Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Durham: A Self-Portrait

Steve Channing’s documentary, Durham: A Self-Portrait, gave me cause to reflect on my purpose as an advocate, minister and columnist. A few days after seeing it, I was informed by a friend that I have a reputation for burning bridges. My friend’s words stunned me due to the great ends I have taken to build rather than damage relationships since coming to Durham.

Durham: A Self-Portrait gave a historical account of race relations in Durham. It was noted that while things were out of control a few miles down the road in Wilmington, North Carolina, blacks and whites had formulated a system that maintained harmony in Durham. Throughout the years blacks and whites have discovered a way to coexist. Central in maintaining the peace was the emphasis and power of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People.

The documentary examines how John Merrick, founder of the North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company, used his connection with the Duke family to position himself as the owner of a company that would grow to become the largest African American owned financial institution in the nation. Merrick played the race game to convince whites in Durham that life for all would be better as long as the blacks stayed on their side of the tracks.

Merrick, C.C. Spaulding and other leaders of the African American community helped maintain accord by crafting a wedge between the blacks on the Hayti side of the city and whites on the other side of the tracks. African American leaders kept the poor, uneducated factory workers in their rightful place. They were the voice of the city, and tension was minimized due to the confidence whites had in those leading African Americans

These leaders espoused the philosophy of Booker T. Washington. The key to success among African Americans, in their opinion, could be found in each person pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. This perspective was embedded in the Puritan work ethic which held to the promise of The American Dream. For those who work hard, blame no one and trust in God, success is a certain outcome.

Merrick, Spaulding, Aaron McDuffie Moore, James Shepard and others were examples of the fulfillment of the dream among African Americans. This notion redeemed whites of any obligation to assist African Americans beyond the end of their enslavement. It discarded any inference suggesting the significance of any policy formulated on the basis of racial indifference. Sadly, Durham is a rare community that has long denied the presence and dominance of systems created to deny the mobilization of a group due to their race.

Durham has played the race game. The elite blacks were charged with the task of keeping the poor and disgruntled blacks in the rightful place. They were entrusted with the obligation of convincing them that any shortcoming they face was the consequence of their own limits, and that race had nothing to do with all of the doors slammed in their face.
This brings me back to the charge presented to me by my white friend related to my reputation as a person who burns bridges. I was quick to note the difference between a politician and a prophet. Politicians operate out of a desire to convince as many people as they can. Prophets are given the charge to expose injustice. By definition, a prophet can never stand on the side of a particular agenda. We are called to remain free from the causes of others.

His comments deal with a matter even more difficult to embrace given the significance of race. At the heart of it all is the uneasiness white people feel when a black man has the bravado to refuse to stand on their side of the fence. It is rare for African American leadership to function completely free from the power of white privilege. People are taken aback when a person can march to their own drum and speak the truth from their own perspective.

John Merrick learned to play the race game. It involved giving the white man what he wanted to free himself up to get what he wanted in return. Those who rose to power in Durham learned to play this game. Sadly, may continue to play the race game. There is a difference. Those who haven’t gained from the game elite blacks play, no longer respect those reaping the benefits of playing the game.

As much as we would love to celebrate the history of our fine city, we should stand back from it all and ask some pressing questions. Like, what happens when a black man refuses to shuck and jive in a way that honors what white people desire? Will he be minimized? Will he be invalidated for refusing to play the race game? Will they be promoted? Will people listen to what they have to say? Will they be recognized for their prophetic voice, or will they be called trouble makers while those who smile, sing and dance to the tune of those with power get pats on the back and compensation to authenticate the way they function.

Durham: A Self-Portrait. It’s sad how we have been fooled.


  1. Wow..the brothers back in the day were a sale out huh!! It will never end, both races are guilty of participating for gain...brain washing, money hungry, lying, cheating, stealing, back stabbing...they are not any different from hustlers in the streets...as a matter of fact the street hustlers could learn a lot from the white collar hustlers.

  2. The best thing we can *all* do as Americans is speak up for justice, and be "trouble makers" as we ask questions about our status quo. As the bumper sticker says, if you want peace, work for justice.

    That's an interesting distinction between prophets and politicians. I'd challenge you, though, to consider expanding the role of the prophet. Many Biblical prophets didn't just identify a problem, they also articulated visions for a solution. Does presenting a vision of hope require "adopting the causes of others?" Does it require "a particular agenda", or "convincing others"?

    Ultimately, I don't think anyone (politician or prophet) can "convince" anyone else. Reason stands on its own, and thinking individuals must evaluate competing arguments before forming their own conclusions. We just need to encourage people to think for themselves.

    In the best case, both politicians and prophets can work together: encouraging people to ask questions, and keeping an open mind as they evaluate possible answers and solutions.

  3. Carl:

    Well said about the documentary. I refer you to democracydurham.blogspot.com where I said something along the same lines.


  4. Honestly: the only people in Durham asking the black man to shuck and jive these days is the Durham Committee. So forget the black man who has the courage to refuse to stand with the white man. Give me the black man who has the courage to refuse to stand with the elite, economically opportunistic and, frankly, tyranical leaders of the current Durham Committee (well, okay, leader).

    And while we're at it: can we stop with the black MAN talk and put Jane Crow to bed at last? It's about time this town opened itself up, truly, to the talents and incredible intelligence of its many black WOMEN. That is, in my opinion, Durham's single greatest shame. This town would crumble without black women and yet we continually ask black women to take a seat in the back row so black men can run for office and be our leaders. That needs to stop NOW.

    As for you burning bridges -- I understand what your friend is saying. I would gently suggest that your passion to pinpoint injustice may sometimes cause you to too quickly make assumptions about people and to close your mind about the possibility you do not understand them as well as you think. And, really, after all: isn't the tendency to make assumptions about other people, while all-too-human, nonetheless at the root of racism, among other things?