“You’re too liberal for Durham!”

Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham.
Jesse James DeConto is a musician and writer in Durham.

I had just played a short set at a basement house-concert in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Washington D.C., and this middle-age woman greeted me during the break before the next act to tell me she’d voted for Trump.

I’d been chatting with her before the show, learned that she was from Monroe, N.C., loved going to house shows in Charlotte and thought she’d try this one during her summer vacation.

I’d fretted for hours about which songs to play that night. I knew by reputation that these Sofar Sounds shows bring a polite, attentive, music-loving crowd that’s there to listen – I didn’t need simply to play the catchiest songs I could manage on my acoustic guitar. I’ve written some silly love songs, but I tend to think of those as the olive branches or the spoons full of sugar extended to try and invite an audience into a deeper conversation about subjects with a little more at stake for our collective thriving.

I only had about 20 minutes. I didn’t want to screw up this song selection. So what I did is, I played a couple of catchy songs that still had some depth, and then I asked them where to go next – “Do you want to hear a timid, non-confrontational folk singer dive into some of the most divisive political topics of our time?”

The crowd hooted its affirmation. So I did one song celebrating Takiyah Thompson and the toppling of Durham’s Confederate monument and another song protesting Trump’s war on immigrants.

Offering up any art for public consumption is a vulnerable act, only heightened in its vulnerability when that art tackles politics. You don’t ever know who’s in the audience or how they’re going to take it or whether they can even understand your language or cultural references, much less resonate with them.

And you don’t ever want to get into a defensive stance if you can help it; it’s enough work and psychological risk to make the art and let it do its thing.

I just grinned at her and said: “You don’t know Durham. I’m not liberal enough!”

I felt pushed into a corner and responded in the most honest and deflective way that I had the instincts for. But what a weird experience, to be placed on an undefined political spectrum and be forced not only to locate your whole city, in all its diversity and conflict, onto that spectrum but then further to locate yourself in relation to your city.

Still, this encounter only stirs up the same question that has energized us since long before I arrived in the Triangle in 2004:

What is Durham?

When I first got here, I met a guy in Mebane who said he’d just relocated there from Durham because he was tired of black people causing so much trouble in local politics. Just writing that sentence makes my stomach turn. But I think it captures something of the essence of Durham: This is a place where people are fighting for justice on behalf of disparate and intersecting communities, and it’s a place where other people would prefer to be left alone and enjoy the benefits of what wealth we have here.

I think most of us are somewhere in between – wanting justice but also not particularly committed to the hard work and risk that it demands, preoccupied as we are with jobs, kids, mortgages, the list goes on and on.

When I think of the thousands who gathered downtown to celebrate the toppling of the monument and to resist the KKK last summer, when I think of the protesters who blocked the Durham Freeway over police brutality or the activists who gather weekly for jail reform, it’s hard to think of anybody being “too liberal” for Durham.

But then, on the other hand: We had a Confederate monument on Main Street to begin with. Prominent city streets are still named for slaveholders. Overzealous prosecution put egg on the face of racial and gender equality movements in the Duke lacrosse case, and massive institutional inertia continually trips up university officials around race.

From tobacco to high-tech to the current real-estate boom, Durham seems to be a really wonderful place for white people to invest the accumulated wealth and social-capital of generations and to make a whole lot more money for ourselves.

Lord knows, if you talk to my kids and their friends, we grown-ups aren’t nearly liberal enough for Durham. Why haven’t we fixed the injustices that still plague us?

I guess I can only conclude that Durham is a paradoxical place. Observers from Mebane or Monroe or anywhere else can see whatever they want to see, and so can you and I. Mostly, I’m just glad for the people in this city who are pulling us toward justice and forcing the rest of us to ask whether we’re liberal enough for Durham.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him at jesse@pinkertonraid.com.

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