my adopted hometown, heading out to sea. The town can seem sluggish too, but in the shadows an old war is still being fought. And this place that was on fire 120 years ago could catch fire again. Its incendiary history, its many monuments to its Confederate past, its conscious and unconscious century-long suppression of an underclass, its influx of a “non-native” and increasingly liberal population, its high rates of poverty and crime—all are stacked up like kindling. It would only take a spark, and we live in a time when sparks are flying.

I will let Will have the last word. Of the many repercussions to Will’s being stopped by the cop, some personal and some political, one was also writerly. He will still write speculative fiction, dealing indirectly with certain subjects. But he has a new subject now, one that he feels the need to face directly and honestly, and one that he needs to filter through his own experience and consciousness, with empathy and honesty, no matter how much trouble it might get him in.

“Maybe I tried to sometimes ignore the subject of race before,” he told me. “It wasn’t until I was pulled over that I started seeing things differently. I looked back over my life and noticed all these things that I hadn’t noticed before. You know how people talk about their lives flashing before their eyes? That’s what it was like. Like every single microaggression from when I was a little boy. I saw all of it.”

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David Gessner is the author of 12 books, including Leave It As It Is; Quiet Desperation, Savage Delight; All the Wild That Remains; and the forthcoming A Traveler’s Guide to the End of the World. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, where he founded the journal Ecotone.


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