Friday, October 12, 2007

Report on Best of Enemies Event

Last night, my parents and I were waiting patiently in the back row of the Griffith Film Theater for the Best of Enemies program to start. The author of the book, Osha Gray Davidson and activist, Ann Atwater, were about to speak. Ten to fifteen minutes after six, a well-dressed man walked up to me and said, "This auditorium really isn't wheelchair accessible, is it?" I explained that this was as good as it gets. He replied, "Well, Ann Atwater is in a wheelchair." That wasn't good. I didn't think it was possible to get down to the stage. We briefly talked about the back lower entrances and the steps leading to them. Finally, it looked as if people were coming though the doors below. They must have carried her or rolled her down the steps somehow. The man thanked us and walked down toward the stage, where he greeted them and sat down in one of the two chairs set aside for the speakers. The man I'd been talking to was Osha Gray Davidson.

Reading a book during almost every non-working moment, finishing it with just hours to spare and then hearing at least one of the people about whom the book was written and its author is an unusual experience. The closest thing I can think of is reading a book and then seeing the movie afterwards, with excellent casting. You try to fit every phrase into the context of what you've read and wonder if there are any inconsistencies. You incorporate the voices and the mannerisms into scenes that you've already imagined.

The book is, of course, told from Davidson's point of view and illustrates his conclusions. It, therefore, wasn't surprising that he didn't seem to contradict them, although he did allow that some of his criticisms of the "black elite" had been too harsh. To me, it was also interesting to hear Atwater's views. Davidson's theme of the book was that the problems are not due to race so much as class differences, but Atwater did not seem to believe that. She said it was all about race. I agree with Davidson, because while I think that while xenophobia and cultural differences are prevalent, I feel that racial distinctions are arbitrary. Discrimination based on poverty, however, is almost ubiquitous. The greater the disparity of wealth, the easier it is for the poor to be subjugated, regardless of physical attributes.

I was also struck by how much religion is an important part of Atwater's life. It's what motivates her and what she advocates as the solution to society's ills. When I encounter someone who has such profound and obviously sincere faith, it astounds me just how differently they see the world from how I do, particularly when their goals are admirable. Religion as a driving force, for either side, was not addressed in the book.

Again, the book was fascinating to me. Not only was the historical information educational, but it helped me visualize what life was like for my parents, who lived in Durham while attending college and graduate school in the 60s. C.P. Ellis, the former Klansman, worked at Duke from long before I was born until two years before I matriculated. It mentions the Duke student demonstration demanding fair staff wages in which my Dad's cousin protested. It describes the Durham fires and the violence of which I'd heard stories. Davidson even wrote of the rally where Joan Baez briefly performed on campus, which my dad attended.

I mentioned in my earlier post that some of the people mentioned in the book are active in politics today. It actually mentioned primarily the parents of individuals who are prominent in Durham today. David Stith, who, according to the book, had Atwater and fellow protestors hosed down, is the father of Durham mayoral candidate Thomas Stith. Davidson quotes Elizabeth Tornquist, a writer for the alternative publication, the Anvil, who is the mother of Amy Tornquist, chef and owner of Watts Grocery. The son of Floyd McKissick, former leader of CORE, was recently elected by the Durham Democratic Party to the North Carolina State Senate.

The event drew a good sized crowd of perhaps 250 to 300 people. The audience ranged from Duke faculty, staff and students to high school students and other members of the community. Following the question and answer session, there was a reception in Perkins Library where audience members had the opportunity to meet Davidson and Atwater and get their copies of the book autographed. I am profoundly honored to have been allowed to have my photograph taken with Ann Atwater, who has contributed so much to Durham and to all of us.


  1. First off, Lenore, thank you for the "well-dressed" comment. I almost never wear a jacket and tie, so it's nice to hear that I pulled off the clothes-thing at Duke.

    That was a fascinating discussion for me and I know Ann enjoyed it, too. Lots of good questions and observations -- including your blogged comments here. I only wish that CP Ellis, the former klan leader, had been there. He was a remarkable person (obviously), and it was always fun to be on a panel with CP and Ann, in part because I could just sit and listen to them. If there's a heaven, CP's in it.

    The format of the evening didn't really allow for nuances or follow-ups, so I wanted to let you know that Ann is very adamant about class being an issue in Durham. But, she doesn't use egg-head words like "class." At the Regulator discussion on Saturday, I asked her specifically: Is the gap between rich and poor Blacks important to how things played out in Durham doing the years covered in the book? She said yes. Or more like, "Oh, YEAAHH!" When I'm interviewing someone, if the question is really important, I usually ask it a few times, phrased differently to allow the nuances to come through. Of course, that wasn't possible at the Duke event.

    On to religion. I think it's a fair criticism to say I didn't discuss Ann's religious motivations more in the book, and you're absolutely right that religion was (and is) central to everything Ann does. I did mention her spiritual side a few times. (See pages 73 and 271.) On page 105 I focussed more on the central role of religion in the movement as a whole: "Nonreligious white liberals have typically downplayed the role of religion in the civil rights movement..." and went on to discuss how churches, not campuses, were at the center of the sit-ins. But, again, I'll take that as constructive criticism that perhaps I should have written more about Ann's religious fervor.

    That's so cool that your father was at that vigil. That was really a unique moment, with the Duke students striking -- not over the war in Vietnam -- but over the inadequate wages page to Duke workers. I hope students there today recommit themselves to those alliances.

    Thanks so much for writing this blog, and for coming to the event. Ann IS awesome. So was CP. I miss him.

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to write such a thoughtful comment here on my blog. I am absolutely delighted that
    you did.

    I do wish, also, that we could have heard C.P.'s perspective. From what you described, he went through such a remarkable transformation that is incredibly rare.

    I do unfortunately get the sense that the majority of students on campus today are focused primarily on what occurs inside the campus itself. Overhearing lunchtime conversations, I rarely hear topics other than grades, the smartest people they think they know and romantic episodes. One student at the event inquired about self-segregation and I wonder if many students are segregating themselves not only from other segments of the population, but the outside world. I would imagine that, given today's unfortunate political climate, it might be a necessary defense mechanism for some students. Hopefully, this hypothesis is completely wrong and conversations are just lighter over lunch.

    Thank you again. I look forward to reading the rest of your books!

  3. I think (hope?) you're right about lunchroom conversation being light, by nature. And it does seem like the institution's role to get students involved with the community.

    My time at Duke last week was obviously not representative -- I was meeting people who ARE involved, or they wouldn't have been at the event.

    Back to work! Thanks again for your insights.