Durham architect builds roads away from racism

“I can only go forward,” Harris says
Feb. 23, 2014 @ 05:24 PM

The national dialogue on race begins in much smaller settings, like a Sunday morning in All Souls Church, Unitarian Universalist.

In front of the small congregation, Patricia Harris discussed “RACE: The Dilemma of Our Time,” including how it shaped her life and the role it still plays across generations.

“We have a lot to do and I don’t think anyone’s going to challenge that assumption,” she said. “(Racism’s) a boil that’s being lanced and all of the ugliness, impurities, the sickness, is coming up to be seen and healed.”

Harris grew up with eight siblings in a rural Ohio home without indoor plumbing. She recalled living near Antioch College. Barbers in the small town wouldn’t cut black hair, despite a heavy liberal influence.

She didn’t let such prejudice dissuade her. She graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She was the first African-American female architect in North Carolina and now serves as president of Golden Dawn Development. She helped bring the Durham Performing Arts Center to Durham and worked on the building’s design.

Racism “has shaped and formed my image of this world,” she said. “From a very early age, I was faced with the dilemma of race simply because I am. Not because I was, but because I am.”

As a child, Harris said, she was rejected at her mother’s church. Other children picked on her, saying she “talked white.” She was rejected at school because of her skin color.

“So, for me, it was coming at me from both sides,” she said. “When people would tell me to go back to Africa, I say ‘I can’t go back. I can only go forward.’ I am a part of the melting pot that is America.”

Harris said that the internalized self-hatred of some in the African-American community stems from being “told for generations that you have no light to shine,” fulfilling an imposed prophecy of inferiority.

“Surviving and thriving are two very different things, and that’s what much of the African-American experience has been: surviving,” she said.

The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Harris said, did have a silver lining. Besides putting more focus on the well-being of black youth, it also heightened public awareness about the issue. It showed we have the ability to address discrimination, she said.

 “It doesn’t matter where (racism and prejudice) came from,” she said. “It’s where we are now that matters. We grow through adversity and we grow into the type of beings that can stop it. Can stop it in its tracks.”

Harris suggested that discussions like the one in All Souls Church happen in other churches and at kitchen tables, to bring a concerted, collaborative end to discrimination.

“We must talk,” said Harris. “Share you. Not your experiences, share you and all that’s within you.”

Explaining that she had a set of biological parents and a set of European parents who helped her navigate the racial climate of her youth, Harris said that interracial collaboration and support is important. It’s part of what helped her end up at MIT.

“I’m on a journey,” she said. “I’m on a journey where different doesn’t mean deficient.”