I woke up in the Croatan National Forest just outside of New Bern wondering where I was. Loblolly pines stood like sentinels at the corners of my tent. The air wasn’t exactly cold and the sun wasn’t exactly up. Early morning fog drifted in thick patches out of the duck impoundment, flooded ditches, and Catfish Lake. The night before came rushing back on me. I had been in my tent since seven o’clock. Normally I sit by the campfire, poking it with a stick for hours and hours without the slightest hint of boredom. The night before, though, the mosquitos had chewed on my arms and neck as if I were a grilled taco. So, I had stayed in my tent. Because the weather forecast had said there was only a five to ten percent chance of rain, I had left my rainfly off. But then, of course, it had started raining at one o’clock in the morning.
Normally I feel a deep sense of belonging back in the woods, in the middle of nowhere. A sense of belonging that can only be explained by God having created humanity out of the dirt of the good earth, and a nurturing that comes from flowers and plants and trees. But this morning, with my back aching from having laid on a tree root and my head misty from poor sleep, I was sick of nature and this Kumbaya mumbo jumbo.
I was looking through my potted-meat-breakfast selections when images of grinded up poultry feet and bones and beaks swirling around in a gelatinous stew bobbled in my head. Just one more Vienna sausage and I would die. To hell with that. I hiked back to my truck and headed to the city.
New Bern, North Carolina is a medium sized coastal town with about 30,000 people living near the confluence of the Trent and Neuse rivers. It is the second-oldest colonial town in North Carolina and the birth place of Pepsi-Cola. 155 years ago, a relative of mine dispatched letters home from the New Bern battlefield, letters that are still in the family. From my campsite in Croatan, I was able to visit the historic downtown of New Bern with just a 14-mile ride to the paved roads.
Christoph von Graffenried, a native of Bern, Switzerland, suffering from a lack of imagination established a town in the new world and named it New Bern. His portrait makes him look exactly like he was born in a castle, which he was. He wears a peruke, a shoulder-length wig draped around a posh rob perfect for eating crumpets and drinking Chai Catai, the first tea introduced to Europe a century before his birth. This opulent lifestyle would save his life in the new world. When he was captured by Native Americans, he was mistaken for the governor of North Carolina and set free because he wore such nice clothes. (He is the 17th century poster child of White privilege.) When he returned to the city he had founded, it was burning to the ground. He set back to the old world broke and broken.
There was no hint of this failed beginning walking the streets of New Bern. Church steeples and spires pierced the sky, and tower bells played How Great Thou Art. The buildings were made of brick, the old governor’s mansion was made of brick, the sidewalks and parts of the road were made of brick. The North Carolina state flag and the Stars and Stripes gently flapped above the courthouse. The cool breeze collected fallen leaves, rustled them down the street, and announced the beginnings of fall. Pumpkins and hay bales, scarecrows and yellow-green gourds decorated shopfronts and window displays. Banners attached to light poles readied the town for the upcoming Mum Festival. A faint hint of bacon filtered through the air from Baker’s Kitchen or the Country Biscuit. This is the quintessential American town.
I set up my tripod in the church yard of a Baptist church. The low-lying clouds were streaking by but the light just didn’t want to cooperate. The long, angular shadows from buildings across the street made the shot less than ideal. I meandered around town trying to find the soul of the town, which is code for trying to be an artist. Like a graduate student who takes up a pipe or a painter who wears a beret, hiking around trying to find the subject’s essence meant I was full of myself. So, I decided to go to the old governor’s mansion -- the touristy thing.
I set up my camera on the tripod in front of the mansion, screwed on my ten-stop filter and started taking long-exposures. Because I was taking long-exposures, shots up to thirty-seconds, people kept walking in and out of the frame. I took another one and another one and another one. This must’ve startled the tour guides because the next thing I know, I’m having an extended conversation with security.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m taking pictures.”
“I can see that. What are you really doing?”
“Huh, I guess I don’t understand what you mean.”
“Are you taking wedding pictures?”
I look behind me to make sure that in fact a wedding party had not snuck up. I turned back around and said, “No.”
“We have a photography policy that doesn’t allow for wedding photography.”
“You’re not here taking wedding pictures?”
“Wouldn’t I need a wedding party for that?”
“What’s to say your wedding party hasn’t shown up yet?”
“I’m not a wedding photographer.”
“Are you taking prom pictures?”
“Isn’t the prom in the spring?”
“You can’t take prom pictures in the fall?”
“I’m just a guy who takes pictures. No one pays me for my photography.”
“Just so we understand each other, no wedding pictures. No prom pictures.”
“If a wedding party shows up I will ask you to leave.”
“I’ll let them know.”
He looked at me without moving, without blinking. He had no expression at all until his hand-held radio crackled. He walked away talking into his walkie-talkie. I couldn’t tell if we’d been kidding with each other or if we’d had a serious conversation.
