The fair at dusk. Photo by Brian Leon.

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A Fair Dixie Classic

On the same spring day that the New York Times published a decade’s worth of Donald Trump’s tax figures, and Trump cronies provoked a constitutional crisis by ignoring congressional subpoenas, and a shooter opened fire at a Denver high school, more than two hundred people gathered in my hometown to argue over the name of a fair.

Growing up in Winston-Salem, NC, the Dixie Classic Fair was one of the highlights of each year, right up there with Christmas, the ACC Tournament, snow days, and summer vacation. Even after my family moved away—especially after we moved away—I couldn’t wait for fall and the Dixie Classic. We tried to time visits home to see family to coincide with the fair.

Because we moved away, the Dixie Classic Fair to me became more than just a fair, a midway of rickety rides and rigged games and funnel cakes. The week of the Dixie Classic became like a feast and holy festival, consecrating the idea of home, of where I thought I belonged. I blessed and worshipped the livestock shows and tractor displays, the old grandstand above the track where the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show and demolition derbies ran, the booths where churches and civic clubs served up hot dogs and barbecue and fried bologna burgers, even the student art exhibits, more than I did the Tilt-A-Whirls and bumper cars and fun houses.

And so I blessed and worshipped the name Dixie Classic, too. Thanks in part to my hometown fair, thanks in part to a handheld fan at a funeral home, thanks in part to The Dukes of Hazzard, Dixie came to mean—to me—an older, more Southern South, a South before strip malls and subdivisions, a South of Main Streets and not interstate exits, mom-and-pop cafes and not Cracker Barrels, fields and barns and not tract housing. Dixie—to me—was where drivers pulled over for funeral trains, where people brought pound cakes to new neighbors and casseroles to the bereaved, where no man was fully dressed without a pocketknife, and everyone—male or female, black or white—had snapped string beans.

Dixie—to me—became the best of the South with none of the worst: where y’all truly meant all; where our neighborliness encompassed everyone and purified our politics; where we recognized, admitted, affirmed, and celebrated the common cultural heritage of black and white; where those of us from, in, and of the South were transfigured, redeemed of our sins but still ourselves.

That was Dixie—to me. As the millennium wound down and turned, I mourned Dixie’s dwindling, its drowning in the suburban Sun Belt South, and searched for what of it might be left on backroads and in backwaters. I had the privilege to uncouple the word from, say, the song, which I would never sing, hum, or whistle, because I knew better. I knew its use as an anthem for Confederates and the Klan. Yet still I had the blithe ability to hold the word itself harmless, not at all to blame.

Then the City of Winston-Salem up and said it would change the name of the Dixie Classic Fair. Oh, no, not that, not this, too, would have been my thought, had it been thought enough to put into words. By too I did not mean another vestige of the phony “culture ’n’ hehitage” propaganda: I did not group the name Dixie with the damn secessionist statues blighting the Southland (and beyond), set up to rub salt in the wounds of Jim Crow.

No, by too I meant another heirloom that felt organic; a name not that of a donor or corporate sponsor, not focus-grouped and branded to blandness and geographic anonymity; a living sign of that older, more Southern, less Sun Belt South.

That was what I—white and white-bread I; rooted in northwest North Carolina back to 1775, and in the South back to 1620; with the name Ed Southern, for God’s sake—that was what I meant, felt, thought.


The crowd at the public forum was about even, black and white. Navigating the hairpin turns and convex folds of inter- and intraracial class divides is like driving blindfolded down the Skyline Drive, with land mines lining the shoulders, but let me just observe that—broadly speaking—the African-American attendees were more professionally dressed than most of the whites.

Winston-Salem’s population is 46 percent non-Hispanic white, 35 percent African American. Around and including it, Forsyth County is 57 percent white, 27 percent black. Though owned and produced by the City of Winston-Salem, the fair’s full name is the Dixie Classic Fair of Northwest North Carolina, serving and representing an area that climbs Highways 8, 52, and 421, into and along the upper valleys of the Yadkin and the Dan, up and over the Sauratown Mountains and the Blue Ridge all the way to Boone and Sparta, and even parts of southwest Virginia. For going on two centuries now, Winston-Salem has served as this region’s center of trade, its market town, its transportation and media hub. Farmers may no longer crowd Trade Street every fall, their tobacco brought to auction, but they bring their prize hens and goats and gourds each fall to compete at the Dixie Classic Fair.

Winston-Salem and Forsyth County have hosted various carnivals, harvest fairs, and livestock expositions since the 1880s, consolidating them in the early twentieth century into what became the Fair of Winston-Salem. This fair didn’t become the Dixie Classic until 1956: two years after Brown v. Board of Education, the year of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the year the North Carolina General Assembly adopted the Pearsall Plan, allowing white parents to use state funds to pay tuition at segregated private schools.

The day after the forum, one local TV station described it as a “heated hearing.” Other local media used different words, all of them having “tense” as a common root.

