Durham, North Carolina, Journal One: Taking Down the Statues

It’s been a week since Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrations and death. This was home for two years when I worked for the University of Virginia almost two decades ago. Charlottesville has always been this idyllic center of the universe where Mr. Jefferson’s Lawn spoke volumes of intellectual and cultural elitism, privilege and responsibility to nationhood.

Here, in Durham, North Carolina, where I live when I’m not in Oaxaca, the state we Southerners speak of as the humble valley between two mountains of conceit, I’m comforted by my collection of Oaxaca and Mexican folk art. It’s good to have comfort in these times of moral ineptitude by this nation’s leadership.

I call myself Southern because I’ve lived in the South since 1989. That almost qualifies me. I’m also a Californian, growing up there, and I lived for a good part of my middle years in South Bend, Indiana. All places have monuments to the fallen Confederacy. Symbolic of slavery.

I try not to be too political here. After all, Oaxaca Cultural Navigator is supposed to be about Oaxaca. You may fault me for writing this. But, in the interests of sharing with you where I’m “at” these days, it’s impossible for me to be here without writing.  Sure, I can go back into my archives and give you pretty pictures, and Mexico travel advice.

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Torment and Apotheosis of Cuauhtémoc (detail), 1950-51

Yet, when I’m in Durham, USA, I also want to be here, now, and feel compelled to write.

The first week I was here, I saw “Motown, The Musical.” We sang along to The Supremes, Martha and the Vandalas, Smokey Robinson and The Jackson Five. Celebration Time. Dancing in the Streets.

The second week, I went to see “Detroit, The Movie.” Slam it in my face reminder that not nearly enough progress has been made.

Then Charlottesville happened. Proof that we haven’t come as far as we think we have.

I went to a vigil in Downtown Durham, where people of civility gathered to remember Heather Heyer and speak up against white supremacy, Neo-Nazi marchers wielding guns and knives, threats to family, friends and neighbors.

We were a diverse crowd — races and religions well-represented. Durham is 38% black, 43% white and 13% Latino. To live here is to respect one another.

Last Monday the Durham statue honoring the Confederacy came down. I didn’t know about it or I might have been there. Yesterday, the threat of a KKK rally brought hundreds to our city center. I stayed back. They did their job on me. I was afraid and decided I will fight a different way.

The debate is raging here about the statues. Some think it is part of history (Hollie says HERSTORY). This is what I wrote to a friend, who questions taking down the statues:

History is written by the victors. It is subjective based on who has power and control. The “history” of these monuments and the era they represent no longer hold true for Durham or Pittsboro, North Carolina, or anywhere that values human dignity and freedom. The statues, as others have said so well, need to come down and be moved to places where the “history” can be discussed in context. We need to teach our children and grandchildren about Jim Crow laws, oppression, loss of dignity and how to protect human rights. We cannot do that with a statue in front of a courthouse, facing north, out of context with who we are now as The New South. Peace.

In Oaxaca and throughout Mexico, we have similar injustices, statues to the heroes of the conquest. They were the annihilators, the destroyers. Yet, there are also monuments to Aztec heroes like Cuauhtemoc .Pre-Hispanic culture is being honored through archeological restoration. An attempt at reconciliation?

We know that Mexican brown and black people do not have the same access to education, health care and economic engagement, and there is plenty of civil discontent. Non-violent civil disobedience is guaranteed by the Mexican constitution.

In the USA, we could ask: Where are our monuments to the heroes who ran the Underground Railroad, who rescued Jews and Cambodians and Sudanese, to the Native American Tribal Leaders who lost their lives protecting their people?

My friend, Hollie Taylor Novak, has created Protest Pearls. She did this after the Women’s March. Most of the Heroines whose images are encased in pendants that dangle from fresh water pearls and chains are suffragettes and anti-slavery advocates, black women and white. Timely.

In these days, there is much to consider and act upon. Privilege means we can either turn our backs or step in to speak up.


Recommended reading:

Southern Poverty Law Center — AUGUST 19, 2017 — Silicon Valley role in funding white supremacy

And, the debate about Confederate Statues as art.

10 responses to “Durham, North Carolina, Journal One: Taking Down the Statues

  1. Thanks for writing this, Norma! We are living in a time of turmoil and dissent. We must all speak honestly and openly about what’s going on here and now. You did and, for that, I’m grateful.

  2. Hi Norma,
    Thanks for writing this. It’s so important for white people to speak out against racism. Here is an op-ed I wrote for our local paper in my rural northern California mountain county, Tuolumne County, pop. 50,000:
    Norma, Bruno and I are coming to Oaxaca for Dia de los Muertos, along with the rest of the world. Do you believe that in our small community I know of at least 3 people who will also be there?
    Anyway, we intend to visit Teotitlan del Valle and maybe we can say hello if you’re in town.
    Again, thanks for writing this important statement.
    Pat Cervelli

    • Hi, Pat. Thanks so much for sharing this. Yes, it’s our responsibility to speak up and speak out and do what we can. And, then more. I won’t be in Oaxaca for Muertos this year. So, I will miss you. I’m sorry. Enjoy. Give everyone a big hug. -Norma

  3. As someone wrote in a letter to the editor of a Canadian newspaper: in Germany there are no statues of Hitler but discussion of Hitler and Nazism are still very much a part of public discourse.

  4. Thank you Norma, these are difficult times for sure. I am hopeful that love will overcome. Today Boston stood strong. Peaceful protesters far outnumbered the handful of hate speech folks. Hurray for that!
    I think pulling down these monuments is a good idea. Most were erected during the Jim Crow era. Those statues are more salt in the wounds of people who have already been hurt. We have far to go in this country. As a white woman I feel a duty to speak for others. It is a privilege.

  5. Indeed…great article. This is why we are reading Howard Zinn’s “People’s History of the United States” and Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railroad “…both excellent. Thanks Norma! Que Viva Oaxaca!

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