Alchemy: A Tale of Duality (A Letter to Durham from C/APP Partner, SpiritHouse)

niaSpiritHouse Inc.—an organization based in Durham, NC, dedicated to cultural arts and community organizing—has a rich legacy of successfully using art, culture and media to support the empowerment of communities most impacted by racism, poverty, gender discrimination and the school-to-prison pipeline. Since 1999, we have worked locally, and nationally to uncover and uproot the systemic barriers that prevent us from gaining the resources, leverage and capacity for long-term self-sufficiency.

Our most recent works, “Collective Sun—Reshape the Mo(u)rning” and “Collective Sun II—The Harm Free Zone,” examine the impact prison and policing have on the Black community. This process of healing, visioning and activating creates a platform for families to use their experiences of resistance and resilience and to explore solutions that shift outrage into focused, intentional civic engagement.

Alchemy: A Tale of Duality

Dear Durham,

What does it mean to be Black in a place that fears even the thought of you?

1.    our bodies hold memories
2.    don’t run, don’t speak

A place that values you in fifty-dollar increments?
1.    of stolen grandmamas and grandaddies
2.    don’t reach no such thing as routine

A place searching to dispose of entire generations, deemed deviant and useless?
1.    of unspoken legacies of repeated histories again, again, and again
2.    lower my eyes lower my voice

Can we claim racism in the age of Obama and Jay-Z?
1.    our birthmarks are remnants of their battle scars
2.    life or death I have no choice.

We too resist this war.
We too resist.

Even my writing is disjointed, frenzied, and difficult to follow. Am I crazy?
Or, is it sometimes, just difficult to be here.
Moments filled with shallow breaths are dizzying.
Being Black, anywhere can do that to you.
There’s not much time to land for long.  Deeper breaths are few.

To be clear, I have grown to love you. Home to Black Wall Street, Historic Hayti, and the Blues. You have struggled and compromised sometimes better than most. There is strength in your red clay and Magnolia roots.

My own stories have found their way to light here, my boisterous voice amplified.  I have grown strong, and for that I thank you. I have helped strategize movements over tea, and kitchen table chats have turned tears into house parties.  I have raised, and helped raise children who have thrived through our moments of being terrified of what they, [those who can’t see brilliance], might do.

And, like so many of my brothas and sistahs, I have felt silenced by the duality of you.

What does it mean to be disinvited to your birthplace?
1.    listed as the South’s tastiest town
2.    has the highest racial disparity rates among North Carolina’s 100 counties

To be described as thugs, and stalked by the police?
1.     listed number one on the top twenty-five places to retire in the country.
2.     Blacks are 38% of Durham County’s general population but represent over 80% of the people incarcerated

To be both a native and a danger to your streets?
1.    considered America’s most tolerant city
2.    black students are five times more likely to be suspended than White students.

This is a familiar tale of two. Re-new, re-vitalize, re-invest, re-move. What happens to the living pieces discarded by you. Stepping over the Black bodies of your elders and your youth, you have blighted neighborhoods to feed bountiful busy downtown streets.

Make no mistake, you are growing disparity by choice.

You have pushed whole Black communities out of their homes and Black males out of your schools, while scrambling to secure the newest parts of you. Zero tolerance, probable cause, wars on poverty and drugs—you’ve gleaned from third grade classrooms to fill jail cells, and feel safe.

This part of the tale may seem harsh, but the most loving thing I can do is be honest and stay committed to you. Our calloused hands digging deep in your roots work beside generations of first breath of your air, first steps on your soil.

Your blood is in their veins, they are still pulsing through you. Their voices in your abandoned streets, you can hear them demand you, re-examine what you value.

ADT signs and charter schools protect little more than your fear,
guns and gates secure mostly empty rooms,
while, you crave the mem’ry of your  grandfather’s hands.
Your mother’s inate reflex when she heard your first cry.
We are all longing.

How much you must miss, by avoiding my eyes.

This is an organic process, messy and bruised
an alchemy of latent magic embedded in DNA strands
a weaving of cultures/practices/rituals
a naming our trauma
a healing opened wounds
transforming generations of mutated harm.

We are winding/gathering/sharing/visioning/activating
each story a spiraling of new and re-newed
each turn an increase of equity, shared power and value.

What does it mean if no one is expendable?
1.    We are sacred
2.    We are divine

Where there are no collateral victims, in our safety quest?
1.    We are whole
2.    We know our names

Where accountability begins from shared understanding and values?
1.    We are safe
2.    We are infinite and abundant

What does it mean to begin again and again?
1.    We are born free
2.    It’s in our bones

This vision is huge—it has to be—but we believe in you.

For now, we have few solutions to offer. Transformation cannot be preconceived. We must be courageous, honest and willing to sit with the questions, examine the truth and move, with faith through uncertainty.

This journey will take time and great length. There will be starts, stops and bumps along the way. But we are ready.

Dear Durham, let’s go, we have nothing to lose, your future generations are waiting for you.

With Love,

Nia Wilson
Warrior Healer/Cultural Alchemist

Nancy “Mama Nia” Wilson has been a part of the SpiritHouse family since 2002. Currently serving as the SpiritHouse Executive Director, Mama Nia originally hails from Norwalk CT, where she has acquired over twenty years of direct care client services, ranging from early childhood education to mentally handicapped adults. She is a practical nurse who has specialized in pediatric and psychiatric nursing, but found a much stronger calling working with teens and their families in drop- out, drug and pregnancy prevention. Mama Nia is a mother, poet, performer, and storyteller, whose works with fellow artists, organizers, encourages community members to assess, express, and address their own needs.

Alternate ROOTS supports the creation and presentation of original art that is rooted in communities of place, tradition or spirit. We are a group of artists and cultural organizers based in the South creating a better world together. As Alternate ROOTS, we call for social and economic justice and are working to dismantle all forms of oppression—everywhere.