“Don’t be nervous. I know I’m a black man.”

Encountering Difference as a New Southerner

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This essay is adapted from DeConto’s spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World. For more information, please visit thislittlerlight.com.

After church one night a couple of years ago, as we usually did at Emmaus Way, a dozen or so people went out to dinner in Brightleaf, an urban commercial district of renovated tobacco warehouses turned into shops, restaurants, and bars near Duke University’s original East Campus. Just a few blocks away was 610 N. Buchanan Blvd., the Duke lacrosse house, where a national media spotlight had shone on the conflicts my adopted hometown of Durham, N.C., can’t escape: white and black, rich and poor, mansions and crackhouses, country-club communities and crime-ridden streets, a world-class university and some failing public schools, depending on your particular neighborhood.

An African-American stripper named Crystal Mangum had accused the lacrosse players of race-tinged verbal abuse and gang rape at a team party. Liberals like my own colleagues at The News & Observer in Raleigh had ripped the “upper-crust” players for “Animal House” behavior, reminiscent of “a time when white men raped black women with neither social sanction nor legal penalty.” It turned out District Attorney Mike Nifong had likewise gotten caught up in righting history’s wrongs in a single, heroic court case, hiding exculpatory evidence and eventually losing his law license because he tried to prosecute the boys for a crime they hadn’t committed. The case symbolized everything we knew about Durham and didn’t know how to make right. If only it were as easy as sending three privileged white kids to prison. If only Crystal Mangum had been a credible witness. (Mangum was convicted today of 2nd-degree murder in the second of two high-profile cases in which her live-in boyfriends were victims, years after the lacrosse case).

At Emmaus Way, we weren’t any more successful at creating the Beloved Community, MLK’s vision of an integrated, peaceful society. But we at least talked about a more sustained effort than Nifong’s singular attempt at heroism. By the time of this post-worship dinner in Brightleaf, the church had moved from its location in a photographer’s studio on quaint little Ninth Street to a storefront downtown, farther from Duke and all the wealth it symbolized, closer to East Durham, where cocaine flowed, prostitutes sauntered, and bullets flew. We weren’t meeting in the criminal epicenter, “The Bullseye,” but just trying to get closer to where the Two Durhams collided: government halls, the hipster bar and the hip-hop club right next door to each other, the historic Black Wall Street hailed by Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois a century ago and now a sleepy side street. We wanted to be fully present in Durham, not just visit for mission projects, but to wade into the poverty, the crime, the needs we would sometimes be able to meet and the needs we would consistently fail to meet.

My wife had left me months earlier, and I was living with my two girls, ages 3 and 7, with my parents in the little hippie town of Carrboro. I felt both beckoned and repelled by Durham. I’d absorbed the fear that led local Realtors to steer newcomers to safer areas like Chapel Hill or Cary. Yet Carrboro, a suburb of Chapel Hill, really, had started to feel like Celebration, Florida, an entire little town, master-planned by the Walt Disney Company. I wanted my girls to be safe, but I also wanted someplace grittier, more connected to the suffering of the world, honest. These twin desires spun me in circles as I pondered whether a little danger might actually be good for my girls if it meant they would gain a greater understanding of this broken world.

On this particular Sunday night after dinner, I caught a glimpse of what our urban education project might look like. Most of my friends were already gone by the time I strapped my girls into their carseats and Trigger, my baggy-pantsed, skin-headed Trinitarian-theologian-skater friend, walked toward us. He and I stood chatting about the topic of the Sunday dialogue — the ethics of homosexuality — and Dexter approached us in the darkened parking lot.

Dexter was a middle-aged man with silver caps marring his teeth, an uneasy gait, and the odor of alcohol wafting from his body. He pulled a slip of paper from his wallet and asked Trigger to dial a phone number written there.

“Don’t be nervous,” Dexter said. “I know I’m a black man.”

“Oh! No,” Trigger said, taking the number. “Uh, sure.”

I had been watching Dexter closely in case I might need to come to Trigger’s aid. But Dexter really did just need him to contact the man’s brother to pick him up a few blocks away. Trigger left a voicemail, and Dexter was on his way.

In the car as we traveled back to the safe confines of Carrboro, Aurora asked me why Dexter told us not to be nervous. For the first time in my 7-year-old’s life, I explained to her the legacies of slavery — the poverty, the crime, the perceptions of crime.

“Daddy,” Aurora asked me. “Would you be proud of me when I grow up, if I build a neighborhood where black people and white people could live together? Maybe I could charge less so people who don’t have as much money could live there.”

“Yes,” I said. “I’d be very proud.”

I pray she can maintain that hope. After moving to the South from New Hampshire, I had experience after experience like this – where the distance between me and another human being is not just in my head. I rode a city bus with one middle-aged black man – just me, him and the bus driver, a black woman about his age. He complained to her about a domestic situation with his girlfriend that I had never experienced. “You know what I mean?” he asked, looking at me. I shrugged. “If he was a brother, he’d understand,” he told the driver. Another man called me a redneck because I greeted him as a stranger in the street like I would in my native New England, which is to say, half-heartedly, if at all. I’m not a redneck, I’m just an introvert, and we don’t make eye contact in Boston! These encounters made me feel like I’d stepped into a family feud where my side had been picked for me, and I managed to hurt other people while trying to mind my own business. There’s no room to explain yourself. You’re just like every other person of your skin color. Like so many social problems, race feels too big for me to do much of anything about, like all I have to offer is a hope and a prayer.

Jesse James DeConto is a writer (jessejamesdeconto.com) and a musician (pinkertonraid.com) in Durham, N.C.

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