Asheville, North Carolina: A Legacy of Cultural Contradictions

April 22, 2021

Rather than defer to history, and to paint a realistic portrait of the issues of racism in society, the youth of Charlotte Street chose to hail the narrative that polarizes the community. BLM’s behavior, above its rhetoric and what it claims to be, has worked more to ostracize rather than to bring together American communities, as sister cities burned buildings together rather than light the vigil candles of a unified heart. Lessons of shared triumphs over the corrupt and defeatist past cannot be shared in an environment of exclusivity and a narrative that says it is for equality and peace, but demands it through excessive rage and an exclusive nature that will forbid rapprochement or demand penance from the other race group as a whole, rather than the offending parties as individual units. 


 

“Charlotte Street not Charlottesville. Black Lives Matter!” The signs danced along the floral sidewalks of Charlotte Street, Asheville, North Carolina. Spring with her dogwoods and flowers belied the true feeling in a city on the cusp of peril.

Seated in a nest of mountains and national forests, Asheville, N.C. is a city completely in contradiction with itself and popular narrative. The streets are decorated with signs hailing the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement with a positive message but negative behaviors. 

A news cycle adds confusion to an American cultural enigma 

The city paused, holding its breath, in anticipation for the trial of Derek Chauvin’s ultimate conclusion. The trial found Chauvin guilty on all counts, with his bail revoked, but the looming threat of burning cities held America with a great pause. As leftist America celebrated, confusion hung over the heads of such regions that stand in complete contrast to all that supports the liberal groupthink. Continued police violence and public outcry joined the chorus, further adding to the cacophony of confusion over America’s regions that can’t quite fit the mold. 

 The Citizen-Times prepared for chaos as the trial’s verdict grew nearer and Asheville’s liberal youth, the same who decorated Charlotte Street with signs of political signaling, held their breath. Asheville’s police prepared in kind, bracing for their historically contrasting city to burn in the fire of the unresolved discontent.

 Asheville, a liberal mismatched haven in the American South

Asheville, seated in the Blue Ridge Mountains, is a haven of liberal politics. One can visit nowhere in the city without being presented with the narrative of Appalachia’s Hollywood. The streets are decorated with art and the theater of this shared relationship solidified by blockbuster films such as “The Hunger Games” and “The Last of the Mohicans” which were filmed in these hills, in the nearby state park of Chimney Rock. 

For claiming this place as a haven, and for establishing a narrative and a culture unique to the rest of Appalachia in this place, there is a refined sense of resentment in Asheville’s dialogue. Living there requires the art of being “reluctantly Southern”, of a need to make the distinction that Asheville is an island amid Appalachia, that it is utterly different and removed from this “other America” as the mainstream press refers to it. 

This need to define as opposed to the “otherness” has led to public radio projects in West Virginia polling to see just how inherently “racist” the Appalachians are when compared to other demographics elsewhere in the nation. Culturally, this shows an external misunderstanding and miscommunication of a place known to its locals as “ragged” and “torn” a place that is in cultural contradiction to itself. 

Appalachia itself is a chain of stark contrasting realities. There are pockets of extreme gentrification as seen in Asheville and then there are the corrupt and violent sectors in northeastern Kentucky. In between the most extreme representations of Appalachian society are the humble mountain town “every American” boroughs that are the most frequent representation of the region.

A store front in the quiet Appalachian village of Ellijay, BlueRidge, Georgia.

 

 

 

 

Serving as a quaint example is Ellijay, Georgia where the Cherokee continue to live in a quiet mountain historic railroad urban community. This is quite different from bustling Buncombe county known better for its gentrification and “Californication” than for its deep roots in the culture of Bluegrass music and folk culture.  

The narrative as opposed to Appalachia’s truth 

Appalachia’s truth is one of self-defeating and repetitious identity politics.The cultural demographics of “other America” fall into three distinct demographics: the African Americans, the remnant of Indigenous tribes and bands that still pepper the region, and the Irish Americans who contribute a large percentage of culture to the region. These three groups have been pitted against one another for centuries as they were exploited by the political majority of the Colonial and Industrial periods of American history. 

