I’ve noticed that the new white people in my neighborhood all seem to have large dogs. Despite how harmless they profess “Fido” or “Trixie” to be, the owner is issuing a not-so-subtle warning. The brand new, six-foot-tall border wall-like fence in their yard isn’t neighborly either. To me, it is a physical and cultural offense. 

The up-cropping of porch flags everywhere reeks of another settler colonial practice. This is the landscape that I’m navigating while passing out Juneteenth flyers to my Black neighbors. 

Feeling overwhelmed by whiteness extends well beyond my neighborhood. Last month, my mother came to visit me from the northeast. It had been several years, but we went to the Durham Farmers Market to buy chow chow, goat cheese, and banana butter. The demographics of the city’s recent population boom were evident that early Saturday morning. While many of the vendors were the same, I missed the Black family that sold mini cakes and hand pies. And I noticed that the majority of Black vendors were stationed on the outskirts of the main market plaza. What surprised me the most was the overwhelming number of white 30-somethings with infants and toddlers in tow. 

While we were happy to support local Black and white vendors, Mom and I didn’t stay long. As we were leaving I said to a friend on the phone, “Girl, there’s hardly any Black people here.”

I don’t whisper these truths anymore. 

An older white person came up to me after overhearing my comment. ”Well,” they told me, “there’s a Black Farmers Market in Raleigh tomorrow.” 

Seemingly well-meaning white folk are so proud of themselves, eager to share their knowledge of Black people with me.

“Actually, there are plenty of Black people here,” they added. 

I was so much kinder in that moment than I wanted to be. 

“Well, these two of the five Black people here are leaving,” I told them. 

How is it that there are fewer Black-owned businesses downtown than there were before the city’s revitalization? 

When I moved to Durham in 2003, the city center was mostly composed of Black-owned businesses. In addition to the bank and the post office, I mostly frequented Mr. Scott’s one-room tailor shop, the Ethiopian-owned convenience store, Mr. Show clothing store on Main Street, Talk of the Town nightclub, a Kenyan restaurant at Five Points, Mad Stylz Barbershop, and, of course, Ronny Sturdivant’s TQ Business Complex. 

White and Black folk alike in Raleigh were afraid to visit Durham, even during the daylight hours. Back then, Blacks made up 43 percent of the population. Our presence in Durham has been dwindling since 2010. And yet, unsolicited, a white person is quantifying for me just how many Black people are “enough.” 

There’s an inverse relationship between white peoples’ sense of well-being and Black folks’ access to public space. We might as well be living in the 1950s again. White people continue to take up so much space. And unfortunately, racial equity education has given many of them the language, resources, and entitlement to expand who and what they can control. 

I, too, am guilty. Since 2012, my social entrepreneurship—Whistle Stop Tours—has guided more than 100 groups through Black neighborhoods. I love sharing Durham’s history with Black family reunion and rites of passage groups. But the majority of my engagements are contracted for undergraduate classes at P.W.Is (Predominantly White Institutions), non-profit retreats, corporate orientations, and research projects assigned by private schools. 

“There’s an inverse relationship between white peoples’ sense of well-being and Black folks’ access to public space.”

Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen heritage tourism become profitable for everyone except the city’s most vulnerable residents. I don’t blame anyone for wanting to understand their history. But large groups of white people touring Black neighborhoods is, more often than not, another hallmark of gentrification.

My employer, Village of Wisdom, partners with The Hayti Heritage Center each year for Juneteenth. The Heritage Center’s evolution from a “brush arbor”—a place of worship—to an African Methodist Episcopal church, Freedman’s School, civil rights organizing space, and now, performance hall and cultural center, still bears the name of the first free Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere. The island nation of Haiti is a global symbol of Black liberation. The Creole, or Kreyol spelling of Ayiti (translated in English as “mountainous land”) is an acknowledgment of the indigenous Taino people whose population was decimated to near extinction by Spanish invaders in the 16th century. 

The descendant community of Hayti resisted a similar settler-colonial practice known as urban renewal. In 1975, St. Joseph’s A.M.E averted demolition and was added to the North Carolina Register of Historic Places. 

Black people need our own spaces. Segregation forced the creation of many districts like Hayti, Wilmington, and Greenwood that nonetheless thrived until they were targeted by racist violence, and the nation’s interstate highway system that tore through the heart of those communities.

 Black holidays like Juneteenth in Durham and across the country are our time to come together again. It’s a time to pay homage to the Occaneechi Band of the Saponi Nation whose land became a free-soil haven for African Americans during Jim Crow terrorism. It’s a time to rest from the labor of code-switching. We look forward to enjoying dedicated spaces away from the white gaze, oasis spaces where we can express ourselves through our food-ways, musical genius, remixed dance styles, and fashion, all the while remembering that there is history and legacy in everything Black folks do. 

This Juneteenth I’ve decided to raise the red, black, and green liberation flag in my yard. More than joy or pride, it is out of a sense of duty. I am reminded that sharing our history is also a transfer of Black power to future generations.

AYA SHABU is the Associate Director of Arts and Culture at Village of Wisdom and the curator of its Juneteenth celebration on Friday, June 18 at the Hayti Heritage Center. Comment on this column at backtalk@indyweek.com.

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