CHARLOTTE, N.C. People used to tell me all the time that I sound like I’m from up North or that I sound like I’m white, but I’m neither.
Growing up as an African American female in Jacksonville gave me a blend of experiences. One part of the mixture consists of Southern culture and tradition derived from local families who had lived there for decades. My experience also arises out of the multicultural environment of a large transient military population who hailed from all over the U.S. and abroad.
I happened to fit into both groups as the daughter of a 22-year Marine and Vietnam veteran and a North Carolina born-and-bred “girl raised in the south” (GRITS). I was a Wagoner first, and a military brat second.
My extended Wagoner family was well known in the black community because my grandparents had raised their children there. After working as a laborer and a school teacher, they both went on to become ordained ministers who were heavily involved in the black church community.
They were such a strong presence that their children and grandchildren all gravitated to their house and their company whenever we were able for good southern food and family fun. My grandfather was the backbone, and my grandmother was the heart of the family.
With a father who was away a lot and a mother who was juggling work, graduate school, and raising two children, I spent a great deal of time at my grandparents’ house after school and on the weekends, especially when I was younger.
I was often defined by my relationship to them. “Oh, you’re Elijah’s granddaughter?,” or you’re “Miss Ginny’s granddaughter?” It was always accompanied by an approving smile and a slightly curious look that told me the person was wondering if I was as talented as my aunts, uncles, and cousins, many of whom have phenomenal musical and vocal talents featured in my grandparents’ church.
I was a part of something special that I didn’t recognize until much later in life. It was a kinship system typical of southern families. We were a close-knit family, went to church together and spent time together – and that helped define who we were as individuals.
The Wagoner family is the legacy of a hard-working man and his resourceful, determined and wise wife who raised their children with a set of spiritual and cultural values including respect for God, respect for education, a strong work ethic, strong family bonds, service, resilience and perseverance.
My grandmother insisted on growing or buying fresh produce, and I spent a lot of hours shucking corn, snapping peas, and cleaning greens in her kitchen sink while learning what it meant to be a Wagoner through her stern instructions on proper grammar and speech.
In my mind, I didn’t sound white, and I didn’t sound northern. I just sounded like my grandmother.
With her lessons as my foundation, I was able to navigate safely and with my sense of rectitude intact through a city that featured topless bars, pawn shops, gun shops and tire-rim stores while I lived there in the 1980s.
Jacksonville is home to Camp Lejeune, Tarawa Terrace housing base, New River Air Station, and Camp Geiger, which is about 5 miles outside of the city limits.
In some ways, I felt like a misfit: A southern Baptist preacher’s granddaughter being raised in a town that was full of grown men and sinful indulgences. Still, I had a strong identity that centered around being a part of these two groups of people. Being a member of both an extended family and a military community seemed to me a distinctly southern and North Carolina experience.
That strong extended family network isn’t what it used to be for me or for a lot of other southern families now. I moved away to follow educational opportunities, and many of my relatives have moved to various cities across the U.S. to establish families of their own, or to follow career paths as well.
But to this day, when I talk to my family members there’s still a strong association to being a part of this larger family. We’re all still Wagoners first. We are Virginia and Elijah Wagoner’s legacy.
Carol Perry is completing her master’s degree UNC Chapel Hill. She is a Roy H. Park Fellow and 2011 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival Fellow. She is from Jacksonville, in Onslow County.
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