The 4 North Carolina Stories That Changed the Way I Think In 2021

Protesters march along the streets to protest the shooting of Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, N.C., Wednesday, April 28, 2021. Brown's killing made NC the center of the racial justice movement in 2021. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

By Billy Ball

December 30, 2021

Every journalist has a preconceived notion of the story, no matter what they tell you. These stories made me think twice about those notions. 

One of the most enduring myths about journalists is that they don’t think anything. 

It’s the idea that they cover a story without a single preconceived notion. As if they wandered in from the woods, a traveler with no opinions but a firm grasp of the written word. 

The truth is that every journalist no matter their pedigree carries their own assumptions. We are all the product of our experience. There is what we know, what we know we know, what we know we don’t know, and worst of all, what we think we know but don’t really know.

I’m not different.

Which is why I wanted to approach this end-of-year writing a bit differently, cataloguing a few of the Cardinal & Pine stories I worked on in 2021 that changed the way I think. These are the stories that not only challenged me as a person, they challenged me as a journalist. 

None of them are open and closed stories. They are complicated and muddy. And more often not, they are rooted in the experiences of marginalized communities and towns that haven’t gotten the stories they deserve. It’s the fight for recognition and justice for long-neglected indigneous communities in eastern North Carolina. Or the real-life, day-to-day ways that North Carolina’s well-documented underfunding of public education impacts students, parents, and educators. 

It’s stories like these that show us what we thought we knew but didn’t. And it’s the ignorance that always get us, isn’t it? 

My 8-year-old daughter put it in perspective recently. “Dad, I know your job is to tell people what you think, but you should consider that sometimes you might be wrong,” she told me. 

I looked at her for a spell, trying to figure out what spurred this.

“Except for Donald Trump,” she blurted out a moment later. “I think you’re right about him and he’s a liar.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Without further ado, here are four stories that changed the way I think in 2021: 

The Killing of Andrew Brown 

Andrew Brown Jr’s casket is wheeled into Fountain of Life Church in Elizabeth City, NC Monday, May 3, 2021. Brown’s killing by local deputies has made northeastern North Carolina the center of the racial justice movement in North Carolina for now. (Photo by Billy Ball)

I have to begin here in my hometown. 

I didn’t know Andrew Brown although we grew up a short distance from each other and studied in the same schools, the only schools in Elizabeth City. He was a couple years older than me and he was also Black, a resident of the city’s Black riverfront neighborhoods whereas I grew up in the more suburban neighborhoods on the city’s western border.

The papers and the tv news crews made much of his purported failures, meaning his criminal record, when they examined his shooting death at the hands of Pasquotank County deputies. Heavily-armed county deputies fired on an unarmed Brown as he attempted to flee in his vehicle. 

We got that story from the news.

But the news struggled to understand Andrew the man, or his family and close friends as this lifelong Elizabeth City resident became a symbol for racial injustice. 

He was, by most accounts, a fierce father and uncle, a funny guy, and one heck of a pool player. He was that and so much more. The Black Lives Matter movement has made an impact on so many because it called on white folks like me to care about the ways our Black neighbors live and not just the ways that they die, the ways that make the evening news.

I will never forget the woman who interrupted his funeral as the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton and Bishop William Barber prepared to speak, the woman who screamed at hundreds of funeral-goers. 

“It’s all a show!” she screamed. “We’re the only ones who gave a damn about that man!”

This was a challenging story to write. And I’ll never look at my hometown the same way again.

What We Lost in the Virtual Classroom

Shannon Edwards and her 7-year-old son Jayden of Greene County, NC. Edwards said she noticed Jayden struggling with some of his basics during virtual learning, but he’s bounced back since returning to the classroom.

We’re still trying to figure this one out.

The pandemic hit our shores in early 2020 and rightly sent students home. Without a vaccine, there was no choice. Let’s make that clear. Closing schools surely saved lives and helped to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

But every educator worth their salt knew what we would lose in the process. We would lose the classroom experience, which is worth more than a desk and a lesson. It cost children social interactions and a hands-on learning experience, things too great to be measured. In the most basic of ways, it cost some children regular meals and a safe place to learn. 

But it also did something even those of who’ve written about education for years didn’t quite anticipate. It made the gaps in funding and resources between North Carolina’s 100 counties as plainly obvious as we could ever have imagined. 

My reporting in Greene County and in Halifax County – in eastern North Carolina — as they attempted to relaunch in-person learning was eye-opening. We’ll be untangling this knot for years to come, long after COVID-19 is an afterthought.

There Is No One North Carolina Arts Scene. There Is No One Indigo De Souza.

Rising western North Carolina musician Indigo De Souza made a big imprint on 2021. (Image via Indigo De Souza on Facebook)

This one felt like new ground for Cardinal & Pine. 

I spoke to Indigo De Souza, a rising western North Carolina musician who is as hyped as any local artist  in recent years. Her metamorphing 2021 album, “Any Shape You Take,” landed her a much-deserved spot on several year-end lists. 

But a story that I saw as a simple profile of a musician became something else when her music and her story unraveled. 

De Souza’s emergence is not just a story of a talented Asheville musician paying her dues and writing a few hits. It’s a story of a new generation of North Carolina artists who don’t subscribe to one genre or culture or belief system. Indigo told me she didn’t see her music as identifiably North Carolinian, whatever that means. 

But it is, in its forays from folk to bluegrass, to rock and electronic pop, to hip hop and grunge. It is not readily classifiable because it takes in all of those sounds and ideas, and it does so in a way that feels fresh, progressive, and welcoming — particularly to the LGBTQ North Carolinians who’ve lived more than a decade under the repressive leadership of the NC Republican Party.  

And it speaks to a new crop of musicians like Indigo who find the record store labels as meaningless as the words on the back of a cereal box. 

Play on, Indigo. Looking forward to more music in 2022.


  • Billy Ball

    Billy Ball is Cardinal & Pine's senior community editor. He’s covered local, state and national politics, government, education, criminal justice, the environment and immigration in North Carolina for almost two decades, winning state, regional and national awards for his reporting and commentary.

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