My first real job in journalism was as a copy editor for The Denver Post.
It was not so long ago that we didn’t use computers — but long enough ago that you needed a phone booth and spare change if you wanted to make a call away from the office.
I remember trying to explain my home state to people in other parts of the country — which I had to do a lot when I first got to Denver, because my accent clearly proclaimed that I wasn’t from around there.
Anyway, explaining North Carolina to strangers wasn’t easy. More often than not, they would reply, “Oh, you mean where Jesse Helms is from?”
Well, yeah, I’d say, but ....
As in yeah, Jesse Helms was one of our senators at the time (and by a long shot the most famous one) ... but we’re about a lot more than that. We’ve got a terrific climate and great universities and beaches and mountains and a strong civil rights tradition. And college basketball!
And if that didn’t work, I’d go nuclear: “You watch ‘The Andy Griffith Show,’ right?”
That always brought smiles and visions of decent people with kind souls. And, even if the show was filmed in California, Andy was a UNC grad from Mount Airy. And everybody knew his name.
Better him than Senator No for a first impression.
But what really got my goat was people confusing us with that … that Other Place.
“Oh, this is Allen Johnson,” some new acquaintance in Denver would say.
“He’s from South Carolina.”
No offense to South Carolina, but I’ve always taken pride in North Carolina as a smarter, more forward-thinking state, the home of Research Triangle Park and the place where the Wright Brothers took to the air and the Greensboro Four took seats at a Woolworth lunch counter.
But this state’s image has taken a beating in recent years, I’m starting to have doubts.
There was HB 2, the infamous bathroom law that a judge thankfully pronounced last week as officially dead and gone.
There was the extreme gerrymandering that still poisons elections and makes a mockery of representative democracy.
There is the still-unresolved battle over “Silent Sam,” a Confederate statue that stood prominently at the front door of the state’s flagship university until protesters ripped it down.
There was a rush by the Republican legislature to reduce the governor’s powers the moment a Democrat was elected to that office.
There was former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings’ short tenure as UNC system president and Carole Folt’s tumultuous exit as chancellor of UNC-Chapel Hill, both tethered, at least in part, to the Silent Sam mess.
And now there’s the lingering radioactivity of a Donald Trump rally at East Carolina University on July 17, where a crowd, made up presumably of our fellow North Carolinians, chanted “Send her back!” in reference to Rep. Ilhan Omar, a U.S. citizen who was born Somalia.
Her sin: That she has expressed controversial opinions — a trait that his supporters find admirable in Trump, no matter what he says.
The implication, of course, is that some of us are more American than others. And that you can criticize what you may see as imperfect in this country only if you are white and native-born. Since when did the First Amendment get a disclaimer that you can speak your mind only if you don’t say anything critical about the state of the country? Who’s bowing to “political correctness” now? And who’s the “snowflake”?
You may remember, this wasn’t the first time Trump has come here and egged on North Carolinians to behave badly. During a Trump campaign rally in Fayetteville in 2016 a man slugged a protester. Trump offered (for a while, at least) to pay the man’s legal fees.
At a stop in Greensboro, Trump dismissed sexual assault allegations from a woman on the basis that she wasn’t good-looking enough for him to assault. The crowd laughed.
So, when I travel outside of the state these days, I feel as if I’m carrying a lot more baggage than I took to Denver. “Oh, you’re from North Carolina. Isn’t that where …”
“They lost an NBA All-Star game and NCAA Tournament games because of a bathroom law?”
“Where they’re still batting over that Confederate statue?”
“And where they won’t expand Medicaid, well, just because.”
I’m not so sure that even Sheriff Andy could help me now.