North Carolina has some of the most diverse terrain of any state—from the Great Smoky Mountains, which includes the Blue Ridge peaks of the massive Appalachian mountain range, to the Outer Banks on the Atlantic coast. The state is rich in bio-diversity, history, and people. North Carolina was home to the first English settlement and is one of the original 13 colonies. The Cherokee are among the state’s first peoples. Although many Cherokees were removed during President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830 (catapulting the infamous “Trail of Tears”), the tribe maintains a reservation here. The state’s biggest city, Charlotte, is a financial center. And Raleigh-Durham is known as the Triangle, encompassing higher-learning research institutes like Duke University, North Carolina State University, and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Tobacco is big here—as are turkey farms, textiles, furniture, processing plants, and more. The state had slave plantations but also a divided legislature during the U.S. Civil War. The state joined the confederacy later than other southern states and only after the attack on Fort Sumter, signaling the start of war that eventually took 40,000 North Carolinian lives.
Although a segregated southern state, in 1960 the first national sit-in for integration occurred in Greensboro, North Carolina.
By the new millennium, an interesting development appeared—a 600 percent rise in Mexicans and other Latinos in North Carolina, leading to tensions between whites, blacks, and the mostly brown migrants. Jobs once held by poor whites and blacks were now going to cheaper labor made up of Mexicans, Central Americans, and South American. While a few communities embraced the new make up, others were up in arms. This is where I come in.
A North Carolina literary consortium, spearheaded by the North Carolina Arts Council, invited me to do the largest writer’s residency in the state’s history called “Word Wide.” I spent 10 weeks in North Carolina during the winter and spring of the year 2000, traveling from one end of the state to the other—I was a “poet in motion.” I spoke, read poetry, or conducted writing workshops in prisons, juvenile lockups, public & private schools, universities, colleges, migrant camps, churches, libraries, manufacturing plants, conferences, and at the Cherokee Reservation—from seventeen to twenty-four events a week.
The audiences were Latino, but also black, white, and Native American. I spoke English and Spanish, although as an “English Only” state, I couldn’t speak Spanish in public schools (even with Spanish-speaking children). California is also an official English language state, but I’ve spoken Spanish in many California schools—a matter of application.
In Siler City, the ex-Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke held a rally against Mexican migration not long before I was scheduled to visit. Some 400 people reportedly showed up (although allegedly 100 of them were shipped in by Duke). He called Mexicans and other Latinos “undesirable.” When I ended up there, most of the community embraced me and wanted to be clear—they had nothing to do with David Duke.
I made many friends in North Carolina. I know my talks helped many suppressed communities, particularly among Latino migrants, prisoners, Natives. But I’ve only made sporadic visits since 2000.
Then in March of this year, North Carolina hit national news when Governor Pat McCrory signed HB2, nullifying LGBTQ-inclusive ordinances like one enacted earlier in Charlotte, and forbidding cities and counties from enacting new ones. The law also forbids transgender people from using restrooms, locker rooms, and other single-sex facilities in government buildings, including public schools, which match their gender identity. Right away, personalities like Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Native American writer Sherman Alexie, and others cancelled events in the state to protest. The Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution in April, signed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, to ban official travel to North Carolina for nonessential business. I applaud these efforts.
Protesters march against HB2 on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, NC Tuesday afternoon, March 29, 2016. Photo by Elena Boffetta, The News & Observer.
Now the U.S. Justice Department has filed a civil rights lawsuit against HB2, while North Carolina lawmakers came up with their own lawsuit against the Justice Department (all echoes of 1960s civil rights battles).
In mid-April I traveled to Appalachian University in Boone, North Carolina. Here’s why: It was organized a while back so I could speak to the university community, but more importantly, to around 170 middle-school at-risk youth, many of them Latino, who have been repressed for years but also face growing gang violence. This is mostly what I do in my travels—address the poorest, often most troubled, young people. I tell my story, often with my poems, about having been in the streets, in a gang, on drugs, and in jail in my youth, and how I overcame the madness with arts, books, writing, political education, strong mentoring, and a powerful sense of social justice. My memoir, “Always Running, La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A.,” as well as my poetry books, are used with these young people. I felt compelled to reach out to them. But I was also mindful of the state’s discriminatory actions. I had to find a way to bring these two together—a delicate, artful challenge.
While at Appalachian, I made sure to publicly oppose HB2. Many university students were active in protests against the law, protests that have spread to campuses across the state. I also will not accept any other invites to North Carolina as long as HB2 exists. I’ve added Mississippi and Alabama, who have enacted similar laws. The youth were glad to hear from me, but also understood my position.
I am a poet in motion, and I’ve much to say about discrimination and repression against people of color, the poor, the dispossessed, including against women and LGBTQ communities. I also make clear the underlying class nature of our society in which 1 percent own most of the wealth and power, and the rest are scrambling to get by. We all belong. We all have value. And I will be an outspoken poet on these and other issues all my life.
Here’s an excerpt from a recent letter by an Appalachian University student:
I’ve never been so touched and inspired by a visiting writer, and even now, almost a week later, I still feel the utmost respect for you. I bought your book Always Running at your speech, and I can barely put it down! I have to because exams are coming up, but if I had my choice, I’d sit and read it all the way through. You have a beautiful writing style, and from the very first page, I was invested in you and your life. I absolutely love the way you insert certain Spanish phrases and words—I’m ecstatic when I recognize and understand them (I’ve been taking Spanish for two years).
Thank you so much for coming and speaking on our campus. I can’t express how grateful I am to hear someone with a voice loud enough to be heard take up for people who have been, and still are being, oppressed and discriminated against. Hearing you take up for the LGBT community meant so much to me, and it made me feel seen and cared for. A majority of my teachers, and even my family and friends who know about the passing of the bill and my sexual identity, have said nothing about the bill and haven’t seemed to express any kind of resentment towards it either. So, I really can’t tell you how important it is to me that someone as successful and experienced as you came and discussed it as one of the first things you said to all of us. I also want to tell you how much I respect you for your activism and involvement. My teacher showed us a video of you in our class, and it really struck me how you’ve mentored youths and encouraged them to go to college and pursue an education rather than just settling for what’s expected of them.
Your support of the Black Lives Matter campaign and everything involving racial minorities and racial discrimination is so important to our society and the kind of country that we are living in. In your speech, you said that you went to a poetry reading that changed your life, and I want you to know that going to your reading changed mine.
We move forward.