On The Record: Pierce Freelon, getting to know the man (part 1)

by: cathy foreman

It’s interesting how things come into play; what raises your antenna or makes you sit a little bit straighter in your chair. And that was the case for me when I saw the announcement that Pierce Freelon was throwing his hat in the ring for Senator of North Carolina, representing district 20 in Durham. I dug in to find out more about this announcement and after reading a couple of articles, I became more curious and wanted to talk with Pierce about the confusion that came with his announcement. So, I reached out and asked him for an interview, to which he agreed.

Now, by no means do I consider myself politically savvy, but I try to complete my due diligence on candidates for whom I must cast my vote to ensure that their values are in line with my ideals. I think that is true for most people who vote. In my circle, we have some intense conversations particularly around education as we have lots of friends who are teachers and most of us have children who we feel are or may have been slighted, in some respects, when it comes to education … of course by no fault of the teachers. And coming from a rural area like Halifax County, that conversation tends to look a certain way … discussing the lack of opportunities, our kids being behind on the educational scale and the feeling of not being competitive enough, as if they can’t cut the muster at some of the schools for which that may be interested. It’s a tenuous conversation at best … we want so much for our children; each generation inevitably wants more for their children than they, themselves had.  It’s a hard road so when we have the chance to vote and affect change, my friends and I are there to do our part. We’re in line … we’re having conversations, we’re challenging your thoughts and we’re posting reminding people of this right that our ancestors fought and died for. It should not be vain, by no means.

I saw an opportunity to have a conversation with a young man who I’ve seen around Durham and Raleigh over the past seven years and thought this could be an interesting time to find out more about him, what he’s doing and where he’s going. I’m fortunate that Notes and Narratives provides an opening for me to have conversations with folk that I might not have had previously. I always try to tell a story and allow people to get to know the person or people with whom I’m interviewing, and I would tell Pierce the same thing at the end of our conversation. 

He believes that Durham plays a really important role in the state and his mind, “it is the creative center … the creative nucleus, right here in the heart.”

So, to get started I wanted to do a little recon by asking people that I knew to be up on the political scene, maybe not so much local, but interested nevertheless and some who may not be. I wanted to first know who knew Pierce and if so, how and what they thought of his run for mayor and his current run for Senate. To my surprise, none of the people I spoke with knew him, nor the Freelon name by just speaking it. As I would go on to explain their respective claims to fame, there was a light bulb that went off as if to say “oooohhh, yeah okay, I know who you’re talking about now.”, but still the name escaped most. I will say that before I became involved with the Art of Cool Project, about six years ago, I didn’t know of Pierce nor the name Freelon, myself. So, maybe it shouldn’t have been so surprising. My thoughts then turned to “wow! how can he connect with the people of North Carolina and the people in Raleigh/Durham in a way that’s more conducive for his campaign? So, again I was doing my recon and all over Peirce’s website and his Instagram trying to find out more about the man and what issues he backs and will work to make better. Is there enough information out about him for people to make educated choices? What I would find is that there is a lot of information regarding his foray into the arts, education and entrepreneurship, but not so much to help someone feel as if they know him or could represent their needs, in the long run. So, it became vital that try to lift that veil and reveal Pierce Freelon, the man … the individual.

pierce freelon by chris charles
image by: Chris Charles

With that thought in mind, my first question for Pierce was, “How would you describe yourself beyond such strong identities as the son of Phil and Nnenna and your work with The Beast?” Pierce would start by simply stating, “A Durmite” … first and foremost; someone who was born and raised in this community and is very much of this community in some very fundamental ways.  He says that a lot of formative memories would have his identity shaped not just by his parents, but by people like Baba Chuck Davis and his reading about Pauli Murray onto places of learning such as The Museum of Life and Science, The Know Bookstore and of course the campuses of North Carolina Central University and EK Powe Elementary. He says, “I think Durham is a very diverse and creative political community and I am also all of those things; not just because of who I came from, but because of where I came from.” From this, it is clear to see that his love for Durham runs deep …  that love flows through Pierce’s veins as steadily as the very blood that fuels him.

“everyone I’ve mentioned is different and they are unique… and that resonates with the people of Durham.

