To paraphrase the Harlem Renaissance wordsmith Countee Cullen, city council members’ preliminary decision to create an official Bull City poet—and bid him, or her, to sing—appeared to be a done deal this spring. 

That’s when a trio of prominent local poets went before the council during National Poetry Month to propose funding for a Durham poet laureate position.

But for community members on the other side of the not-so metaphoric divide, suggestions of fair pay for a poet, or even hiring one in an official city capacity, are damning during a global pandemic.

In some quarters, paying a wordstar even a few thousand dollars a year for the possibility of healing words is especially galling with the increasing gun violence in some neighborhoods, including in South Durham where three people were shot dead over a 48-hour period last week.

On Monday, Donald A. Hughes, a community activist, and 2014 Durham school board candidate, told council members that while he supports the idea of a poet laureate position, he was “pretty concerned with what message the city is sending” by paying $6,000 to a poet in the midst of a pandemic exacerbated by deadly gunfire that all too often targets young Black people.

Ironically, Hughes’ concerns come 100 years after a promising, but relatively unknown young Black poet with the same last name—Langston Hughes—wrote his near-immortal poem The Negro Speaks of Rivers.

It was, for Hughes, (the poet, not the school board candidate), the first poem for which he received critical acclaim, and probably a few needed dollars. Langston Hughes, who would go on to become—at first derisively, and then affectionately—known as Harlem’s “poet low-rate” was only 17 when the poem was published in the June 1921 issue of the NAACP magazine The Crisis. America was recovering from a global pandemic during that time, too.

Donald Hughes’ three-minute address during the city council’s regularly scheduled meeting resonated with the uncomfortable poetry of the moment as he questioned why the city should give money to a poet in the face of a pandemic that has deepened economic uncertainties and “eruptions of gun violence “ and the message it sends “to residents who are ducking bullets every day.

“Sadly, these words could have come from any story, any day, any week, any month of the year, as frequent as the shootings in Durham have become,” he said after recounting a local news story of a woman being shot.

Hughes continued to sing his own weary blues, saying the city is in a state of emergency, but the council is not acting with a sense of urgency. He aimed hard words at council member Javiera Caballero, a mayoral candidate who ran a distant second behind Elaine O’Neal during the primaries of Tuesday’s municipal election.

“When asked, ‘What are you doing right now to address the spike in gun violence and deaths in Durham?’” Hughes said, “Councilmember Javiera Caballero resorted to the usual political answer”—when she pointed to the creation of a community safety department—which “is not addressing this surge in gun violence.”

Hughes also took umbrage with Caballero’s criticism and lack of support for Shotspotter, a gunshot technology that relies on audio detectors to accurately pinpoint the location of gunshots within about eighty feet and quickly dispatch local police to the scene.

During a press conference in front of city hall last week, Caballero pointed to an August report that summarized the use of Shotspotter alerts in Chicago “rarely produce documented evidence of a gun-related crime, investigatory stop, or recovery of a firearm.”

Undeterred, Hughes challenged the council members to immediately allocate resources to fund the questionable Shotspotter program for Durham, along with money to provide year-round employment for young people who might find jobs instead of finding themselves on the wrong ends of deadly gunfire.

Hughes also called for greater support of police who are serving the community and for “Black organizations working in Black communities to save Black lives.

Hughes aimed caustic words, too, at Mayor Pro Tem Jillian Johnson, saying that funding is “somehow found for any pet project” she puts forward because she has “a bloc of three other votes” that controls the will of the council.

“Let’s find the four votes tonight to save Black lives in Durham,” Hughes said.

Words are powerful. Silence is also telling. And sometimes, so goes the African proverb: the roaring lion drops the meat.

Following Hughes’ impassioned and pointed plea, the city council voted unanimously and without comment to approve a poet laureate program that’s scheduled to begin in July of next year.

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