Culpability

This is my last month in Durham, North Carolina. I’m preparing to move west to Taos, NM on May 6, 2021, if all goes forward as planned. Last week, I walked to Maplewood Cemetery and around the historic tobacco town filled with renovated warehouses, factories and storefronts. Each step is a reminiscence of my 21 years living in North Carolina, and in the American south since 1989. This blog post is about intersections between past, present and future. It is about culpability: the Spanish conquest of Mexico and the American southwest. It is about indigenous and enslaved peoples. It is about redemption, making restitution, and guarding our democracy. It is about Oaxaca, too, as I look forward to the arrival from Teotitlan del Valle of my goddaughter Janet Chavez Santiago who will travel with me on this road trip. On her arrival from Mexico, I will get her vaccinated so she doesn’t have to wait until March 2022 for her age category.

As I walked Maplewood Cemetery, 120 acres at the intersection of Kent and Morehead Streets, I saw familiar names of families that had built this town interred here: Julian Carr who trademarked “Bull Durham and whose tombstone is inscribed with Veteran of the Confederacy. Here, too, lay philanthropist Mary Duke Biddle, Dr. Bartlett Durham, and Brodie Duke, eldest son of Duke University founder Washington Duke. As I walked, it jumped out at me: Where are Black people buried? Maplewood was established in 1872 during Jim Crow. There would be no Black graves here.

This is when I found Greer Cemetery, established in 1877, on four acres embracing the graves of at least 1,500 African Americans, many born into slavery. It was the first Durham cemetery for Blacks. So, I went to visit in tribute to the region where I have lived, respecting the Black Lives Matter movement, the acknowledgement that civil society enacts horrific crimes in self-protection of social, political and economic interests. I wandered the old carriage path and diverged onto ground uneven and softened with unmarked graves. I wanted to honor the diversity and voices of past, present and future. And, I wanted to mark the travesty of current voting rights restrictions enacted by 43 state legislatures across the USA now, in April 2021. We know that separate is not equal — this is another perfect example.

This visit caused me to think about culpability — the question of who is responsible for wrong-doing or failure, who is to blame, who is at fault, who accepts moral responsibility for transgressions past and current?

Which got me thinking about my life in Oaxaca among indigenous Zapotec people and their history of oppression and discrimination, and my future life in New Mexico where Native People’s have been abused and marginalized since the Spanish and U.S. conquests. This year, Mexico City marks its 500-year anniversary of the invasion by Spanish conquistadores and friars. We are in the middle of the George Floyd murder trial. So much and yet so little has improved.

Today, we celebrate spring, the emergence of new life flowering and green, as we move toward breaking down the barriers of isolation from Covid with 3 million jabs in arms daily, and the promise of travel to come soon. In doing so, let’s honor those who have passed to bring us to this day and be mindful to protect those who are vulnerable whose voices are muted or suppressed. It is up to us to be the difference.

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