Best of 2021: How Comic Book Heroes and Real-Life Heroes Made North Carolina Better This Year

Best of 2021: How Comic Book Heroes and Real-Life Heroes Made North Carolina Better This Year

'Not So Super Publishing' Founder Jacques Nyemb makes comic and children's book gold out of everyday Black heroes. (Image via Not So Super Publishing; Photo by Carolyn Scott)

By Max Millington

December 27, 2021

C&P’s Max Millington counts down his favorite North Carolinians in the news this year.

The year 2021 kind of felt like 2020 Part 2. 

Sure, it wasn’t as woeful and tumultuous as its predecessor, but it was still far from “normal.” 

On the bright side, I reached one full year of producing content and reporting for Cardinal & Pine that I’m extremely proud of. I look forward to what 2022 brings. 

Here are some of the most captivating stories I got to tell this year. 

Impactful Policies

When Joe Biden signed the American Rescue Plan into law in March, advocates for low-income North Carolina pointed to it as a boon to the daily lives of millions of working-class Americans. 

For Black farmers in North Carolina who will receive a portion of $4 billion in debt relief, it was a counter to generations of discrimination. I spoke about this with Donovan Watson of Perkins Orchard in Durham and Rodney Medley, a beekeeper in Fayetteville. 

“It’s a form of reparations,” said Watson. “It can help Black farmers to have a leg up again.” You can read the full story in this Twitter thread

In June, I had the pleasure of visiting Angie’s Restaurant in Garner. Between working the cash register and greeting each guest personally, owner Angela Mikus told me how she and 34 employees were faring during the shutdowns. 

President Biden had recently rolled out the Restaurant Revitalization Fund, which would provide restaurants and bars with up to $10 million to recover financial losses caused by the pandemic. 

While the funding was welcome, it was the support of the community that kept Angie’s afloat. 

“I had people show up and just hand me hundreds of dollars to pass out to the servers,” Mikus told me. “I think we’ve learned that we need people more than anything.”

Unfortunately, for our teachers and school workers, issues of fair pay and adequate resources to support students still persist in NC. 

I recently covered teacher shortages, which have plagued the state since the beginning of the school year. One of the most memorable videos was with John deVille, a Macon County history teacher. See why he called a state Senate budget proposal “cruel and criminal,” and compared the proposed raise to one measly meal at Chick-Fil-A. 

Honorable mention: They’re Innocent, so Why Does Pardoning Take So Long? One of NC’s Top Wrongful Conviction Attorneys Speaks Up.

Local Heroes

Durham’s Jacques Nyemb is sharing pieces of the Black experience through comic books. 

“Not So Super,” one of his best selling books, stars a Black, mild-mannered professional who gets superpowers and is inconvenienced by them at every turn. In our February Q&A, we talked about writing, Black history, and how the husband and father of two managed to keep his publishing company afloat in 2020.

Fifteen-year-old Ocir Black of Winston Salem was inspired by the racial justice movement too. Upon learning that George Floyd called out to his mother moments before being murdered by a Minneapolis police officer, Black conceived a book with the help of his own mom. The pair collaborated with other North Carolina moms to collect numerous letters from Black mothers to their sons. The finished title was, appropriately enough, “Love Letters to My Son.” The book addresses race, mental health, and financial literacy. 

And in November, Ocir released the sequel “Nourishment To My Soul,”  a collection of letters from sons to their mothers. Check out this touching video of Ocir and his mom reading excerpts, here.

Speaking of heroes, the initial COVID-19 vaccine rollout seems like a lifetime ago. Even if you were eager to get vaccinated, most of us had to wait our turn until the vaccine became available to everyone. 

I had the privilege to speak to one of the first North Carolinians to receive the vaccine, Dorothy Giles Ngongang, a retired science teacher from Mecklenburg County. 

“I took the vaccine because I want to be able to hug my daughter,” said Ngongang. “I want to be able to hug my son and my grandkids.” 

Honorable mention: Blocked from Financial Aid, Two NC Immigrants Land ‘Surprise’ College Scholarships.

Moving Stories in Sports

Some thought it was an April Fool’s Day joke when news broke that basketball Hall of Famer Roy Williams was stepping down as head coach at UNC-Chapel Hill. I caught the reactions of the Chapel Hill community in real-time. 

We would learn later that Williams’ hand-picked replacement would be a historic one. Hubert Davis, who played for the Tar Heels from 1988-1992, was announced as the first Black head coach in the program’s history. I caught up with Shammond Williams, who played at UNC-Chapel Hill from 1994-1998, to get his thoughts on the hire. 

Honorable mention: Chris Paul was an Advocate for Voting, HBCUs in North Carolina Before Ever Making the NBA Finals

Retelling History

While UNC-Chapel Hill took progressive steps on the basketball court, the university (particularly the Board of Trustees) made news for all the wrong reasons. 

In July, Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones accepted a position at Howard University after a tumultuous battle with UNC-Chapel Hill leaders over a tenured position they offered, then rescinded, then offered again. 

Hannah-Jones’ “1619 Project,” which examined the role slavery and racism played in the nation’s founding through today, reportedly caused issue with members of the board, which is appointed by the Republican-dominated NC General Assembly. 

In tandem with these events, I spoke to Geeta Kapur, a civil rights attorney and author of To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation’s Oldest Public University

Kapur, who graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill, spoke about the historical context behind the issues students and faculty of color have faced for decades. 

“Brick by brick [UNC-Chapel Hill] is built on the premise of white supremacy and racism,” said Kapur. “And it’s become institutionalized in every part of the University.” 

Honorable mention: Pauli Murray: The North Carolina Hero Too Few Know About.

Just For Fun

Have you met your town’s mayor? Chances are, Mitchell Whitley has. 

After a summer of working in close quarters with state senators in the General Assembly, the recent college grad was inspired to meet all 532 of North Carolina’s mayors. The Greensboro-native wanted to learn more about the day-to-day issues North Carolinians face from a non-partisan lens. 

“Our mayors have been people who were on the school boards, or they’ve been county managers or commissioners,” said Whitley. “They embody what the local people see in a good leader.” 

Check out his retelling of how former Fuquay-Varina mayor John Byrne was cared for by Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, and Yogi Berra as a child. You can follow Mitchell’s journey on Twitter and Instagram


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