It was a holiday, so downtown Durham was quiet. Completely quiet. Even the constant buzz of construction machinery in a gentrifying city had taken the day off. All the shops, offices, and restaurants were closed. The city hushed, and families huddled in at home.  

Or that’s what you might think. Unless you heard the screaming. 

I live near the downtown jail and happened to walk by on that quiet day. Given the air slits that pass for windows at the jail and the height of the sound, I couldn’t see what was happening. All I know is what I heard. One heart-wrenching scream and then a chorus of screams following. The sound echoed off the glass of the empty Durham Performing Arts Center, the Fox 50 station, the vacant parking lots. I don’t know whether the scream was from someone being physically harmed, and a chorus rose up in witness. I don’t know if it was the sound of protest. 

I do know that some famous prison rebellions have taken place during the holidays, when fewer guards come to work and the heartbreak of being separated from family on a day of celebratory gathering is palpable. 

I haven’t heard any news of a full-scale rebellion in the downtown jail in recent months, but I know what I heard. It was a tortured sound that I never would have been able to perceive except for the fact that it was the only sound, and I happened to be within earshot. A person screaming became people screaming. And for a moment, there was a break in the profound silence of the routine absurdity of hundreds of people not even convicted of any crime, forcibly kept away from their loved ones during the holidays. The guttural sound of a longing for home. 

Mostly, the systemic homelessness Durham reproduces is quiet, easily drowned out by the sound of bulldozers, traffic, and the promise of opportunities for some. It is the mold growing quietly on the walls of rental properties, ravishing immune systems all over this “City of Medicine.” It is the quick installation of a plastic gate preventing anyone from sitting or sleeping in the shelter of the underpass of my exit off of 147, and the evictions and price-outs that make such a gate necessary. It is the tragedy of two babies dying in their sleep in the last two months of 2019 and the possibility that it might be linked to the toxicity of the air inside the Durham Housing Authority’s neglected McDougald Terrace homes. 

There are many silent ways that the myth of home is shattered here in Durham. But usually, you can’t hear it while it’s happening. 

Unless somebody screams.  

Guess what, Durham? The screaming has started. The STOP EVICTIONS NOW coalition has emerged to draw attention to the fact that, all year, but especially during the holidays, too many families lose their homes and have few safe options. Now, in the new year, concerned parents and community members at McDougald Terrace are demanding that the DHA address the gas leakages, carbon monoxide, broken heating systems, and general structural negligence affecting the physical health of residents. 

The bravery of the activists who are raising their voices at McDougald and seeking to intervene in evictions citywide is beautiful. And it reminds me of June Jordan’s poem published 50 years ago, “For Beautiful Mary Brown: Chicago Rent Strike Leader.” In that poem, Jordan honors the work of those protesting unlivable housing conditions in Chicago with these words: “You will be god to bless you.”

I hope that in this new decade, we can learn from what this holiday season has taught us, that for many of us, the idea of the holidays as warmth, home, cozy connection, and culinary and consumerist cheer is only a dream. For many Durham residents, so-called holy days actually represent a crisis in dignity and an existential contradiction. There are so many ways that the safety and warmth of home, our most basic human right, is a fantasy right now in Durham, daily bulldozed by rhetoric that doesn’t account for the anguish in our midst. 

And alongside those who seek to stop evictions and guarantee safe housing for all Durham residents, I imagine a Durham blessed, not by the forced silence of disempowerment, but by the peace of a people safe at home, honored at the level of our breathing. That’s something I can believe in. That’s something I would celebrate.  

Imagine that holy day, when we can stop screaming—and sing.

ALEXIS PAULINE GUMBS is the author of M Archive: After the End of the World, Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity, and co-editor of Revolutionary Mothering: Love on the Front Lines. Follow her on Twitter @alexispauline.

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One reply on “Holidays, Holy Rage, and Breaking the Silence in Durham”

  1. I moved to durham 2012 from atlanta ga. As I read this my entire mind stopped for a moment and realized how profoundly unsettling your truth is. You ARE RIGHT DURHAM FROM “GROUND ZERO”, isn’t the city of medicine it is the city of Hurt of pain the small city of a second Chicago. Its the city of gunshots from the hands of a 14yr old. It’s the city of soup kitchens and broken dreams. I myself have never stepped foot into the durham jail and I pray I never have too but I am the victim of a gun shot womb that left me laying in duke hospital for 3.5bmonths I missed my bday my gf bday Halloween Xmas and almost new yrs eve from 9/25 to 12/14/13 and then after I had no where to live “Just a clean house”, took me in only to kick me out after the charity money from duke ran out. I couldnt walk I had a whole in my stomach and I had lost 40pounds from 150 to 110 in a month. I had nothing and no one but everything around me told me I would make it…and so I did. But it was hard. I hate this city smh it’s taken parts of me away from me I didn’t even know I had. Now I’m doing better and as soon as I get stable here on james st. In the West end I have to move because “Trosa” bought my apartment building and all we got was a call December 6th 2019 telling us the news and letters saying that we had 30 to 90 days to vacate BUT THE NEW BUYERS STILL WANT RENT BUT HOW CAN I STILL PAY RENT ON 784 MONTHLY (SSI) AND SAVE TO MOVE AT THE SAME TIME???WORST THING IS I LIVE ACROSS FROM THE SAME PEOPLE THAT ARE FORCING US TO MOVE. READING YOUR ARTICLE GAVE ME CHILLS I COULD SEE MENTALLY SOMEONE BEING HURT or worst even worst SCREAMING FROM THE DEMONS IN THERE OWN MINDS A PRISONER OF A PRISON INSIDE OF A DORM INSIDE OF A CELL LOCKED IN THERE MINDS AT THE SAME TIME. IVE NEVER WRITTEN A RESPONSE TO ANY BLOG SITE BUT THIS MOVED ME. NOTHING ABOUT THE HOLIDAYS FELT SPECIAL. I HAD NO ANTICIPATION ABOUT XMAS OR THANKSGIVING. IM TOO SCARED TO GO ANYWHERE BUT TOO BORED TO STAY HOME. SMH ITS 707AM JAN 8th 2020 Im gonna go start my new old car I just got but Thank you for such a Spot on article…..its really that real. ❤

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