Context is all important in Osha Gray Davidson’s “The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South.” The audio, published two decades after the book (and 10 years after UNC Press released a new paperback edition), grounds today’s unsettling race relations in history. Triangle residents have even more context because of the audio’s Durham setting. Providing context can be deadly dull! Fortunately, both author and narrator Keith Sellon-Wright have engaging voices.
Davidson reaches back to the post-Civil War era to explain the business development that led to Durham’s emergence as a city of distinction. There is Washington Duke’s rise from rags to riches as a tobacco tycoon as well as the evolution of the North Carolina Mutual Insurance Company, one of the most influential African-American businesses in U.S. history. Durham was seen as successful in economics and race relations. The latter was undeserved as the upheavals of Civil Rights showed. Davidson’s telling is studded with anecdotes, all of which receive animated recounting by narrator Keith Sellon-Wright.
Woven into this “biography” of Durham are the revealing stories of C.P. Ellis and Ann Atwater. Their personal histories are representative of the poverty and lack of opportunities faced by many lower socio-economic Durhamites, historically and in the 1960s in which they grew up. Atwater, following her husband, arrived in Durham young, pregnant and poor. She had the will to separate from her non-supportive husband, even though she knew it meant a struggle to survive. Ellis, who had grown up poor, suffered the inconsistent parenting of his father, a millworker. However, he had learned by the time he turned 8 that the blacks with whom he played ball were considered lesser than he was.
In an uncanny twist that seems more like fiction than truth, the lives of Ellis and Atwater changed suddenly and radically to give them positions of influence. Ellis unexpectedly became the Exalted Cyclops, leader of the local KKK, and Atwater’s talents for activism yielded renown and expectations by other African-Americans. Sellon-Wright’s narration vivifies both their pasts and the author’s talents at revealing how a larger history is shown through the twining of powerful individual stories.
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Ellis and Atwater’s roles brought them into antagonistic conflict in 1971 when the two joined a short-term focus group working to desegregate the Durham public schools their children attended. Both joined almost to spite the other, not wanting to miss opportunities to speak up for their opposing views of ideology, race, rights and power. But before long, Ellis and Atwater saw they both suffered from the strictures of society as did their children. They developed a mutual respect and understanding that resulted in a friendship. Sellon-Wright accents the emotions – from their mutual anger and disgust to their mutual caring.
“The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South”
By Osha Gray Davidson
Book from University of North Carolina Press, audio by Blackstone; 11 hours and 1 minute