Derrick Beasley: Surviving the Burn: Black Water Vernacular | NorthStar Church of the Arts, Durham  | Friday, Aug. 11-Friday, Sep. 15 

Swamp Jam | Monday, Aug. 18, 6 p.m. | NorthStar Church of the Arts, Durham 

Everyone in Durham has personal lore—the story of who we are and how we came to be. And if you do the work of being present enough to make your mark on this community, your lore becomes a part of the fabric of the city. When I think about the artist Derrick Beasley, I think about an architect of Black abundance, cultural memory, and place-making.

Once an administrator at community education organization Student U, now a full-time artist and member of the city’s open space and trails committee, Beasley’s work has taken many shapes throughout the years. Depending on who you ask, his legend takes many forms, from his time at Riverside High School and AT&T to his work with Black August in the Park and Tall Grass Food Box.

Like many unsung members of this community, though, the moments that shaped his identity, creative output, and place as an architect of this city, have gone unexplored in our communities’ signature public media and archives. 

Surviving the Burn, Beasley’s upcoming solo exhibition and residency at North Star Church of the Arts, begins August 11 and runs through September 15. Through self-portraiture, sculpture, and installation, this show explores apocalyptic notions of environmental collapse, nature, masculinity, community, and Black identity. 

Embarking on Surviving the Burn allowed Beasley to join hands with community members who parallel his role as an important piece of the tapestry of his hometown: Arts advocate and producer Myra Weise of Proxemic Media worked alongside Beasley to develop and curate the exhibition, photographers Kennedi Carter and Cornell Watson turned their lenses on Beasley for in a rare opportunity for him to be the subject, and I had the honor of reflecting on Derricks legacy while helping curate programming for the exhibition.

The exhibition coincides with several community events, including Swamp Jam, a block party in celebration of Surviving the Burn. Ahead of the show, Pierce Freelon sat down with Beasley to discuss growing up and making art and community in a gentrifying Durham.

PIERCE FREELON: Just kicking things off: What’s fire about Durham and what’s on fire?

DERRICK BEASLEY: Durham has always had this energy that I think in some ways, even if you’re from here, it takes, like, leaving for a little while and to get kind of a broader perspective to understand. 

I remember when I first moved back, Runaway was popping in a really dope way, and that pro-Durham culture was popping. And that was part of what attracted me back from Atlanta and so I wanted to be a part of this energy that was claiming Durham in a certain way.

But that claiming also opens up to appropriation. And I don’t know if I’ve even ever thought about it that way myself, but it’s almost like an appropriation of the Bull [City]. This is not to say people can’t come to Durham. That’s not what I’m saying. But there’s a way that people from Durham move and carry themselves that I feel like has been appropriated by the folks who ain’t from here. 

And that’s happening in all urban centers; that’s not unique to Durham. It’s a national trend, gentrification and urbanization. ButI think that’s the crux of what’s on fire about Durham—folks coming to Durham and just squeezing people out, squeezing Black folks out, specifically, and even in the way that they’ve leveraged that history squeezes [them] out. Growing up it was almost like, ‘We gotta get out of the Bull [City]. We got to do something different, and that’s fine.’ That’s what most people feel about the place they’re from.

Right. Especially at a particular age.

A lot of my friends who are here now or who have come back still don’t feel a place here. Like moving out to the ‘burbs, moving out to Morrisville, Cary, Wake Forest, still feeling like ‘this is still not for me.’  I think that’s a real loss, and it’s unfortunate because I think we’ve lost and are continuing to lose [Durhamites], especially during the pandemic. There was like a grand reverse migration that’s been happening, like, people from up north in bigger cities coming back south, and there’s also been almost like a grand exodus of people from Durham. A lot of our culture-bearers have dipped or just quieted and fell back from some of the culture-making that they were doing and the pandemic accelerated that.

There’s a lot of new spots, and I’ll be at the new spots, too—this [NorthStar] is kind of a newish spot. I’m not mad at all of the new spots inherently, but it’s like, damn, where we at?

When I think of YOU as a Durham son, I see you as a creator of abundance. That’s going on through gentrification, through the migration patterns of local folks who are being priced out. But when I’m at Black August in the Park, I feel in abundance. I remember one time I got a call—this must have been like, 17, 16—and you were doing bike tours around the Hayti. Just Black bikes, Bruh. 

Black Folks on Bikes! 

What is driving you to create these spaces and what is the connective tissue between them?

Yeah, I mean, Black is a connective tissue for sure. And even when I think back to, like, when we were starting Black August in the Park—shout out to Moses, Crystal, Ja’nell, Gunn—part of it was us seeing the trend that we just discussed. We could see it in a different stage, and it’s like, oh, we need to make space for us here. 

That’s always been part of my creative practice—making space for Black folks and taking space and taking up space. And not taking up space necessarily in response to whiteness, but just, like, not quieting ourselves or our culture.

We talked a lot about Durham. Could you talk about the role that it plays in North Carolina and the way that your work is expansive beyond the containers of the Bull [City]? 

Durham is the progressive center of the state, and you can see it when you cross over 440. Once you go past 540 or whatever, you can see it and feel it in the air walking down. No disrespect to my Raleigh brothers and sisters, respectfully, but it’s a different energy. It’s a difference, for better or worse. I was talking to somebody recently. I’ve talked to a few people who’ve had a similar challenge in coming to Durham and they’re like, how do you plug in? We have this thing where it’s almost like you’ve got to be affiliated with some movement or space or organization, which has its challenges.

