Figure 1: Still from Broadway revival of ‘Angels in America’, 2017.
Fallen Angels in the Queen City
Twenty – one years ago, the Charlotte Repertory Theater staged Tony Kushner’s award-winning play, ‘Angels in America: a Gay Fantasia on National Themes’. Known as the ‘Queen City’, Charlotte was named for King George III’s German wife, Charlotte Sophia of Mecklenburg -Strelitz: her buxom statue greets travelers as they arrive at Douglas International Airport. This fact is not lost on area drag queens.
Charlotte, then just emerging as a major national banking and transportation center, gained international headlines when ‘Angels’ – which is about AIDS, politics and gay life in 1980s New York – was forcibly closed after the city cut funding to the Repertory Theater. There had been an angry backlash from the city’s influential evangelical community (including local celebrity the Reverend Billy Graham) about the show’s themes – in particular, the fact that city funding was supporting a play focusing on the homosexual experience. Charlotte, ever conscious of its reputation vis ‘the New South’ and imbued with the civic boosterism so common in Southeast boomtowns, found itself engulfed in a cultural war which pitted cosmopolitans against hometown Bible Belt values. As seen in the Economist (below), and the New York Times (‘Play Displays a Growing City’s Cultural Tensions’, 22 March 1996), Charlotte’s episode became a national conversation about the arts, the public, and the city. The play had, by this time, opened and toured in a number of cities across the country, but few had seen the type of controversy and feverish public discourse that Charlotte witnessed (Nielsen, 2008; Tepper, 2011).
No gays, please, we’re Carolinian
Apr 24th 1997 | CHARLOTTE
Home to Fortune-500 companies like NationsBank (now Bank of America) and Wachovia (now Wells Fargo), with a new NFL team (Panthers) and major hub airport (US Airways, now American Airlines), Charlotte’s ‘New South’ identity was suddenly paralyzed.
This would not be the city’s last cultural war, and it certainly wasn’t the first.
The ‘New South’ Myth
Figure 2: Life under Jim Crow in North Carolina (1940s).
If Atlanta was ‘the city too busy to hate’, as civic boosters claimed during the precarious years of desegregation, Charlotte (in some ways, Atlanta’s little sister), was the city where making deals trumped everything. Born out of textile looms and convenient road and rail intersections, Charlotte had established itself by the mid – 20th century as the Carolina’s largest metropolitan area and a growing financial center. Race relations, Charlotte leaders claimed, took a back seat to the city’s overall progress. In 1971, Charlotte became a national test-case for mandatory busing to desegregate public schools as a result of the landmark case ‘Swann vs the Mecklenburg Board of Education’, which upheld busing as a Constitutional, and indeed necessary, antidote to the legacy of Jim Crow.
In the 1980s, Harvey Gantt, an African-American businessman, became mayor, and Charlotte was seen as a model of desegregation compared to other Southern peers, with a meritocratic leadership structure and democratic civil society. By the 1990s, Charlotte was shaking off the dust of its humble, pious, yeoman Scotch-Irish origins. A flood of newcomers to the region – many from the Midwest and Northeast – had changed the demographics considerably: Charlotteans were just as likely to be from Pittsburgh or Cleveland as they were from the rural South. Embarrassing scandals had seen the downfall of televangelist celebrities like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and local business leaders like Hugh McColl – the CEO of NationsBank, and later Bank of America – had aspirations that went not heavenward, but with an eye to competing with major financial centers for talent and commercial prestige.
The arts, leaders like McColl believed, were crucial to this effort to attract talent and cement Charlotte’s reputation as a worthy home of some of the nation’s largest banks. NationsBank built a monumental new headquarters in 1992, at the time one of the tallest buildings in the country, and attached to the lobby was a new performing arts center.
Figure 3: Charlotte city skyline, 2016.
But like the mythological financial instruments traded in these glassy, neo-gothic towers (such as the ‘Collateralized Debt Obligations’ that went ‘poof!’ in 2008-2009), the ‘New South’ shimmered / shimmers like a desert mirage, a Potemkin village, a fable. Just as ‘the South’ was a construction based on the necessity of racial and class subjugation, the ‘New South’ emerged as a necessary snake oil, a smoke and mirror act, to hasten the neoliberal remaking of the southern textile town and quickly sweep racial scars and ‘fire and brimstone’ tent revivals under the proverbial rug.
In 1996, the ‘Angels’ controversy erupted. By this time, scholars such as Kuklinski et al., (1997) had already begun to debunk the ‘New South’ myth and the fallacy of a post-racial Sunbelt. Indeed, it just so happened that many of the newcomers from other places reinforced, rather than challenged, extant southern racial attitudes and prejudices. After all, Henry Grady, the Atlantan who had coined the term ‘New South’ in 1890 – had not foreseen a region of class or race equity, but rather a resurgent South of industry and modernism. The birth of the New South, and its roads, textile mills and country clubs – coincided with a re-affirmation of white supremacy and the legislative encoding of racial apartheid (as seen in Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896).
In 1997, a local white parent sued the county over the forced school busing, and won his case. In 2000, a Federal appeals court upheld the decision, and race-based busing ended. Charlotte schools began a rapid re-segregation.
In 2008, Wachovia went bankrupt, and was purchased in a fire sale by San Francisco-based Wells Fargo.
Then came the Bathroom controversy.
Figure 4: National press for North Carolina’s House Bill 2 controversy, 2016.