I guess we all can have different meanings for “tense” and “heated,” but I found the forum a lot less charged than I’d expected. A cadre of old church ladies, yes, can be scary as hell, but at no point did I think I might have to make a dash for the door or fight my way through a melee between Antifa and whatever unclever name young white nationalists are calling themselves these days. The forum was at times contentious, which, OK, does have “tense” as a root, but doesn’t mean the same thing. With one exception, each speaker spoke their two-minute piece without interruption or even loud jeering. With one mild exception—and he seemed more flustered than defiant—each speaker respected their time limit and the moderator who enforced it. They got claps and cheers from those who agreed with them and sometimes some mild and scattered boos from those who didn’t. They went back to their seats unmolested—among those on their side, or those on the other—and went on about their nights. Charlottesville this was not. This wasn’t even Chapel Hill when they pulled down Silent Sam. No one seemed ready to rumble over the name of the fair.

The first speaker was an African-American man; my grandparents would have called him “an elderly black gentleman.” He said he lived in the neighborhood of the fairgrounds, and wanted the name Dixie Classic kept. He said it was just a word, and to prove his point produced a bag of Dixie cups.

By and large, the pro-Dixie speakers went—I’m sorry, but I can’t resist—south from there. Most arguments boiled down to “the name’s not offensive to me, a conservative white person, so why should it be offensive to anyone else?” Several said “Dixie” referred only to the currency issued by the French colonizers of New Orleans, which is both slightly inaccurate (the “Dix” note was issued by the Citizens State Bank of New Orleans starting in 1835) and highly inane. Several said “Dixie” was a corruption of “Mason-Dixon Line.” Many, maybe most, dispensed with its origins altogether, saying Dixie refers only to this region, the geographic and cultural American South, without any reference at all to our racial history.

I realize how easy that is for them—for me—to say. I realize that’s a little like saying the word Atlantic refers only to water, without any reference to wetness. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the ocean without the undertow?

Only four of the pro-Dixie speakers stick out in my memory. The first was an angry white man in a t-shirt tucked tightly into his jeans. His voice and volume spiked as he said the Democrats were the real party of hate and slavery. He cited the North Carolina party’s annual Jefferson/Jackson Dinner, seeming to believe that “Jefferson” honors Jefferson Davis, not Thomas Jefferson; seeming not to know that the NC Democratic Party dropped the Jefferson/Jackson name in 2017, now calling their annual banquet the Unity Dinner. (He’s right that the Jackson was Andrew, who he said “did more to expand slavery than any other American,” reminding me that even a broken clock is right twice a day.)

The second was an even angrier man, wearing a cream-colored suit with no tie. He dragged Winston-Salem’s mayor into the discussion, saying “this all” started with his “cowardly” decision last winter to remove the Confederate memorial statue (erected in 1905, the featured speaker at the unveiling the man who led the 1898 Wilmington coup) on the grounds of what had been the county courthouse. He claimed personal affront because his “great-great-great-grandfather” (I may have missed a “great” in there) fought for the Confederacy and blamed—I’m not kidding—“carpetbaggers” and the “scalawags” helping them for causing all these problems in our fine, pure Dixieland.

The third was a loping, laconic young fellow who’d gussied up for the occasion in flip-flops, baggy basketball shorts, an Atlanta Braves t-shirt, and a Bass Pro Shops ball cap. He spoke in an even and easygoing tone that sometimes dropped to near mumbles. He said his only objection to changing the name is the “millions” of taxpayer dollars that will be wasted, since we already live under the “oppression” of high taxes. All his other words, and the tone in which he spoke, suggest he was otherwise past the point of caring, resigned to the minority winning out yet again over the majority, all the good people who look and think like him. Toward the end, though, he slipped in something about those who want to change the name not having to pay for it, anyway, and I realized he truly believes that African Americans don’t pay taxes. The suited guy shouting about carpetbaggers and cowards would make the next day’s front page, but this was the speaker who scared me—not so much then, as come the next election.

The fourth pro-Dixie speaker to stick in my mind was one of the last speakers of the evening, a youngish African American whose only objection to changing the name is the waste of time and energy. He specifically called out the many “black pastors” there, wanting rid of “Dixie,” who he said could and should be working on the many more pressing problems the African-American community faces.

That’s not a point for me, a middle-class white man, to argue, which is just as well.

I’ll admit that I listened more closely to the pro-Dixie voices than those against. The call to change the name Dixie Classic rests on one base: It causes pain to 35 percent of the city’s population, our fellow citizens, our fellow taxpayers, our neighbors. “Dixie” reminds them of a hard and hateful past when their families were not citizens but chattel.

That ought to be enough. This city property, owned in common by us all, bears a name reeking with our heritage of hate, of exploitation, of inhumanity for the sake of conquest and profit. A fair, of all things, reopens old wounds each time its train rolls into town, its midway lights up. We damage each other with a word. We could stop the damage with a different one.

Could we, though? What of America that resonates with our past does not cause some psychic harm? Jefferson and George Washington were slaveowners, by account and definition brutal ones: Should we raze the one’s memorial, the other’s monument? Should we change the name of the nation’s capital?

