In 2007, when I created an all-ages community school called Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, I used the meeting space I had at hand: my living room. Over a decade of programming, night schools, potlucks, and ancestral birthday parties took place in the five homes I’ve rented in Durham. Using my living room in this way transformed the way I lived. 

When I think about a “motherplan” for Durham, which I proposed last month in this space as an alternative to the “master plans” for Durham’s growth, I think of what grows out of our living rooms. 

By using my living room as a micro-community institutional space, I followed in the tradition of under-resourced and passionate visionaries. Anna Julia Cooper, born a child in slavery in Raleigh, created a night school for adults in her living room in Washington, D.C. Janice “Jaye” Vaughn, founder of Cedar Chest (an organization for Black lesbians that met in her living room in the 1990s) told me that the duplex in the Burch Avenue neighborhood where I lived had been used for Black feminist gatherings before my time. After I moved out, writer Zelda Lockhart used that same living room for her Women’s Writing Intensives. Ed Swan, founder of the L-Room B&B, used a living room on Geer Street to host a range of events, including an intimate conversation with Erica Garner about police violence. But as Geer Street became trendy, The L Room moved farther from downtown. 

Those of us using our living rooms as community centers are addressing gaps in municipal funding. But amid gentrification, even having a living room to share is less common. 

Master planners think about living rooms, too, at least as a metaphor. The most recent (2017) version of the Downtown Durham Master Plan uses the term “living room” three times in three ways. The first is as a premise: “Downtown is the living room of the entire Durham community.” 

Later, the report notes that downtown’s living-room status may be under threat, suggesting the need for “a broad range of economic, housing, and cultural investments that promote downtown’s inclusivity.” And then there’s the living room within the living room. If downtown is the city’s living room,  “public spaces serve as the living room for downtown by creating common spaces that are accessible to anyone.” 

But when racially biased policing continues to shape how residents of color relate to downtown’s supposedly equally accessible spaces, can they truly provide a living room for the whole community?  

As the emerging historian Dannette Sharpley writes in an essay examining the racial context of her own Durham living room: “In 1930, the year in which Durham experienced a massive boom in population and development including the construction of my own house, they began redlining neighborhoods and undercutting the value of African American wealth.” 

The strength of Black Wall Street and the cultural, financial, and educational success of Hayti were destroyed by policies including the construction of the Durham Freeway and bank practices that decided that homes in Black neighborhoods were inherently less valuable than homes in white neighborhoods. 

The question of whose life is valuable is crucial again in the midst of Durham’s current population boom. 

In her book Living Room, architect and Black feminist poet June Jordan confronts the systemic racial violence that stands in the way of living rooms for communities of color around the world. When I read her words, I think of the work of Durham Beyond Policing: 

I need to speak about living room/ where my children will grow without horror/ I need to speak about living room where the men/ of my family between the ages of six and sixty-five are not/ marched into a roundup that leads to the grave.

If June Jordan were alive and living in Durham, I think she would love to be part of a motherplanning session. She believed in “the determining relationship between architectural reality and physical well being.” In her architectural plans and correspondence with colleague Buckminster Fuller in the 1960s, she imagined architecture as “reparations for the ravaged peoples of Harlem,” drawing plans for interconnected skyrise housing that included workshops to develop the creativity of all residents to “demonstrate the feasibility of beautiful and low-cost shelter integral to a comprehensively conceived new community for human beings.”

Could we imagine that in Durham—abundant living room for all of us? That is my hope. More soon.  

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.

NEXT WEEK: CHIKA GUJARATHI, a Raleigh-based writer and author of the Hello Namaste! children’s books, whose work can be found on her blog The Antibland Chronicles.

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