One bleak winter afternoon in 2013, I typed the words Rustic cabin on the water, North Carolina into a search engine. I had never heard of Harkers Island but the salt-stained, wooden cottage with its floor-to-ceiling windows and views across open water to Shacklelford Banks, looked perfect. Shackleford is home to a herd of wild horses. According to local legend they are the descendants of shipwrecked Spanish mustangs from the 16th century.
For the next few years, I would spend two weeks of every year on Harkers Island, a 12 hour journey from my home in North Hertfordshire.
The island has a strong identity and a long tradition of oral history. In 1987, a group of local women from the Methodist church decided to write a book. Ostensibly it is a cookery book but it is also the story of the island and how its people got there. Those born and raised on Harkers Island speak a dialect that has its roots in Elizabethan English and they are affectionately referred to as ‘Hoi toiders’. The community has lived by fishing and boat building for more than 300 years but, new regulations, pollution and the importation of cheap fish from Asia are all contributing to a slow decline and the closure of many of the fish houses. The sense of community, however, remains strong and questions such as You from off? (ie. not from the island) and Got anybody in the graveyard? (ie. how long has your family been on the island?) help determine who belongs and who doesn’t.
Of course the locals weren’t the first to settle on Harkers Island and when their ancestors arrived from England in 1701, they chased off the Coree People, an Indigenous American tribe, so tiny that they only lived in this particular area of the Carolinas.
In May 2015, I was researching the role of religion in my ancestry and I decided to visit both the Pentecostal and the Baptist churches on the island. In England you can slip into a church service and be largely ignored, so I was surprised to be greeted at the door by a very short lady with a very tall beehive. When she heard my British accent, she was enchanted and rushed me down the aisle to meet the deacon. He too was thrilled to bits and wrote down my name and the town where I was from. Soon I was standing in a sea of people, all wanting to know how I had got to the island and why I had come. ‘We’ve never had a visitor from England before’, declared one.
Before Brother Anthony began his very long, very rousing sermon, I was given a ‘Harkers Island’ welcome. While I sat, slightly embarrassed on my velvet pew, the entire congregation got to its feet to clap and cheer my arrival. Afterwards my picture was taken ‘for the church records’ and everyone waved me a fond farewell. The following Sunday I went down the road to see the Baptists and they too were overjoyed to meet me. This time I was slightly better prepared and explained that my grandmother had been a Baptist and I was interested in knowing more about her faith.
During the sermon, which, like the Pentacostal homily was well over an hour long, my thoughts drifted to other things. Suddenly I was tapped on the shoulder by the lady behind me, alerting me to the fact that the pastor was addressing me directly. His question was more of a statement and related to the challenges of living amongst Muslims. ‘You must have a lot of Muslims in London and so you will know just what I’m talking about’, he said, nodding sympathetically at me from the pulpit. He then moved on to an even trickier topic – the transgender bathroom bill which North Carolina was actively opposing at the time. I prayed he wouldn’t invite my opinion on that one. These were kind people who had welcomed me into their church because they assumed that I shared their views. How could I show appreciation for their generosity and respect for their community whilst remaining true to my own ideas, beliefs and confusions. How could I avoid being outed for what I in fact was – someone from ‘off’; someone who didn’t belong; an outsider. Two hours later when it was all over, I hurriedly explained that unfortunately I couldn’t stay for coffee and donuts because I was heading down the coast to visit an old plantation house. I left feeling a little embarrassed but also relieved that, on the face it, I was still in everyone’s good books.
Two days later I was shopping at Walgreens off the island when I heard someone call my name. It was Dianne from the Baptist church, working at the check-out. She was visibly delighted to see me again, introduced me to her co-workers and then ran all my purchases through her personal discount card. I wanted to hug Dianne and thank her for remembering me. I wanted to tell her that I’d miss her and would talk to my friends back in England about the kind people I’d met on Harkers Island. I also wanted to tell her that I worked with Muslim families in London and that many of them were kind and generous, just like her, making their way in a challenging world, just like her, wanting what’s best for their families, just like her. But I didn’t, because I couldn’t. I wouldn’t have been able to explain myself in a way that Dianne and her friends would understand. But, in truth, I also didn’t want to snap that thread of momentary belonging, that feeling of being included in something that felt so real and so very kind.