I took a few more long-exposure shots and then went into the gardens. I intentionally dallied, a sort of passive aggressive behavior that asks, “Where the hell is my wedding party?” After I went through the gardens, I sat down on a bench, attached a different lens to my camera, and went through the gardens again. Take that security man.
I had yet to find the soul of the town and my artistic aspirations were wearing thin. Everything seemed a Norman Rockwell-Andy Griffith hybrid. Maybe, I thought, it was time to head back into the woods, build a fire, and poke it with a stick. But just as I was crossing the street, a voice hollered from behind me, “Excuse me, sir. Excuse me.”
I turned and looked. Following behind me in the middle of the street was a Black man in a collared, blue shirt and blue jeans. A backpack hung over his shoulders and I noticed he wore tennis shoes. He was carrying a bucket. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” he yelled from the middle of the street. I stopped walking and waited for him to approach me. As he walked up he said again, “I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”
“Why would I be afraid of you?”
“I don’t know,” he said. He stepped onto the sidewalk with me. “Some people just are.”
“What can I do for you?”
“Look,” he said, “I’m living on the street and I got this job, this loy-er down the way is gonna give me $100 to wash his windows, but I gotta buy a squeegee, you know, and that cost like ten dollars, and I hate, I really hate to go to the person whose gonna pay me and ask for money before I even do the job. You think you can help me out?”
I didn’t want to give him any money, so I told him the truth that was a lie. “Right now, I’m living in the woods.”
“Oh man,” he said with some dramatic arm movements. “No, really, I can wash the windows on your car. I’ll do anything if you just help me out.” He was a practiced lie detector and seemed to take no offensive at my dishonesty.
“All you need is a squeegee?”
“Yeah, man, that’s it.”
“How much do they cost?”
“There’s one right now at the hardware store that’s ten dollars.”
I pulled out a five-dollar bill between two 20s. “Here you go. Maybe that will help.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you,” he said. “Now where is your car and I’ll clean the windows.”
“To tell you the truth, I’m not sure where I parked.”
“Tell me what I can do to make this right,” he said.
There wasn’t really anything he could do. Nothing needed to be done. “Just pay it forward,” I said.
“Pay it forward?”
“Yeah, just help out the next person you run along that needs help.”
“Oh man, oh man. You said it. You said it.” And he walked away smiling.
His introduction stuck with me. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me.” The words seemed loaded – a pregnancy of meaning. “I am a Black man,” he could have been saying, “and you are a White man.” Or he could have been saying, “White people are sometimes afraid of Black people.” Or even, “I’m not going to hurt you.” But no matter how I interpreted the man’s introduction, the heart of it was rooted in race.
This was an appropriate conversation starter in a colonial town with a Civil War battlefield down the street. I knew he was a Black man, and he knew he was a Black man. But he knew something that maybe I didn’t know. I am a White man. I don’t normally think of myself as a White man. I think of myself as a husband, a writer/photographer, and a Christian. But not White. It isn’t that I don’t see race, whatever that means. White feels universal, what’s normal. I went to college at a nearly all White school. When I go to the beach it’s pretty much all White folk. When I go to church, I go to a White church. My friends and family are pretty much all White. That’s not a confession of segregation. That’s a confession that I have race, a race that has no idea that it isn’t universal or the standard to measure what’s normal. Even still, I have no idea what being White means.
Our country clearly has a race problem. Now I wonder if some of that race problem has to do with White people having no racial identity. To be clear, I am not talking about the identity of White supremacist – they’re a basket full of voting deplorables. And I’m not intentionally talking about identity politics or ideology. I’m talking about answering a basic question: what does it mean to be White? But that question gets complicated quickly.
What does it mean to be a White man in a southern colonial town standing in the shadow of steeples where it was undoubtedly preached that slaves should obey their White masters (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22; I Peter 2:18)? What does it mean to be a White man in a state littered with confederate memorials, monuments, and flags? What does it mean to be a White man when other White people talk about the Civil War being about state rights, as though those rights weren’t really about owning slaves? What does it mean to be a White man in a country where mass incarcerations do not jeopardize me because I’m not Black? What does it mean that movements such as Black Lives Matter are demonized and nonviolent protest by Black men are so threatening to White men that the president of the United States has an absolute conniption? What does it mean that when I get pulled over I am not worried about being shot, harassed, or falsely accused? What does it mean that some of my White friends will start grinding their teeth just because these questions are asked?
I don’t know. But I know it has something to do with being White and something to do with fear.
“I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” are the words of theophany – the announcement of God. “Do not be afraid, Mary,” Gabriel says. “Do not be afraid,” the angel of the Lord says to the shepherds. “Do not be afraid,” says the angel at Jesus tomb. “Do not be afraid,” the resurrected Jesus says. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me,” the Black man said when he asked me for money. They are divine words addressing the obvious. We are different. You are White and I am Black. But that difference shouldn’t cause fear. “I don’t want you to be afraid of me” is the invitation to love. “Perfect love casts out fear.”
The Black man needed a squeegee. But more than that, he needed me to not be afraid of him. He needed to be loved.