One has the Native American heritage of Appalachia. In Asheville, amid the Cherokee and the Pisgah National Forests, one still sees the presence of that entrenched heritage. The Indigenous culture shaped the Blue Ridge Mountains, and in a sense is still remnant there, in nondescript townships such as Ellijay, Georgia where Cherokee still make up a recognized demographic of the rural population.  

This group leads a mostly quiet life as an almost forgotten member, and yet a defining society in the region’s shape. Today’s convenient narrative looks to the Indigenous American as “invisible” and to be kept that way by defeatist narratives that lock their society into a mindset by the rest of America that they only live on reservations.  The fact of their stark presence in these towns, visible and active, is a contradiction to that mentality. 

Then, one has the powerful presence of African American figures which define some of the key historic sites and the culture of the immediate region, see the History of African Americans in Buncombe County. The first Africans to enter Buncombe County were soldiers in the company of Spanish explorer Fernando de Soto in 1538. 

In 1730, African Americans entered the area surrounding Asheville’s downtown in the company of the Cherokee. Some were free and some were enslaved. They settled what was once called Old Shiloh, but is now known as Biltmore Forest, as these early Appalachian African Americans were displaced by estates of power and wealth. 

The African Americans brought to this immediate area then became the inhabitants of an area known today as All Soul’s Crescent, a circle of gentrified buildings, shops, and one hipster Starbucks that is a social attraction for downtown liberal Ashevillians. 

The All Souls Cathedral looms through the treeline.

This would not be known to the casual observer. Today, this little community stands at the foot of the Cathedral of All Souls, a towering structure of Southern Christianity, built by the builder of Biltmore, associating the narrative of southern genteel Christianity forever with the race politics of the Old Shiloh displacement. 

The All Souls Crescent loops the mouth of the Biltmore Estate, erected by George Washington Vanderbilt in the 1880s, in an unabashed display of the same gentrification that now polarizes Appalachia as the “other” America and the “haven of the racists” and the land of “poor white trash”, an Appalachia that academics address as the “myth of Appalachian whiteness.” Rather than address the collective narrative of repeat marginalization and history’s weaponization of the collective marginalized minorities of the region, academics attempt to expose the “invisible” blackness of Appalachia. 

Road front view of All Souls Crescent.

Continued “whiteness” versus “blackness” mythos contradictions addressed and debated by academics of a liberal-leaning fail to see the forest for the trees as the cultural contradictions of the region stand in plain sight.  

An example is in the liberal opinion of the inherent “racism” of  Christians” in general, as seen in BBC’s Panorama, and echoed in the American narrative of the predominantly Christian American South and Appalachia with it. For this continuously echoed perspective of exclusive white south with its “Bible-thumping” beliefs, the liberal activist fails to see the entrenched culture of African American Christianity that is the gentrified white Christianity’s next door neighbor. 

Still, the Mount Zion Church, the largest gathering of African Americans founded in the faith movement of the 1880s Buncombe County, stands in contrast. A permanent sanctuary raised in 1919 cements this historical legacy of African Americans rising above social constraints of their day. Congregation of the modern church has made commentary against the extremely partisan narrative of its community, following the same beliefs as the rest of Christianity that is composed of a multiracial faith base. The church itself has called for temperance in Asheville politics, but with the conflicting nature of the hour’s narrative, the call remains unheeded. 

The BLM narrative right next door to an African American triumph 

The collective liberal activist narrative excludes the inconvenient history of African American Southern Christianity’s presence as founded contemporary and thriving alongside Vanderbilt’s All Souls Cathedral and his “gentrified whiteness.”. The two great structures of Southern Christianity, both tourist attractions for their place in the heritage of North Carolina, are approximately seven minutes’ drive apart. 

The church was not passed down from a forced adoptive white heritage, but was raised by James Vester Miller, a master mason and the son of a former slave, who worked for many local contractors before he started Miller and Sons Construction Company. The church, founded likewise by African Americans in the heart of their commercial district, was moved nine blocks from its original location by its second reverend. 

Despite the narrative of a racist Asheville that required a “Black Lives Matter” campaign on Charlotte Street, over on Eagle Street, the history of an African American overcoming all challenges and paving the way for his sons stood on its strong foundations. The distance is a mere four minutes by car, or 20 minutes on foot if one would like to march the parameters. 

