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Surreal 

It has been a surreal couple of weeks to live in Durham. As the dogwoods bloomed and the early spring air wavered between crisp and sublime, filled with the perfume of wisteria, the nightmare on Buchanan Boulevard invaded our every hour. Each time we inhaled a vista of Durham’s cottaged streets or winding country roads, our mind’s eye exhaled the faceless forms of Greek athletes and a young woman’s pain. The image of drunken, white lacrosse players shouting racial slurs at a mom from the black school across town fleeing a job stripping for their pleasure and her own survival is bad enough. If she was raped, kicked, beaten, choked and held against her will as she says, it is beyond inhuman. It takes so much of what we love about Durham—a rich mix of people, an intimate city, the treasure of great universities—and turns them inside out.

When the news broke, we were stunned. They’re going to play a lacrosse match? What century are they living in? The community in this company town, joined by many of its students, responded with momentous outrage—marching, writing letters, lighting candles, banging pots and pans. Then we read the cry of the woman’s voice, the pornography of a vicious e-mail, and cold statements from the university’s elders (“wholly inappropriate”). But just as the specter of racism was peaking, thoughtful responses came from students and leaders at the historically black university across town calling for civility, justice and education.

Yet this also was the week Duke and Durham hosted a brilliant documentary film festival, dedicated to artists seeking truths, this year focusing on the pain suffered by so many, black and white, after Hurricane Katrina. We went and watched and felt chills as we celebrated the passion of the To Be Continued Brass Band, nine young men who played on a corner of Bourbon Street before the storm, were then blown apart, but whose dedication to their music and each other keeps them going. We saw the film about them Sunday afternoon, invited them to play in our neighborhood that evening, passed the word to a few friends who passed it on to others, and in a couple of hours nearly 200 people were in Duke Park—the city’s oldest—as the band accompanied the sunset, blaring its joyous message halfway across town.

Then, Monday. DNA results. The horrors return. Uninvited, it still pervades our consciousness. But still in our heads are the smell of wisteria and the blaring sounds of nine young men marching into the sunset, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” It is surreal. It is Durham, these last couple of weeks.

  • It has been a surreal couple of weeks to live in Durham.

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