City Council candidate, Solomon Burnette

If all politics is local, one has to like Solomon Burnette’s chances of winning a seat on the Durham City Council. No fewer than five pedestrians, one assumes residents of the local community, stopped to say hello to Mr. Burnette, as he and your Clarion Content correspondent had a conversation over lunch outside the Broad Street Café.

He knows people generally and he knows his neighbors individually. It is this curious mix of the local and the global, the small and big picture that attracted the Clarion Content to Mr. Burnette in the first place. We have to admit that, despite our deep abiding love for Durham, the Clarion Content has hardly been up to speed on the race for City Council. It was a chance meeting with Burnette outside another Broad Street institution, the Palace International, that led to this interview and this article.

Mr. Burnette sat down with our correspondent for just over an hour two weeks ago.

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The Clarion Content does not buy into the idea we have heard bandied around town lately, that there is a distinction between an old and a new Durham, a way it was and a way it is. Our thought is, that’s facetious! Where we are as a community is a continuation of where we were. It is only possible because of those unique circumstances that make Durham uniquely what it is: from institutions to architecture to individuals, this Durham is built on the Durham that was.

Mr. Burnette gives truth to this proposition, this narrative, in his own personal story. He grew up in Durham’s Walltown neighborhood. He admittedly got into trouble. He might as he put it, “Blow the classwork out of the water,” but attendance problems meant he failed his freshman year, more than once. Before he went to prison, for felonies he says he neither committed nor snitched about, he had an eighth grade education. Yet his promise was evident even then.

His own words tell it best and give life to the truth that Durham is a continuity, an unfolding tapestry. There is no break from the past only further weaving of new story as it is created.

Solomon Burnette says, “I am a Durham son.”

And then, he tells a fabulous story from his high school years. When he was fifteen, and his homies [his word] from the neighborhood were not exactly about doing homework, he, the boy who did well on tests, but would eventually fail for poor attendance, went to Washington, D.C. He appeared on a Discovery Channel program, to present a Dancing Lasers project he had done under the auspices of the Museum of Life and Science. He got to hang out with then Secretary of Education in the Clinton Administration, Richard Riley. He got an award and came back to Durham with recognition…

“Bill Bell was on the County Commissioners, back then, Joe Bowser was on the County Commissioners back then, Helen Rechow…all the people who are like big names now, they were just regular County Commissioners then…and they wrote this resolution vowing to support me in all of my endeavors.”

It is a story, not without irony, rich with detail, loaded with nuance. There is a valuable Durham institution, the Museum of Life and Science. There are numerous Durham power brokers, involved in politics fifteen long years ago. It is a story told by a young man, not far removed from being a student who failed his freshman year of high school three times. But he didn’t falter, waiver or give up. And Durham’s institutions and individuals didn’t fail him. His promise didn’t disappear.

Mr. Burnette went on to tell the Clarion Content the account of Malcolm Golf, an art teacher at E.K. Powe Elementary who, after Mr. Burnette was released to the world with an eighth grade education and had found a job laying carpet, told him that he could go back to school. Mr. Burnette had thought his felonies automatically disqualified him.

Durham’s institutions did not fail Mr. Burnette either. What started as a conversation with Mr. Golf led to Durham Tech and Mr. Burnette’s one of his most influential instructors, whom he proudly credits, Lucy Sayer. He weaves a story that leads past Dorothy Brokaw’s desk, through Phail Wynn’s office, and into a chair opposite one Tracy Mancini. From there, as you can read in this Durham Tech profile of Mr. Burnette, it was onward, full speed ahead. It was a Durham centric path that would take him on to the institutions of North Carolina Central University and Duke University, where he learned Creole, Spanish and Arabic.

Now Mr. Burnette wants to continue the story. He is running for City Council, inspired and encouraged by his mother, herself a former City Councilwoman. What is his platform? He has an extensive gang amelioration program. He supports diverting regional light rail funds towards subsidizing fare free city buses. He has plans to improve the Durham Department of Parks and Recreation. He opposes the application of Proposition 287g, an important issue for the Clarion Content.

Is he the answer? Is he a dreamer? What is the question? Surely we cannot easily shunt aside a man who seeks to represent Durham and comes with this story.

He is a Durham citizen who has traversed this path.

He is a man who did not pass 9th grade and now presents papers to conferences in far flung places.

He is man who still fronts his own hip-hop act, City of Medicine Music and says “Politics is a particular application of a skill which allows me to engage people…”

He is an avowed man of faith and he says with conviction, “I believe the light will beat the dark in the end.”

The Clarion Content is not sure if he deserves your vote, but we are certain he merits closer examination.

Solomon Burnette is a man worth getting to know better.

The Durham City Council primary takes place October 11th.

2 Comments

  • Reply September 19, 2011

    Clarion Content

    Ed. correction—The initial version of this story mistakenly said Mr. Burnette got his GED at Durham Tech. He actually got his GED through Sand Hills Community College.

  • Aaron. Thankyou for this excellent write up. i appreciate the attention and analysis. Lets do lunch again, soon.-Solomon

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