Poverty & Privilege – Reflections on my Trip to North Carolina

A few weeks ago, my mom and I traveled to North Carolina to spend some time with family. It has been about a decade since I visited and four years since my mom was there. The landscape has changed, and the people are older, but the mentality remains the same.

I know I will never be able to adequately explain their way of life – trust me, I tried to explain it to Angie in our daily phone conversations and I barely hit the highlights – but here goes. Nearly all of my family on my mother’s side (except for my mother) live within spitting distance of one another on a 38-acre tract that was once my grandparents’ farm. If the word compound didn’t carry such a negative connotation, I might call it that.

A rough map of my family homestead.

The arrangement is equal parts communal living and family feud. Everyone sits down to Sunday dinner together but during the week, most can’t stand the sight of one another. It’s a deep-rooted hatred that goes back generations and because of it, cynicism and antagonism pervade almost every single conversation.

Like this one…which has been abbreviated in the interest of time…

“How’d you get here?” asked my cousin upon seeing me for the first time since we were both in high school. No hello. No how are you doing. Not even a smile as he spoke.

A’s first cake.

“We flew into Raleigh and rented a car,” I answered before turning my attention back to the cake my aunt was proudly showing me. One of the kids had baked it. It was her first one and she wanted me to take a picture.

“Must be nice to be so wealthy!” my cousin said, loud enough to be embarrassing. “Me, I live paycheck to paycheck. My family has never even been to the mountains.”

What do you say to this? I decided saying nothing was the best response, and I excused myself and went outside. Within about a minute, he followed.

“You’re not married?”

“No,” I answered.

“Why not? Just couldn’t find a good man?” he asked, trying to bait me.

After a few minutes on this line of questioning, I excused myself once more to go back inside. It had already been a week of all too many similar conversations and I was tired. But escape eluded me again, as he followed me.

“I bet you live in a big ole ranch house, don’t you?” he asked, continuing his interrogation.

“No, we live in an apartment.”

“An apartment! That’s no place for animals. How many cats you got? I picture you as a cat person.”

“One,” I replied as he pulled up a chair next to me.

“Why didn’t you bring your ‘friend’ with you?” he whispered, leaning closer and grinning, as if he was sharing a secret that he’d been waiting for just the right moment to reveal.

I paused for a moment, suddenly understanding why people might not like one another here. “Because I didn’t want to,” I said matter-of-factly. He started to laugh as if what I said had just exposed a rift in my storybook relationship. The truth – I hated being away from Angie but there was simply no way I was going to bring her into this hostile territory where “different” is unacceptable and “gay” is completely intolerable. “I would never expose her to this,” I added, gesturing to the room full of people.

It was about that moment that my mom turned from her own conversation. “Oh, Angie would never survive here,” she said. “She’s a quiet person and this noise and people running in and out all day long would drive her nuts. They’re practically inseparable otherwise. Always going somewhere and doing something fun. Have you shown them a picture of Angie?”

God love my mom! She had no idea what was going on and no idea how her interjection saved my day. With that one comment, she threw my cousin so off balance that it was he who started looking for an escape this time. In the end, I passed around a picture on my phone and chatted for a brief second with other folks in the room about our travels. My cousin, once he recovered, moved on to talk about someone else – this time it was our “rich” uncle who drew the short straw.

I wish there was a moral to this story but there really isn’t. People are mean sometimes, and they are unhappy for all sorts of reasons. Sadly, money seems to be at the heart of much of this unhappiness. The area where my family lives in North Carolina has a population of 2,026 and a poverty rate of 29%, which is more than twice the national poverty rate for the US. The median household income is $24,400 and jobs are on the decline. Of all the people living in our family commune, only 7 are employed; 5 of whom are under age 25. A few earn money through odd jobs, mostly construction, babysitting, and selling produce at the Farmer’s Market, but the vast majority have never had a job. Many receive government assistance. Some even claim to be modern day Robin Hoods. Had I grown up there, I might feel the same sense of defeat and envy that my cousins do. I might treat “outsiders” the same way I was treated and see “different” as a threat to my own way of life. I’d like to think not but I honestly don’t know what I would be like. I was privileged to have different opportunities.

We read a lot about acknowledging privilege these days and it’s easy to think that only white, heterosexual, males have it. They do not. Societal privilege exists as a result of the conditions a person is born into. Because my mother chose to leave home 50 years ago, I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood, went to a good school that provided me with plenty of academic challenges, and ultimately received a full scholarship to go to college. It is because of those opportunities that I landed a job making more in my first year than my parents were making after 25 years in the workforce. And it because of my privilege that I could choose to leave all that behind to live like I’m broke and do only the things I love to do. I am privileged, and I try hard not to take that for granted. I am grateful every day that I have always had choices.

Acknowledging privilege doesn’t mean that we have the right to look down on other people. The only difference between my cousin and me is the place where we were raised. We are the same age, from the same family. We’ve both had challenges in our lives but the opportunities, the resources, and the support systems available for each of us was vastly different, as was our exposure to different ways of life.

I won’t lie, I still want to smack him for assuming our different upbringings made me a snotty brat. His actions were mean-spirited and cheated us both out of the chance to get to know one another as adults. I won’t pretend to understand him. I don’t. I wouldn’t even know where to begin, any more than I know where to begin to understand this sad dynamic of hatred and distrust within my own family. Another cousin from Atlanta also made the trip along with us. He grew up on the farm (when it was still a farm) and is one of only a few of us to go to college. He told me after his visit, “It’s a different world there. A different economic system. A different social structure. A different everything. I may never understand it, but every time I go back, I realize just how fortunate I am.” I can’t help but agree.

My mom and aunt enjoying lunch out.

I’m glad my mom had the chance to visit with her sisters and brothers. I’m glad we shared the journey together. With my mom’s health always in question, we may never make this trip again, and the way I feel right now, I might be okay with that. Later though, I may change my mind. After all, for better or worse, these people are my family and the few who were inhospitable should not get to overshadow the many who were welcoming.

I am hugely grateful to my aunt for cooking many of our meals and sharing with me a great collection of recipes she has collected over her lifetime and to my oldest cousin for giving me an insider’s tour of a working homestead. Also the primary caregiver for his aging mother and an outsider himself, my oldest cousin and I connected over our similar lives and our love of doing things for ourselves (though, with poultry, livestock, a 2-acre garden, and his own wine-making operation, he has me beat by miles!). And I want to send a special shout-out to my youngest first cousin who just turned 13. He was a very good host during our visit, offering us sodas, and carrying on a very fun conversation about life, love, and video games.

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