The church likewise owes its soul to another African American whose fire moved hearts across racial lines. It was born from the preachings of an African American, Reverend Rumley. The famed preacher of Pack Square drew the awe of acclaimed novelist Thomas Wolfe, whose home is also nestled nearby for tourism. Wolfe was moved to write his Child By Tiger by the evocative sermons of Reverend Rumley. 

For a white American novelist who lived and died before the civil rights movement, this work addressing the social ills of race hatred, including among the Christian community above compared directly in its relics,  the work speaks to a transcendence of the woke narrative of inherent, intransigent hate in America. Rumley’s faith breached Wolfe’s thoughts regardless of the hour they lived, and, if but for a moment, the prejudice of that hour was challenged by an idea and was thus momentarily overcome. 

The lesson to be learned from the presence of this local legacy is that, despite the evils of history, the African American community was able to overcome and rise like the church on Eagle Street. Teaching this legacy to modern Asheville is a building block for addressing the wrongs of society in the past, present, and as they may arise in the future in a constructive manner. Calling on the memory of Thomas Wolfe and his inspiration is constructive because it shows that the mind of a European American faced all of the systemic and societal prejudice of which he stood accused, and took some moral responsibility for it in reality without that being narratively mandated. 

Teaching this legacy is a way to approach the cultural fallacies in a manner in which race and creed are not viewed negatively, nor inflated unrealistically, but are rather in their realistic place. Mount Zion Baptist still stands resolute, its proud shoulders squared on an equal plane with the rest of the European heritage of the city it shares with the likes of George Vanderbilt and Zebulon Vance. Cut into the cornerstone of the city, its presence cannot be denied or conveniently disavowed for a narrative that unconsciously supports a cycle of social evils by way of obsession with them. 

The tiger roars, but we need not feed it

Realistically, racism cannot be denied. It has existed and continues to exist, and in some circles will always exist. Yet, racism— even when the realistic status was systemic, such as was the order of things in the day in which the Eagle Street church was raised— can be overcome. 

For this we have living proof, for an African American preacher was able to move and inspire a European American novelist to show in imagery, at a soulish level, the battle within his African American protagonists’ mind. Wolfe looked into the heart of the people Rumley had opened his eyes to, and reflected their truth. He did so in a way that could not be done if the narrative of inherent hatred that whites are said to have for blacks in America is true.  

Rather than defer to history, and to paint a realistic portrait of the issues of racism in society,  the youth of Charlotte Street chose to hail the narrative that polarizes the community. BLM’s behavior, above its rhetoric and what it claims to be, has worked more to ostracize rather than to bring together American communities, as sister cities burned buildings together rather than light the vigil candles of a unified heart. Lessons of shared triumphs over the corrupt and defeatist past cannot be shared in an environment of exclusivity and a narrative that says it is for equality and peace, but demands it through excessive rage and an exclusive nature that will forbid rapprochement or demand penance from the other race group as a whole, rather than the offending parties as individual units. 

A menagerie of cultural contradictions and further marginalization 

The church of All Souls and the church of Mount Zion are pillars of, and standing monuments to, the polar opposites of the same community, storied in their recollection of all that Asheville was and is.  This pulsating history reflects direct contrast to the narratives decorating today’s Charlotte Street and beyond. Weaving and winding through the Hollywood transplant downtown is a menagerie of like cultural contradictions all inconvenient to the narrative and all overlooked for the sake of convenience. The history and native culture of Asheville itself is replaced with liberal arts portraits and attractions all having a sense of west coast modernity that feels out of place against the cobblestone backdrop. The appearance is that of a patchwork of ideologies, an Asheville that was and is and the Asheville that its new denizens would like it to be. 

A roadside in Bristol, Virginia shows that this “other” America isn’t as foreign as it seems.

Narrative reinforcement of “other” America

The third contradiction is the heritage of the Irish American, whose presence shapes the idea of what “other America” is composed of. Irish America lent its history of folk culture, superstition, and craft to all that makes up the concept of Appalachia as a place of mountain wisdom. Yet, once upon a time, Irish Americans were America’s most feared demographic, known to the gentrified Anglo-America as terrorists, an equivalent of a Colonial-to-Industrial era “white nationalist” or “jihadist.’ The marginalization of the Irish contributed to, in a self-fulfilling way, their generational behaviors and clannishness, yielding the social conditions that have become Appalachia’s indefensible history of violence and systemic flaws. 