But it also speaks to how Durham is organized. People are active, people are engaged with history—have been engaged with what goes on here and how that affects the larger community. And I think there’s an era of developers being  like, oh, ‘We look to Austin because we’re kind of weird like Austin.’ And so how do we create that same energy as a smaller city?

“That’s always been part of my creative practice—making space for Black folks and taking space and taking up space. And not taking up space necessarily in response to whiteness, but just, like, not quieting ourselves or our culture.”

Durham is an influential, progressive place, similar to and in the middle of a conservative state—the South. Yeah, the region, but also radical action, also lives in the South and is birthed in the South. And so I always saw—with Black August in the park, but also Tall Grass—that our movements have got to come from the South because we experience things in a very specific way.

Even thinking about Durham’s positionality—not in just the Southern United States, but as a Black community positioned in the global south—Durham is uniquely positioned. I think it’s just one of those places that quietly has always been part of the conversation politically.

[With] Tall Grass Food Box, we are striving to build an infrastructure for Black farmers in the region. Farming doesn’t know county limits—I mean, it does, but it’s a regional endeavor because soil is not bound by the state or county lines. So we access folks who are still within what I would say is the Durham metropolitan area, the surrounding counties, the surrounding counties of the Triangle.

Increasingly, a lot of Black folks who are being pushed out of Durham are being pushed out to those places. Going out to Oxford. 

That’s where it’s affordable, exactly. All that to say, I think specifically with Tall Grass, it’s an infrastructural thing that I think is as important as the philosophical and cultural piece. I think they go hand in hand and they make space for one another.

I wonder if you could talk about a moment from your childhood, perhaps in Durham, where you felt possessed by that public spirit. Because I think we take those vibrations and translate them into adulthood.

I think it was definitely my rearing. My mom was a social worker and worked for Wake County Human Services for the majority of her career and was always talking about facilitating things in the community. My grandmother was the social services director in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and my dad would preach and was really rooted in the community. 

Watching the relationships my mom would build with our neighbors when I had to get picked up somewhere—or even the idea that I had mad different mf’s picking me up from school, that there were that many people trusted enough to come scoop me. That says something about how she operates and thinks about community. 

I did some organizing work in Atlanta, and that definitely shaped my perspective. I worked with a group home and being able to see the good, bad, and the ugly of what happens when community wraps its arms around people—and what happens when we don’t wrap our arms around people—and seeing the possibilities when we do. People always benefit from community. 

You have a solo show coming up. Community will certainly be involved, but you’re at the center. How does that feel?

I’m at a point where I have been doing more work with and for myself and I’ve been in a very intentional mode of development around my creative practice. And that’s been with the help of Margaret Brunson, who—everybody, if you’re from here, you know, because she’s an incredible facilitator. She’s been helping me develop a ritual for my creative practice. When I stopped my full-time work with Student U back in 21 I’d been an artist, but now I [was] like, okay, how do I make this not like a job? 

Because I don’t want it to feel like going to work. That’s not what I want. But how do I take it seriously? In the same way I’m not perfect. But this morning, waking up, I got my “breathe gather, and write” practice. So I’m waking up, I’m breathing, I’m touching earth, literally. I feel like I’ve been preaching the gospel of this to everybody. I’ll gather, which for me is consuming some kind of art, or, most mornings, reading. And that’s feeding into my research for my artwork also. And then I’m writing. So I’m either writing a reflection on what I’ve read and how it makes me feel.

You’ve mentioned Marcella Camara and Monet Noelle Marshall [in a longer version of this interview]. Can we just take a moment to celebrate Black women? And maybe you could talk about what Black women in Durham have meant to you? 

Personally, professionally, spiritually, emotionally—I mean, everything. And I’m so grateful. 

I think that’s what’s interesting and unique about this moment in Durham is not just the centrality, but the acknowledgment of the centrality of Black women in this area, as opposed to when you think about narratives around Black Wall Street, it’s like all these men that we’re naming with suits looking like a frat picture. And, yeah, they were dope, but there’s always been women there doing important things and leading and I think now it’s more visible.

I want to talk a little more about your work. What does “Surviving the Burn” mean to you? 

So really, it’s like—assuming that we gone make it. So it deals with eco grief, but it also deals with eco possibilities. It’s assuming that Black folks, as resilient as we are and have been, we’ll get through this too. 

Rooting in that possibility feels important. So really it’s like looking back and seeing like, okay” we survive. Who did we have to become? Who do we have to stop being? What cultural ways of being did we maintain, invent, and shed? What knowledge did we center? And what are the artifacts of that survival and what did those lives look like? I’ve been increasingly obsessed with swamps. There’s a book I was reading about the Great Dismal Swamp, and it kind of positioned it as being inherently resistant to capitalist extraction and how in order to live and survive there, you got to be in relationship with that place.

You can’t scale it. That idea, that everything must grow and scale is extractive and destructive. So going back to Surviving to Burn, thinking about the swamp as an example of how we could live. We have marooned ourselves to swamps in the past in community with Indigenous folks and some poor white folks. That’s been a place that we’ve gone as a solution and I think as a place of refuge, a place of abundance. .

I’ve just really been enjoying exploring narratives around swamps and thinking about how we can use them as an example of what we can do moving forward. Whether we return geographically is still a question for me, but restoring our wetlands is incredibly important, and being in community with our wetlands is important. I think it’s a place we need to go back to, whether it’s philosophically or topographically or geographically. We got to return to the swamp.

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