My downtown Durham dilemma: Segregation or self-imposed exile?

Paul Scott
Paul Scott

monachopsis the subtle but persistent feeling of being out of place. (Or something like that)

– Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows

I remember, as a child, looking forward to going to eat at a fancy restaurant with my family. But as soon as we walked through the door in our Sunday bests we started getting mean mugged by white folk as they whispered to each other over their Caesar salads. Although they didn’t stand up with their steak knives raised calling us the N word and demanding that we immediately vacate the premises, the point was very clear. We were not wanted there …

Four decades later, when I walk through the new progressive downtown Durham, with its rapidly expanding skyline and new businesses popping up every day I get the same feeling of unwanted-ness. Of course, there are no “whites only” signs, but I do get the premonition that at any moment some pot-bellied Buford T Justice-type lawman is gonna roll up on me and ask “You lost, boy ?”

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As an African-American born during the turbulent ’60s, my perspective is different from others who have not walked a mile in my Air Jordans. Although some people are prone to historical amnesia, there was a time in this country when Jim Crow laws and Black Codes did exist and black people were, legally, barred from gathering in certain places . Even when segregation became outlawed , it, apparently, took some places, especially south of the Mason Dixon , a while longer to get the Tweet. So, for many of us, old memories die hard.

I’m not saying that there are no black people downtown. I’m sure you can find black folk in Alaska, the North Pole or even Vermont if you look hard enough. But for a city that has such a large African-American population, I don’t think anyone can argue that this demographic is not reflected on a Saturday night stroll down Main Street.

Maybe it’s a generational thing. The few black people I do peep downtown appear to be, either, Northern tourists who aren't accustomed to Southern codes or millennials whose reality may not be based on segregationist politics. Although, some young black folk may hang out at the American Tobacco Campus, for people like me, the mention of tobacco brings not-so-fond images of dirty overalls and callused hands, not a cool spot to chill and sip some green tea.

Allow me to keep it 100 (be totally honest for the hip hop linguistically, challenged). Downtown just ain’t black enough for me.

I am not the first to question why Bimbé, the big African-American cultural event, was deported to a park in northern Durham. Nor am I oblivious to the fact that the Juneteenth celebration is relegated to the outer edges of downtown instead of the CCB Plaza. Not to mention the shock this year that the Kwanzaa event was not held at its usual location but at a rec center a few miles up the road.

Recently, the new counter-gentrification buzz word around town is “inclusion.” But if we are really about inclusivity, Durham must become more inclusive.

Of course, some may argue that there are more than enough African-Americans downtown and this may be a figment of my own overactive, paranoid imagination.

But as the noted scholar, Dr. Johnny Fever of the ’80s sitcomWKRP in Cincinnati” would say “when everybody is out to get you, being paranoid is just a smart way of thinking.”

After all, aren’t we all guaranteed Freedom of Assembly in this country?

Freedoms aren't Freedoms unless they are exercised. So, I guess the only way to cure my Main St monachopsis is to start hanging downtown. At least, until the hounds chase me back across the Roxboro Street border.

Dr. Carter G. Woodson once wrote in “The Miseducation of the Negro,” “If you make a man think that he is, unjustly, an outcast, you do not have to order him to the back door, he will go without being told. And if there is no back door, his very nature will demand one.

Maybe, it’s time I start going through the main entrance...

Paul Scott is an activist and lecturer based in Durham. Follow him on his website NoWarningShotsFired.com or on Twitter @NWSF

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