If I am hesitant to change the name Dixie Classic, it’s less because I cling to my own private meaning of Dixie, and more because I fear and assume that the new name will be corporate, cutesy, and trite. Several at the forum suggested “Carolina Classic Fair,” in which case we might as well rename it the “Fair Classic Fair.” “Dixie,” of course, is less precise than “Carolina” but grew distinct over time: nowhere else has a Dixie Classic Fair. “Winston-Salem Fair” doesn’t roll off the tongue, and it excludes the rest of the region it serves.

I am a little shocked to realize that this region, this land that I call home, has no common name other than “northwest North Carolina,” which doesn’t really sing. The region contains the High Country, the Lost Province, the Twin City—all evocative, downright lyrical names. I know of no name to bind them all. That’s a vacuum that banality tends to fill.

If I am hesitant to cast the word Dixie as far beyond the pale as the song, it’s a little because I cling to my own private meaning of the word, but more because I worry where such exiles will lead or end. I could hear, at the bottom of the voices raised in defense of “Dixie,” fear: fear of yet more change to the land- and mindscapes, of more shrinking of their fingerholds in the Ricky Bobby “If you’re not first, you’re last” economy Republican voters have created, of maybe having to pay at last for the sins of a dozen generations.

Of course, we should not whistle “Dixie.” Should, then, the University of Alabama stop playing the band Alabama’s “Dixieland Delight” at its football games? Does a hearty “yee-haw”—a Rebel Yell—cause hurt and offense? What, then, about the bourbon, or the Billy Idol song named after it?

What about that Dixie of my mind, that momentary, gossamer South—post-Jim Crow, pre-Reaganite Sun Belt—when it seemed like we could be better but still ourselves?

Several who spoke up for the name change argued that whatever Dixie might have meant at first, the name long since was corrupted and co-opted by association with the Confederacy and the Klan. We cannot reclaim it, they say, or redefine it, reopen it to include us all. We cannot go nor get it back.

I cannot argue. I do not know that I would if I could. My ancestors—by acquiescing, by abetting—forfeited my right.

But I can ask: What of that older, uncorporatized, aesthetic South has not been co-opted? What that has survived from then to now is not corrupted by the corrosion of our racial past? Our land and cities segregated, our prejudice baked in, our manners the smiling mask of our hierarchical blood-and-honor culture, our violence foundational: What of my home can I cherish, with any justice? What of my history is left to me?

The anti-Dixie speaker I clapped for loudest and longest was a white woman I’d describe as “my age,” though she easily could have been ten to fifteen years younger. She says her ancestors fought for the South in the Civil War, and for the Rebels in the Revolutionary War, and that her children are descendants of Robert E. Lee. She asks why that one, four-year, misbegotten, traitorous war has to define the South forever after.

I have asked the same question. To try to answer, I have written books about the South’s momentous, heroic role in the American Revolution. I have studied the Revolution enough to know it offers less reprieve or redemption than I’d hoped and assumed: One of the vital aims of our revolt was to open up the Trans-Appalachia to white American settlement, indigenous tribes be damned. Yorktown opened up Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, and then the Deep South, the Cotton Kingdom, the Black Belt. This world all over is a broken and sinful place, its history a record of unindicted crimes, but had the United States lost the Revolution and reverted to British colonies, one can plausibly argue that the Red Stick War and the Trail of Tears would not have happened, and millions might have lived unenslaved.


I did not speak. I should have. I should have stood and said, “Look here, y’all: I am from and of this place, this land, from and of the South as much as anyone and more than most. I talk like y’all, I’ve worked like y’all, I’ve got my pocketknife right here. Back home I’ve got my own Braves ball cap and Bass Pro Shops–branded gear. I love not just the South, but Dixie; I love fishing and football and ACC basketball; I once shook Junior Johnson’s hand. Let’s show the courtesy we claim to prize and model to these our neighbors, our fellow citizens, our fellow Southerners.

I should have used my Southern-ness (twice over) to stand and say: Do not be afraid. Do not be afraid of losing our South, of losing ourselves—not to this, at least, and not to them, with whom we have more in common than those flattening our hills and culverting our creeks and swamping the Southland in concrete and pre-fab, or those cashing in on our culture by turning it into hipster kitsch. We can keep the South by letting go of Dixie; we can keep and keep striving for all the peculiar virtues we proclaim, not “even if” but especially if we repudiate our peculiar sins. We have this chance, perhaps our last, to make it just a little right, to repent, to repair, before every signifier rots.

I should have stood and tried to make a proof, if such a proof still can be made. I should have stood and tried.


Postscript: Despite more than 80 percent of respondents to an online poll voting to keep the name Dixie Classic, on August 19—the day before the four hundredth anniversary of the first recorded arrival of enslaved Africans in British North America—the Winston-Salem City Council voted 5–2 to change the name of the fair. When the name will change, and what it will change to, were left undecided.