Project: Essay by Sharmi Amin

First, I noticed the shifting smells, car exhaust and the hot pavement as we crisscrossed from South Buchanan through West Chapel Hill Street. As we shuffled onto Carroll Street, burning wood and freshly cut grass replaced the urban scents. Then the sounds filled in. They changed from the cars bustling through downtown Durham to the quiet songs of crickets, the occasional car zipping past the vibrant front doors of the neighborhood, and a dog barking in the distance, adding to the local symphony. I noticed lively tranquility. As our class sat on the steps of Pauli Murray’s house, Dr. Robin Kirk commented, “It is like our own version of crazy Charlie[1],” referring to the person shouting out across the street. 

     Despite being from Salisbury, a town only a couple hours from Durham, I had never heard the name Pauli Murray before our first day of class. On September 3rd, we took a trip to Murray’s childhood home after reading the first few chapters of her memoir, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family. Murray’s voice through her words captivated me. Her memoir floated from vivid personal anecdotes, specific memories of her grandparents and aunts, to her reflections on the social and political atmospheres of her family members’ lifetimes. 

     As we walked to Murray’s family house, I recognized metaphors of her activism, through which she broke down so many boundaries. The neighborhood with its teal, red, and yellow front doors and the Carolina blue exterior complemented by the pink and aqua interiors of Murray’s own house resonated with the vibrant flag of the LGBTQ rights for which she fought. Furthermore, the gardens that spread in front of many of the houses in the neighborhood, “rich in meanings and associations for their owners[2],” reminded me of the deep significance that Grandfather Fitzgerald’s land had to him. Murray’s involvement in human rights paralleled the tenacity with which Grandfather Fitzgerald fought for the right to his land. 

     Digging deeper into this notion of land ownership, what is the significance of possessing property? Grandfather Fitzgerald fought for his piece of land for the clay in the ground and the control that came from the ownership of a home. But to what extent did size or the neighborhood influence or restrain his choice of land? Professor Barbara Lau encouraged us to consider the difference between the sizes of houses between the historically white neighborhoods and Murray’s primarily African American sector of Durham. The larger homes were in “better” parts of town, where a cemetery sewage pipe might not have threatened to flood the back of a house. These are the parts of town where the city might have taken immediate action to solve such a problem instead of circling it through the city’s government offices for 75 years. Grandfather Fitzgerald used his garden to protect his family against this inequity while Murray’s grandmother used the garden to release frustration when she was troubled. For this family, the garden as a whole served as a metaphor for their fight against the inequality that they faced in Durham. This encourages me to question how people use their gardens in Durham today. In what way are gardens upholding these metaphors established by their ancestors? What aspects of gardens serve to protect their keepers from unfairness, providing a space where a person does not feel judgement or obligation, and what other portions lean more towards the spiritual aspect? Furthermore, by looking into what significance a garden has to a family or specific person on an extremely intimate level, it is crucial to understand how the meaning of a garden or gardener might be used as a model to look at a larger issue that is more difficult to analyze. To what extent does having a generational garden—one that has been in a family for more than one generation or where responsibility for its maintenance and the meaningfulness of the garden has been passed down—connect that land to a person’s identity? Stepping back to an even larger scale, when considering the garden and the individuals who care for it as a proxy for a country and those who maintain its economy/wellbeing, what are some of the similarities and differences between someone or something like a storm threatening the garden compared to people ignoring climate change, which threatens Americans’ livelihood within the country? To tackle these socially-based questions regarding gardens, however, I thought it was important to first understand the concept of a garden.

     The week after visiting Murray’s home, our class took a trip to Duke University’s Sarah P. Gardens where Bobby Mottern, director of horticulture at the gardens, took us on a brief tour to talk about its history and its maintenance. Here, this question of “What is a garden?” came into play. The Duke Gardens are an amalgamation of cultures expressed via natural scenes, bringing people into these beautifully crafted, ecological masterpieces. When I think of my family’s garden at home, however, it seems to relate less to culture and more to the identities of my family members. The Japanese Maple is for my dad because he loves watching the colors change from spring green to deep red. The curry leaf plant is the only plant in the garden that my mom brings in when the weather is supposed to get cold. And there is the array of flowers that I insist upon because I love to watch the birds and bees flit among the colors. To me, a garden is a natural space that reflects those who care for it, whether it be for decorative, social, or utilitarian uses. 

     In explaining the layout out of the Duke Gardens, Mottern mentioned that the staff of the Duke Gardens organize plant placement based on similarities. Similar place of origin, similar necessary environment, and so on. This sounded familiar to me in that we often see urban areas set up in a mirrored fashion. People of similar origin or race tend to stick to sectors where they feel as though they fit in. This seems simple; communities gravitate to places where they feel comfortable; however, the problem appears when societal factors such as systematic racism dictate who belongs where and why. Looking into the gardens throughout Durham, I am curious to know how these gardens were established. Did they grow from familial gardens into community ones or were they crafted to attract certain groups as cultural hubs? What kind of marketing does one do for a garden and on what terms? Is it as a place of diversity or commonality, maybe both? I look forward to hearing from the Durham gardeners on how their gardens came into existence and in their opinions, what are the purposes of each specific garden. What do they mean to the people who care for them and for those who come to visit? How might each provide the sense of comfort to someone who feels as though he or she does not belong in Durham? Murray did an incredible job of fighting for various Durham communities’ right to a sense of belonging within the city; I look forward to bridging this with our conversation regarding gardens and their purposes within Durham.

[1] Murray, Pauli. Proud Shoes. Boston: Beacon Press, 1999, Introduction and pp. 1-111. 

[2] Westmacott, Richard Noble. African-American Gardens and Yards in the Rural South. 1st ed. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1992, Chaps 1-3, 7-8.