I’m a Bull City Tar Heel. A dual citizen. Born and raised in Durham, but I got my papers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I have a lot of pride in both affiliations but do find myself, at times, conflicted.
I often ponder deep philosophical questions like, “who would win in a fight between Wool E. Bull and Rameses the Ram?” Sometimes I’m faced with Saturday-morning conundrums. Do I take the kids to the Museum of Life and Science or the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center? Afterward, what’s for lunch? Spicy chicken wings from Banh’s Cuisine or chicken curry dosa at Vimala’s Curryblossom?
Sometimes my inner-conflict is fueled by much deeper issues of race and class, which reveal that there can be more distance between Durham and Chapel Hill than 12 miles of Tobacco road.
As a Durhamite, I draw inspiration from the rich African-American heritage of my city. Durham was once known as “Black Wall Street” and was a hub for black businesses, higher education and community. In the mid-20th century a combination of factors, including urban renewal and the construction of The Durham Freeway (Highway 147), drove a stake into the heart of a thriving Hayti community. We’ve been climbing an uphill battle since; but I am humbled by the long legacy of black struggle, entrepreneurship and resiliency that has, in many ways, defined the city.
My loyalty to UNC is also tethered to community. I majored in African and Afro American Studies – a discipline forged in the fires of civil rights era student-faculty activism. The rigorous curriculum in our department encouraged community engagement. I am indebted to my professors and mentors who instilled in me a sense of connection to my ancestral legacies, as well as a sense of social responsibility that still influences my life, lyrics and work today.
But some tensions arise when you straddle the worlds of Chapel Hill (specifically UNC) and Durham. As an undergraduate at UNC, I found that many of my peers held egregious misconceptions and negative stereotypes about Durham and its residents. I would often hear my classmates embellish in the telling of tragic stories about a friend’s cousin’s roommate, who got lost in Durham once and met some perilous fate. Misconceptions that Durham was a poor, violent and unsavory city were fueled by negative media, hearsay and veiled racism.
After learning that I was from Durham, it would not be uncommon for someone to ask, “Have you ever been shot?” Sometimes the person would be joking, sometimes they were dead serious – but I was asked this specific question on several occasions.
So when a buddy of mine, Gabriel Eng-Goetz (founder of Runaway Clothing) recently created a T-shirt with the caption, “I’d rather be shot in Durham, than die of boredom in Cary,” I laughed out loud. It resonated with my inner-Tar Heel, who grew tired of defending Durham on a daily basis to his fellow students, many of whom were from Cary, Raleigh, Apex, etc. Many of my impressionable peers had never set foot in Durham, but that didn’t stop ignorant stereotypes from rolling off their tongues like melted LocoPops.
To me, the shirt is a snarky middle finger to people who sneer at Durham from a distance. With tongue-in-cheek, it attempts to invalidate the negative stereotype of Durham being violent by taking ownership of it. It’s like saying, “Yes. Violence is a problem in Durham. And being lame is a problem in Cary. I’ll take my chances in Durham.”
Not everyone got the joke.
Several of my friends lamented the shirt’s sentiment, in light of the many murders Durham has already seen this year. With the backdrop of the George Zimmerman verdict, as stereotyping, profiling and institutional racism has ignited the minds, hearts and conversations of the Durham community – I can understand why the underlying message has fallen on troubled and frustrated ears.
The issue is further complicated by Gabe, who speaks from a position of privilege not afforded to some members of our community. Some Durhamites do not get to choose how they “prefer” to die – that choice is made for them by deeply entrenched social, economic, and political inequities – and if they did have a choice, I’m sure they’d prefer to die of boredom. In Cary.
The shirt is presumptuous, offensive, highly problematic and, well … funny.
You won’t see me wearing it at the next Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People meeting, but I might just rock it at my 10-year UNC reunion.
Pierce Freelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @durhamite.