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Wednesday, July 09, 2008

I have a review in this week's Independent of Lewis Shiner's recent novel Black & White, set in Durham and centered around the destruction of the historic Hayti neighborhood in order to construct the Durham Freeway in 1970.

"The past," William Faulkner wrote, "is never dead. It's not even past." Lewis Shiner's new Southern noir Black & White—set in the author's hometown of Durham—is only the latest novel to rearticulate this central, inescapable American truth, the endless return of the secret histories and collective sins we wish could just stay buried.

There are secrets upon secrets in Black & White, sins upon sins, but they all revolve around a single, penetrating absence: Hayti, the African-American community gutted by the construction of the Durham Freeway 40 years ago. When comic artist Michael Cooper returns to Durham in 2004 with his elderly mother and father after a childhood spent in Dallas, Texas (his father has "come home to die"), he finds himself drawn deeper into this still-bleeding communal wound. A simple effort to retrieve a copy of his birth certificate—of which there is mysteriously no record—leads Michael unexpectedly to his father's involvement in the murder of a civil rights activist found in a concrete overpass on N.C. 147.

The corpse, of course, is more than just a single person's: This is Hayti's corpse, the murder still unsolved.

Shiner's story takes us deep into the unhealed psychic wounds surrounding the urban renewal movement of the 1960s and '70s, in which federal funds were taken by Southern cities such as Durham to "revitalize" troubled—read "black"—areas in what one of Shiner's characters describes as a "calculated revenge for integration. Urban renewal focused almost exclusively on black neighborhoods. Nothing was ever rebuilt, only destroyed." So it was with Hayti when it was cut in two to build the road leading out of town to Research Triangle Park.
I recently saw on Boing Boing that Shiner has put the whole novel online free of charge, a development I wholeheartedly approve of. For more on Hayti and its desecration, there's no better place to start than Endangered Durham.