The first public Drinks and Dialogue proved an interesting and engaging evening, with many different observations on a complicated topic: segregation in Asheville. Some themes and insights from the night’s discussion, below the cut.
Assumptions, assumptions Since I first asked the question (is Asheville a segregated city?) about two months ago, I’ve been struck by the numerous amount of assumptions some critics of even discussing the issue make: Those raising it are assumed by some to be Northern transplants, cultural intruders or people looking simply to feel good about themselves.
While plenty of Ashevilleans are transplants (many from other parts of the South), that’s delusional horseshit. Personally, I’m a Southerner, born and raised in a rural town in this state. Since moving here, I’ve lived in West Asheville near Burton Street, Haw Creek, Montford on Pearson Avenue and, currently, downtown — all of which revealed different facets of life in this city.
More broadly, at Drinks and Dialogue there were almost as many differing views on Asheville’s perceived segregation as there were individuals there (here’s a nice selection from event organizer Tim Smith). Some emphasized individual entrepreneurial effort as a solution, others highlighted cultural factors (including the tendency of comfort zones prodding people to self-segregate) or structural issues, still others history and politics. There were many points of overlap, and for those looking for an easy political target, the views expressed were impossible to pigeon-hole.
What’s wrong with sitting down, drink in hand, to discuss (and disagree) on important issues and managing a conversation both energetic and polite? If that’s not the spirit of the South at its best, I don’t know what is.
History matters The effect that events even decades removed can have on the culture of the present was abundantly clear. The wholesale demolition of African-American neighborhoods downtown in the “urban renewal” of the 1970s had consequences that echo even today, compounding the cultural divide and fueling political cynicism.
It was fortunate that Johnnie Grant, the publisher of the Urban News, was on hand to offer an important perspective, noting that even in the era when poll taxes and “literacy tests” were intended to disenfranchise Asheville’s black population, many still found a way to vote and be involved in the political process. She offered that point as a counter to some of the political disillusionment expressed by many present.
History has to be understood, and I think a better appreciation of it helps puts events in this city into their proper context, to understand old wounds and hopefully still clear of causing new ones. Santayana’s old saw — “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” — applies now as much as ever. I’ve seen in Asheville, all too often, many in the city are too busy patting themselves on the back about how enlightened we are to acknowledge and face the very real problems that exist. A better way is to raise issues, honestly confront them and move on.
I’ll admit, this is where I harped on politics a bit, because that’s my field and my interest, and my advice to people expressing cynicism with the politics of this town was simply to not give up, that if you’re unsatisfied with how politics works (and judging by the miserable voter turnout in local elections, many different populations in the city are) to organize, run your own candidates, vote and not stint from haranguing your elected officials if you don’t like the job they’re doing. It’s a fight, and not an easy one, but it’s necessary if you don’t want the mistakes of the past to repeat.
Don’t let the bastards get you down
Smith, Jose Ibarra and many other speakers all emphasized the need for individual effort, against whatever stigmas might exist. A highlight of the evening was when Patricia Waters pointed out that a simple “Hey, how you?” every day served to break the ice with people you might not get to know otherwise. Simple courtesy transcends a lot of barriers.
When I was 15, I read a line by the writer William Raspberry that stuck with me: “There’s a point where what was done to you matters less than what you do about it.” I quoted that during Saturday’s conversation for a reason: Raspberry’s point was that it’s not that past injustice and obstacles (stereotypes, poverty, personal difficulties) don’t matter or that we should ignore the role they play, but that first and foremost, the responsibility’s on each individual to try and make things a little better than they were before.
Smith at one point urged the assembled group that “this is your city, take over your city.” Good advice for every one of us.