Still, there is more, and I wanted to find out how he felt his footprint in the arts community would help him connect with the people of North Carolina and Durham. He would go on to certify that North Carolinians are an educated people and the state is full of hard-working southerners who do things a little differently. Believing this to be one of his biggest strengths, he is a part of this collective. He believes that Durham plays a really important role in the state and his mind, “it is the creative center … the creative nucleus, right here in the heart.” While we have other areas, throughout the state which are making noise, in their own rights, like Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington, Pierce says “Durham is quite unique and is becoming world-renowned for its innovations in technology, entrepreneurship and art.” With a huge smile and a great proudness in his tone, he goes on to say, “it’s produced some of the world’s best architects and jazz vocalists”, but he quickly turns that admiration to other prominent figures who are of and from Durham. It was like getting a history lesson as he spoke of specific historic moments and award-winning members of and from the Durham Community such as: The architect of Brown vs the Board of Education, Pauli Murray, who wrote “the States’ Laws on Race and Color”, which was labeled the “bible” for the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education and other civil rights cases, the first black-owned insurance company,  North Carolina Mutual Life Insurance Company,  the oldest black-owned bank and the second in the nation, M&F Bank (Mechanics and Farmers), historian, author and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient, Dr. John Hope Franklin, dancer, choreographer and teacher of African Dance, Dr. Charles “Chuck” Davis, famed basketball coach of the Duke Blue Devils, Coach Mike Krzyzewski, editor and fashion journalist and editor at large of Vogue Magazine, icon Andre Leon Talley, and the creators of the ever so popular Netflix series, Stranger Things, the Duffer Brothers.  He says, “everyone I’ve mentioned is different and they are unique… and that resonates with the people of Durham. Durham produces a lot of people who are like that; people are able to thrive in this environment. There is something different about this community that has helped produce these unique talents. As he smiles with great joy, he says “as my daughter says it’s nice to be unique.” And so, it is, young lady … and so it is.

Image by: Chris Charles
image by: Chris Charles

Now I wanted to shift our conversation just a bit and talk about Pierce’s activism. I know that Pierce has been involved and led the charge with some local protests in the wake of “the attack on black America”. I’ve seen him rally a number of people including students and residents and lift his voice to speak about the senseless murders of our black youth … especially with the high-profile murders of Travon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Philando Castile. This set the stage for Pierce to come out with his bid for Mayor of Durham in 2017. I wanted to know if it was those specific tragedies that led him to want to do more and be more effective in the community or was it something more. Reflecting on his youth, Pierce says, “I’ve been involved in the community for most of my life whether I wanted to be or not my parents dragged me all types of programs and speakers, whether it was Harriet Tubman Day Camp or The Whole Child Day School, which was black and Muslim run; community spaces.” I’m sure we can all recall being made to go to educational camps as children. Our parents try to instill some semblance of culture in our lives, trying to give us a leg up, that perhaps they didn’t have. And we as kids didn’t appreciate it … and for many of us, we wanted to no part of it. At least not for the educational value it presented. Pierce went on to say, “to my dad taking me to see the cofounder the Black Panther Party, Bobby Seale, speak at the BN Duke Auditorium at Central, when I was in 5th grade. My grandmother was a civil rights activist, hairdresser, a woman of God – we’ve always been a family that has been invested in, involved in and a product of the community. So, the killings of black men and the victims of police brutality that have ignited my generation in the movement for black lives definitely had an effect on me, but it wasn’t where my involvement or investment in the community began it goes back to my early childhood.” I think when you grow up influenced by and involved in community issues, history, politics or church … one of three things will happen: you’ll continue the path, go against the grain and stay that off that path or even though you left, you end up coming back in some form. It would seem that Pierce was once who stayed the course and by doing so he inevitably became involved in the arts, which led to him teaching, being appointed to the NC Arts Council and leader on other education boards such as the Durham Library Foundation and Kidznotes. It’s a choice and the choices we make lay the foundation for the paths that our lives take. Many of us are fortunate in that we have guidance along the way, which keeps us focused on the prize, like Pierce. Likewise, there are those of us whose circumstances dictate and create an unlikely warrior.

Come back next week for part two of this conversation where we delve a little deeper and discuss Pierce and his run for the District 20 senate seat.