Durham News: Opinion

Pierce Freelon: Keeping the Durty in Durham

Pierce Freelon
Pierce Freelon

A few days ago, my Auntie Lenora Helm asked me about the origin of the moniker “Dirty Durham.” Mrs. Helm is not my biological aunt – “Auntie” is an honorific for an elder who is like family. She is a sister to my mother in spirit and music and has been my mentor and vocal coach. Over e-mail she queried:

“Your expertise as a resident cultural historian allows you to inform those of us out of the loop .. :-) I’m with a group of colleagues and the subject came up about the origin of the moniker ‘Dirty Durham.’ Do you know the origin of the label? Do you know the present perception of it? Who uses it? Is it social-political?”

I told my Auntie that my first memory of the term was probably 10 years ago when Durham pride shirts and bumper stickers started becoming popular with slogans like “Durham Love Yourself” and “Keep Durham Dirty.”

The term came across my radar again when a group of Durham School of the Arts alums created an art collective in 2007, which went on to be called Durty Durham. Today, Durty Durham Art Collective is a thriving co-op based downtown, which hosts weekly community meetings, throws dance parties, producer cyphers, multi media art projects and hosts an annual festival called Jamnesia.

In recent years, the term has become a cliché, which folks throw around for panel discussions, on blogs and across social networks. The blog, DirtyDurham.com describes itself as “dedicated to reclaiming the gritty image of Durham for those that are proud of its rough edges.”

The question of Durham’s “rough edges” is a tricky one, mired in race, class and privilege. To me, describing the city as “dirty” speaks to the historic negative reputation Durham has had, as the black sheep of the Triangle – a reputation based on stereotype and thinly veiled racism.

Over the past five years or so that image has changed, as Durham has become a destination – high ranking on many national lists as a progressive and trendy place to start a business or raise a family. Part of that new identity is due to the success of local companies and restaurants, which has introduced an influx of new businesses, developers, and people to the area.

But prosperity has not been shared by all Durhamites. We have one of the highest income-inequality rates in the state, and new growth has led to historically black neighborhoods being bulldozed and working class folks being displaced, as Durham has become less local, working class and colorful.

Hence the imperative to keep Durham true to its roots. I told Mrs. Helm that “Dirty,” like “Auntie,” is not to be taken literally. It describes the spirit of Durham. To me, that spirit is independent of color, queer, local, Bimbé, artsy, communal, Eagle pride and underground. It is by, for and of the people.

Auntie Helm’s question sparked research, and while digging through the internets, I stumbled across a 2006 PRX (Public Radio Exchange) interview by Adrian Boyes. Then a 17-year-old producer for Youth Noise Network and Spirithouse, Boyes interviewed several Durham community members, including Michelle Lee, co-founder of the now defunct 305 South Anti-Mall, who coined the phrase “Durham Love Yourself” in 2004.

Lee spoke about Durham’s “bad rap” and changing perceptions, but it was the other interviewees who revealed how Durham’s negative image is layered with subtexts of race and class.

Several interviewees spoke to “negative things people put out about Durham,” including Durham being called “ghetto” and “gangster,” and local residents being asked if they were “scared to live there.” One woman said, “people felt bad about living here, almost. Instead of feeling like they should be happy that they live in such a diverse city.” Another woman spoke of Durham’s need for a “face lift.”

In these contexts, words like “ghetto” and “diverse” are coded language for working class and/or black and/or brown people. It seems clear to me that what was threatening these haters was the abundant existence of people of color. Durham is a black city (well, 40 percent at least), and some people don’t like that. This in itself is nothing new but what worries me is the “face lift.”

While some struggle to embrace Durham’s menacing identity through T-shirts and slogans, others have no choice. Entire communities are being demolished, while condos are built upon their cracked foundations; business are forced to move because of escalating rent; and studies show that black and brown people are disproportionately pulled over by Durham police, regardless of the catchy phrases on their bumper stickers.

You can reach Pierce Freelon at pfreelon@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @durhamite.