Downtown Durham not black enough? Look again

Carl Kenney
Carl Kenney

Paul Scott’s My View column “My downtown Durham dilemma: Segregation or self-imposed exile” is an excursion back to the good ole days when life in downtown Durham was a black cultural experience comparable to the heydays of the Harlem Renaissance.

Scott mourns the death of black presence before the white invasion made downtown Durham an uncomfortable place for some black people. Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, he narrates the sad tale of how the blackness evaporated when white people replaced all things black with their own version of hip.

I wasn’t in Durham when all that black cool packed the streets of downtown Durham. I’m in no position to critique an analysis of one who lived in Durham when Black Wall Street was more than a history marker. With that said, how far back does a person have to go to point to when downtown was cool enough for black people?

I get the fascination involved in glamorizing the days before urban renewal. There’s truth to the claim that Durham was a national hot spot for black people and black culture. Being nostalgic is the common play when black people, born in Durham, talk about what was lost when the freeway displaced a thriving community.

Things have changed, but Scott’s assertion that downtown Durham isn’t black enough fails to consider how black people are redefining cool.

Ghost town no more

When I arrived in Durham in 1988, downtown was a ghost town with an abundance of empty buildings and a few mom and pop shops scuffling to keep their doors open. Prior to the economic boom that turned downtown trendy, it wasn’t a cool spot for black people. It wasn’t a cool spot for anyone.

I understand and appreciate Scott’s angst related to downtown not being “black enough” for his taste. The rapid influx of restaurant, condos and bars packed with hipsters is overwhelming for black people born and raised in a city known for its black historical markers.

There’s good that comes with looking back. It fosters a bunch of pride in the life and work of the men and women who made Durham a great place to live for black people.

All of that is true, but, when it’s all said and done, all that was left, before growth stole the black cool in downtown, was a bunch of historical markers that reminded people of a time long, long ago.

Another narrative

It feels to some like the black swag that separates Durham from other cities has been replaced by white people who can afford those deluxe apartments in the sky. It’s easy to formulate that conclusion when you measure blackness based on a 1970’s description.

There’s another side to this narrative that deserves to be told.

Not only is downtown Durham black enough — downtown economic development is redefining what it means to celebrate being black in Durham. There is an emerging counter-culture forcing a local black renaissance. This movement includes discussions curated by Angel Dozier, Spirit House and other black men and women who are pressing critical questions that impact black life in Durham.

Downtown Durham is showcasing the work of artist like Artie Barksdale with that black cool mural inside the Beyu Caffe. Black cool is listening to the myriad of musicians graduating from N.C. Central University. Cool is the music festival named for cool — The Art of Cool – so cool that people from across the country are coming to Durham to baste in our cool.

Durham’s cool is the work of Village of Wisdom, Black Genius and other nonprofits that model how to lead young people in capturing all that comes with being black and cool. Cool is the Start of Cool, the nonprofit arm of Art of Cool, that inspires youth to become jazz musicians. Downtown Durham may not be what it used to be, but it has come a long way toward redefining what it means to be cool.

For those stuck in a former definition of cool, Durham may not be cool enough for their taste. That self-imposed exile makes it difficult to see what’s happening on the other side of “things aren’t what they used to be” before the white people removed the memory of blackness. Durham is redefining blackness. I call that black cool with a new age twist.

Carl Kenney is the co-producer of “God of the Oppressed,” an upcoming documentary that explores black liberation theology. He is the author of “Preacha’ Man” and “Backslide.” He can be reached at: Revcwkii@hotmail.com

Related stories from Durham Herald Sun