Thursday, February 26, 2015

Justin Cook, Made in Durham, in The Bitter Southerner

Durham is the City of Documentary Photography, what with the Center for Documentary Studies, the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival, and Duke's MFA in Experimental and Documentary Arts program.

So it's no surprise that Justin Cook, a free-lance photographer based in Durham, has made folks in Durham the subject of a long-running project to document the uneven impact of the revival of Southern cities on their citizens.

Cook's project, called Made in Durham, is currently featured in The Bitter Southerner ezine, a publication fast becoming the go-to place for compelling stories about the complexities and paradoxes of Southern culture. 

Cook documents how Durham is successfully transforming itself from a working class city with an economy based on tobacco into a city with an economy based on high-tech medicine, education, and the arts. 

In Durham, the world-famous Durham Bulls baseball team rubs shoulders with the American Dance Festival, Duke University and its Medical Center, and NC Central University and its Museum of African-American Art.

The city has also been named by Southern Living as one of the hottest cities in the South, for its Farmers Market, its local breweries, and its fine-dining restaurants. 

Cook wants us to remember, however, that Durham is also a city living with its history as a Southern city.

There is a significant part of Durham that is still "scarred by segregation," and by the unequal impact of urban renewal, where "condos sprout from the rubble of blighted neighborhoods, and affordable housing grows scarce." 

 This part of Durham "fights for the right to exist and struggles to keep its young people alive."

This is the part of Durham, where neighborhoods, churches, and commercial areas were destroyed to make way for a freeway that at once connected Durham to the rest of North Carolina's Research Triangle Park and the interstate highway system, and also cut Durham in half, sharply dividing the city along racial and economic lines.  

The Durham that Cook documents, in stunning photographs, is a part of the city where, as he puts it, unemployment is high, and young men, "saddled with criminal records and locked out of jobs, adrift between boredom and fear and survival . . . sell drugs and release their self-hatred by annihilating each other.

"Homicide is the fruit of economic isolation and a code of street justice entrenched when the law fails to protect their community. In 2013, it was the leading cause of death for African-American males ages 15-49 in this Durham. Their murders go unsolved and their mothers grieve to death; their children grow up without dads and wander toward their same fate."

Cook makes this documentary personal by introducing us to Joslin Simms, shown weeping in the image at the top of this blog entry. 

She stands at the corner of Broad and Leon Streets in Durham where her son Rayburn, 30, was shot to death on May 21, 2005.

Cook gives Simms a voice in this piece, enabling her to in effect co-author it with him. He ends with Simms' voice, a voice that entreats us to 

Take away the guns and madness
    Save another family from this sadness;
I can’t fake a smile, or stifle my scream
Wake me up from my walking death
    Wake me up, wake me up

“Since Ray been murdered," she says, "I have nightmares. I dream of him in the morgue, and when they are cutting his body I wake up because I can feel the knife cutting me.” 

This is a part of Durham with too many funerals, too much pain and suffering. 

Cook gets that part of the story about right. 

But he also gets right a broader story, one in which people form community to support each other through hard times and the challenges of life in the South where not everyone shares fully in the new New South of the 21st century.

Cook also gets right some signs of hope, in which people endure, basic Southern concerns with family get affirmed, and new possibilities open before us. 

Congratulations to Cook for his fine work, and also to the Bitter Southerner for bringing it to us.

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