The 2000s had been good to the ‘Queen City’. Bank mergers and financial services growth, along with the steady expansion of US Airways’ Charlotte hub, had propelled Charlotte into the top 20 American cities, with a metro population topping 2 million by 2010. Superbowl appearances by the Panthers had also helped with national, and international name recognition – culminating in the city’s hosting of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, widely lauded as a success. In 2014, Charlotte’s CAST theater group, based in the now-trendy ‘NoDa’ arts district – staged ‘Angels in America’, to positive critical reception and this time, no public outcry.
But the election of Barack Obama in 2008, combined with decades of neoliberal economic policy resulting in the 2008-2009 financial crash and great recession, had awakened all of the South’s skeletons from their (brief) slumber. The myth of the ‘New South’ came crashing down with the stock market. The ‘Tea Party’ was born, and made North Carolina one of its command centers, backed by fantastic policy and financial support from nationwide groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the billionaire Koch brothers. In 2010, conservative republicans took control of North Carolina’s General Assembly, forming a veto-proof majority that effectively neutralized the Democrat Governor, Beverly Perdue. In 2012, former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory, a republican, won the governorship. With all three branches of government under control (and significant reach into the courts as well), North Carolina’s general assembly went to work dis-assembling the fragile frame of the ‘New South’, the politically-moderate costume North Carolina had donned for a generation.
Issue after issue, North Carolina gained national headlines – strict ID rules for voters, with the effect of disenfranchising African-Americans and liberal college students; spending cuts to social programs, and perhaps most strikingly, a vicious attack on LGBTQ rights. In 2012, ‘Amendment One’ passed in a state referendum, making gay marriage a violation of state law (later repealed by a Supreme Court Decision). The ‘Moral Mondays’ protests at the General Assembly, led by local NAACP leader Rev. William Barber, gained international press.
Figure 5: Rev. William Barber at a ‘Moral Mondays’ Protest, North Carolina General Assembly, 2016.
Charlotte, the state’s largest city, again found itself front and center in the battle between cosmopolitan and conservative forces. The battlefield, as it turned out, wasn’t a play on gay themes this time, but the everyday life of transgender people. In 2016, the Charlotte City Council passed an ordinance that protected LGBTQ residents from discrimination and, notoriously, that mandated that both public and private businesses allow transgender persons to use the bathroom facility where they feel most comfortable. This was similar to non-discrimination ordinances passed in a number of other cities, including Columbia, South Carolina. And a firestorm was unleashed.
Fallen Angels, Redux
20 years after Tony Kushner’s ‘Angels’ had fallen on the Queen City, the boomtown found its social fabric torn apart.
The city, with some of the South’s wealthiest zip codes, had become known for some of the lowest social mobility in the country, with huge gaps in social and economic indicators between white and non-white sections of town. Racial tension erupted into rioting in October 2016, when police officers killed an African-American man in Northeast Charlotte, one of the city’s poorest areas.
Figure 6:Race Riots in Charlotte, Oct. 2016
The riots exposed the myth of the ‘New South’ for what it was: a marketing ploy, and window dressing on long entrenched, deep structural problems that Charlotte – and many American cities face. These problems are especially stark in sprawling Southern cities like Charlotte where decades of re-segregation, poor public transit and uneven economic growth have resulted in a neoliberal cityscape in which quality of life has fallen for many even as affluence has increased for many others.
Meanwhile, another battle had erupted between the city of Charlotte’s (white) progressive community and the (white) state legislators, who in March 2016 passed House Bill 2 – known as ‘the Bathroom Bill’ – in the middle of the night, with no debate or public discussion. House Bill 2 (or HB2) rescinded Charlotte’s non-discrimination ordinance, and went much further: it banned any municipality from passing similar nondiscrimination ordinances, prevented cities and towns from increasing their minimum wage, and, most nefariously, mandated that transgender persons use the bathroom corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. This was, far and away, the most draconian and far-reaching recent anti LGBTQ legislation in the country.
This blog post will not recount the specifics of the long back and forth between the General Assembly and the City, the business community, the NBA, Bank of America, the national and international press, and the efforts of the LGBTQ community or various civil rights organizations; the boycotts and travel bans; the nasty rhetoric and name calling and overall ugliness exposed in what sociologist Elijah Anderson (2011) might call a ‘tear’ in the precarious ‘cosmopolitan canopy of civility’ that was the illusion of a progressive North Carolina. Or the half-hearted (non) repeal of House Bill 2 that leaves many of its worst, and most discriminatory pieces intact and leaves LGBTQ North Carolinians without basic legal protections.
But I will conclude by suggesting that the ‘New South’, just like the ‘Old South’, just like ‘manifest destiny’ or John Winthrop’s ‘Shining City Upon the Hill’ – are conceptual rather than tangible; dreams rather than realities; phantoms rather than fact. As Faulkner himself mused, ‘the past is never dead. It’s not even past (1951).’ At the time of this writing, Confederate monuments are being taken down in cities from New Orleans to Richmond. What will rise in their place, or fall from the sky, is yet unknown.
Anderson, E. (2011) The Cosmopolitan canopy: Race and Civility in Everyday Life. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Faulkner, W. (1951) Requiem for a Nun.
Grady, H.W. and Dyer, O. (1890) The New South. Atlanta: Robert Bonner’s Sons.
Kuklinski, J.H., Cobb, M.D. and Gilens, M. (1997) Racial attitudes and the” New South”. The Journal of Politics, 59(2), pp.323-349.
Nielsen, K. (2008) Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. New York; A&C Black.
Tepper, S.J. (2011) Not Here, Not Now, Not That!: Protest Over Art and Culture in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
The Economist, 24 April 1997, ‘No gays please: we’re Carolinian.’
The New York Times, 22 March 1996, ‘Play displays a growing city’s cultural tensions’. By Kevin Sack.