An Alternate History for The Piedmont
A new novel imagines a North Carolina that avoided the school resegregation of the ‘90s and explores the family struggles and community tension that accompany the fight to maintain integration. But the book takes a broad brush to the idea of place, leaving a North Carolinian reader feeling a little overtroped and underwhelmed.
When North Carolina abandoned the hard-won gains of Civil Rights-era school integration policy, the shift was abrupt. Teacher transfer and busing programs fell to the wayside as courts struck down mandated measures to more equitably distribute the state’s educational resources. But what if those controversial but effective measures had remained in play? A new novel, out this spring, imagines precisely this alternate history.
Naima Coster’s sophomore novel, What’s Mine and Yours (Grand Central Publishing, 2021) is an ambitious, multi-family, multigenerational saga set in central North Carolina. It chronicles the reverberations of a spectacular scene of gun violence in the early ’90s, a fantastical school busing initiative in the early aughts, and an ensuing interracial romance that reaches just shy of the present.
Coster, one of the National Book Foundation’s recently named “5 Under 35” authors, cited her inspirations as the recent school resegregation reportage of Nikole Hannah-Jones (who began her career at The News & Observer in Raleigh) and the author’s own several-year stead living in Durham.
North Carolina seems ready terrain for Coster’s project. Charlotte, for example, is an infamous, real-life example of the failed promise and emotional blowback of busing. The “fully integrated” public school system, which the Charlotte Observer lauded as the city’s “proudest achievement” in the ’80s, was wholly forsaken by the ’90s. The Family Choice Program had usurped busing policy and by 2005, a state circuit court judge described the situation in Mecklenburg County as “academic genocide for the at-risk, low-income children.” But the novel never arrives at that rich specificity.
For all the potential connection, the North Carolina Coster renders—identified only as “The Piedmont, North Carolina”—still reads as amorphous south. It’s all gleaming water towers, “converted tobacco factories” turned glass-encased condos, and bright spreads of pimiento cheese.
It sometimes smacks of the Triangle. There’s quarry swimming, a road that runs “between the two university hospitals,” and a long-gone Black business district, a la Durham’s Black Wall Street. “[There was] a whole city inside this city. Before they built the freeway right through it,” she writes.
In other moments it seems more squarely Winston-Salem, which marked the 25th anniversary of their school district’s regressive “controlled choice” program this school year. The city’s crosstown disparities—the predominantly white westside schools far outperforming those of the under-resourced majority Black and Latinx east—map perfectly onto Coster’s fictional locale.
Amid a large ensemble cast, the novel centers white-presenting Latina Noelle and her Black husband Nelson. They are an artsy and empirically attractive couple who serve as avatars of a fantastical “New South.” They shop at the farmer’s market; they listen to podcasts; they have moved to the suburbs.
As the book jumps back and forth in time, we find that their relationship is on the fritz. Their marriage is fraying not, seemingly, from the compelling pressures of painful family histories, the long durée of their relationship, or the particular difficulties of navigating the region as an interracial couple. Here, Nelson and Noelle are grieving a miscarriage.
Maternity is a constant, and often uninteresting, meditation of What’s Mine and Yours. Women characters seem to exist only within their relationship to motherhood—who has it and who wants it.
There are childless elders and beleaguered single moms, coupled women with breezy jobs doubling down on the cult of domesticity, and a lesbian couple on the low-down lavishing attentions on favorite pooches they house at their doggy daycare. “Hey, good girl,” one character says before smooching a pit bull on the nose. In another scene, bereaved Noelle thinks cringingly, “To become a mother was to multiply.”
Motherhood is also at the heart of the school integration plotline which arrives belatedly in the novel. A Black mother is pitted predictably against a double-named white mother at the microphone of a charged Town Hall. Neither mother is integral in shaping policy, but both performances at this public event continue to irk and animate the lives and relationships of their children for years to come. It’s a narrative collapse that risks distracting readers from institutional evils with individual ones.
At times, more moving to me than the obvious dramas of the novel’s main characters were the cumulative disappointments of its ancillary ones. These are the folks that should know better, who could’ve delivered the novel from its visible injustices and avoidable sadnesses. There’s the Black mayor who may or may not be the architect of the busing program all because he’s “hoping for a plaque in his honor, downtown, catty-corner from the Confederate soldiers monument.” There’s the white former professor of an HBCU who stands up at the Town Hall to claim that opposition to busing has “nothing to do with the color of your skin.” A lone Black English teacher appears as a beacon of hope on stage and in classrooms, until you realize that he’s pushing a narrow and oppressive agenda of Black excellence and respectability. And the all-too-familiar white lady that appears with a septum ring and starling tattoos and seems to signal hip counterculture, but turns out to be the most ardent, punk rock racist. Coster is artful about stoking hope with a mere character sketch and clocking the cost of each new and inevitable letdown.
But while readers who consider Cookout milkshakes to be an object of high art will be relieved to see the beloved fast-food establishment at last ascend to the pages of high literary fiction, the Piedmont itself often blurs into convenient abstraction. Especially, in relief to the novel’s concrete secondary locations—Atlanta, Paris, and Los Angeles—North Carolina gets a surface treatment.
At its best, Coster’s setting is a vehicle for her sharp assessments of the insidious impact of gentrification’s changing face and avaricious southward creep. “Well, it’s whiter now,” one of her characters observes. “Even in the time I’ve been here, it’s changed. The New Yorkers I used to meet were black women who moved down here in the nineties. Now the New Yorkers I meet are white women who just left Brooklyn.”
At its weakest, it shirks a recognition of precision and power.
At the end of the novel, Nelson writes Noelle from Europe. There’s a river in every city he observes. Sure it’s from a long history of commerce, “but it never stops seeming symbolic to me. There’s this bank and that bank, an east side and a west side, like every city in the world is the same.”
It’s a comforting notion but, ultimately, a mistaken one.
Brenna M. Casey is a writer and educator splitting time between Durham, North Carolina, and Los Angeles, California. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Wake Forest University, and her bylines can be found at Guernica, Public Books, and The Los Angeles Review of Books.