Yet, the Irish are white and, in the identity politics of modern America, their presence, and their religion, the “dreaded” Catholicism which so many of the rest of America historically loathed and feared regarding the Irish American, are objects of inherent “racism” in the narrative of movements such as Black Lives Matter today. Rather than address the fundamental clashes between narratives, left-leaning parties have tried to manage these contradictions in their culture as capable of being mutually inclusive concepts. 

The narrative feigns common ground, but calls for leftist assimilation 

Outlets, such as Irish Central, called out the Irish Americans on this self-same notion, stating that due to the history of Irish American marginalization Irish Americans must support the self-contradicting narratives of their city’s which back the violent politics of BLM. The report, sent to Irish Central, was submitted by a Boston-based Irish American author. 

“The mission of BLM — ensuring equal treatment under the law and ending state-sponsored violence against a minority — is aligned with the Irish Republican cause, which Irish-Americans have enthusiastically supported. But supporting the Black Lives Matter movement requires going beyond protesting and voting; true allyship requires Irish America to remedy the biases of our community,” wrote Joe Mayall. Even in this statement, there are contradictions, such as a group that seeks to end state-sponsored violence against a minority by ensuring a mass violence that has been supported by members of the state. 

An Irish-styled pub in Appalachian Georgia carries on the traditions of the pronounced Irish presence in the area.

“It’s no secret there’s a history of anti-blackness in Irish America. In the 19th century, Irish immigrants and their descendants were on the penultimate rung on the social ladder, one step above African Americans. Happy to have someone under them, they fostered anti-Black racism. At the start of the 20th century, whiteness became the primary factor of societal acceptance, and the Irish “became white.” With this change in the social order, Irish America was another brick in the wall of white supremacy that imprisoned Black Americans — a wall that still stands today,” continued Joe Mayall, highlighting the cycle of marginalization begetting marginalization, albeit subconsciously. Mayall echoes the continued subconscious cultural contradiction that Irish Americans and African Americans are “natural allies” and yet also that Irish are “anti-black” due to having “become white.” 

He reaches the following conclusion:

“It’s uncomfortable to admit, but a culture of anti-Black racism persists, and direly needs to be corrected.” 

Yet fails to address the correct solution capable of addressing the problem. If a perpetual contradiction and marginalization of the Irish by their white counterparts pushed them into “white” assimilation that thus made them “anti-black”, then the argument is that the Irish must address and assimilate into a new political narrative in order to be “fixed” and see a full redemptive arc in the society. The inference is itself a marginalization that demands penance for narrative perceived wrongs that may or may not have quantifiable merits from person to person.  

This has no formula for the approach of common ground of Irish and African Americans. Rather than begin from a position of shared values, strengths, and ideas, it begins from a position of a freeze, of stalled conversation, an approach from social weakness, and exploitation of all flaws that exist in the gap between the two groups. The holes cannot be dammed with hot air, but this solution not only suggests it should be so, but also demands this approach. 

Patchwork assimilation continues to recycle cultural contradictions

Assimilation stands in constant failure yet remains the constant proposal of the politically deadlocked modern American. An end of contradictions and a concise approach to interracial education would be a better-suited alternative. 

Rather than checking the forced “assimilated” white privilege of the Irish, an emphasis on the shared historical similarities and the common ground that makes the two American subcultures “natural allies” would better serve. The narrative that Irish and African Americans are “natural allies” that simultaneously hold an “anti” bent toward the other is illogical and contributes to the continued marginalization that isolated the Irish Americans in the foothills of Appalachia in the first place. It repeats the cycle of the ensuing oft-addressed “otherness” of Appalachian America, never allowing it to grow beyond that for which it is condemned.   

It is in the promotion of triumphs and truths that the solution to contradictions lie. Asheville stands with all of its evidence, despite the continued bandy of the hyperpartisan narrative. To embrace the reality of Asheville, and of Appalachia, with all of its past, all of its present, and all that is yet to come is to see a rebirth in the American soul that calls contradictions to accountability and reality to check.

 

Featured image: Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church, Asheville, NC” by w_lemay

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