By founding a weekly running group and annual 5K, Ronan wanted runners to cross racial boundaries together, in their neighborhoods and minds. They protected their city as policemen and firemen. But I felt an automatic connection to him. And then, parked in front of his place, just as it began to pour rain, we hugged and—instead of pulling away—kissed.
Students like me came in, lived out their years sequestered at the university, got their degrees, and hurried out. Holding my hand, Ronan said that as a Black person, he owned the counter-narrative to the white lie of supremacy. Support poured in—strangers-turned-friends met up to de posters after work and on the weekends; longtime nonprofit leaders and organizers mentored me and helped recruit vendors; artists shared poems and drawings inspired by the event. I said dinner would be better.
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It felt strange to me that my relationship was—or had to be—a political statement. It would be free, outdoors, and welcoming to all. I felt myself falling for him, fast. Even as we finally acknowledge the ghosts oflong shadowed by ignorance and forgetfulness, some ask: Why dredge this up now, when we cannot change the past?
On paper, we seemed to have little in common. I had automatically seen a little girl as a threat before I realized I was wrong and smiled, making silly faces back. He had these long, beautiful locs. I loved his long, perfect hands, his slender fingers and clean fingernails—so unlike mine: stubby, bitten.
The Wilmington Messenger further escalated the situation by reprinting a speech by Rebecca L. But he went further, proclaiming these encounters offered more than the allure of the forbidden:. We played at the edge of the river all day, building sandcastles on the beach until sunset. One hundred and twenty years later, Wilmington was in the midst of an economic depression that looked like it had no end. That day, hundreds of people ran together in Hugh MacRae Park with a clear purpose: to fill the space MacRae never wanted them to touch. For his book-in-progress, he was trying to solve a long-cold serial-killer case in which six Black girls had been snatched off of the streets and brutally murdered.
They owned barbershops, restaurants, tailor shops, and drugstores. Children did arts and crafts projects under a nearby gazebo, and visitors perused a silent art auction whose proceeds benefited the local YWCA.
When MacRae loaned his land to the city inhe insisted the park remain a whites-only space. Ronan told me about his childhood in the projects of Philly, shifting between two households and surviving on imagination.
So, a few days later, we got dinner. He was Latino and white, and his wife was white. He said that the way the world operated, this lie could feel real—that it destroyed Black lives as if it were real—but he knew white supremacy was ultimately a myth.
As a white woman, I gladly stayed off stage except for a brief welcome when she called me up. But soon, we struck a rhythm. Ronan had experienced this firsthand when he took up running as a teenager and moved from his neighborhood into a white neighborhood, where one woman even dropped her groceries to flee from him. For his next project, he wanted to have a historical marker for the Massacre of erected in downtown Wilmington. The memory of him made me tear up.
I felt an ineffable spiritual sadness. After ordering his coffee, Ronan ed me.
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On November 10 at 3 a. I tried to measure my responses, knowing I tended to talk at length and too loudly. The conversation took a different turn, but later, I imagined myself launching into an explanation of what her words meant—of how wrong she was—but deep down, I knew exactly what she believed she was saying. The gathering, I realized, was the first time I felt at home there. We stood beside each other in the back. He told me he was working on a book and wanted to talk about writing. In minutes, we exchanged years of our personal histories. At the time, I was still coming to understand what that even meant—how I needed to give space to people whose words, stories, and even existence were so often left out, ignored, or erased.
But beforeWilmington was home to 11, African Americans and 8, white people. After the 5K, Ronan sent me a Facebook message asking me out for coffee. Volunteers from local organizations stood at a line of tables to share community involvement opportunities, clutching coffee cups and huddling in winter jackets and sweatshirts. My friend Michael told me he loved interracial couples. I told him I was single because of two words: marriage and kidswhich no one I met seemed to want.
I only knew Hugh MacRae Park as a spacious plot of land, lined with tall longleaf pines whose shadows I liked to run beneath when I needed to de-stress after class. They owned homes and were civically engaged. As the son of mixed-race parents, he knew firsthand that the clear-cut division of Black and white was a myth.
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When I moved to Wilmington, I assumed it had always been majority white. I realized this was a date when he asked if I was seeing anyone. Looking back, he was one of the first boys I had a crush on. Khalisa, an African American woman, emceed. I had to quiet my desire to define Blackness in my own terms and learn how to simply listen to those who knew an identity, story, and oppression I could never understand or experience firsthand.
Afterward, he walked me to my car and asked if I wanted to get lunch sometime. As I drove home, I felt my whole body trembling.
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When I asked for examples, he just said they had certain expectations. Over the din of coffee grinders and lively regulars, it was hard to make out his words. With this knowledge, he owned the grace of empathy accessible only to those who had been oppressed. Although the event took place in a majority African American neighborhood, most attendees were white. No amount of petitioning, well-meaning editorials, or name-change movements has convinced them so far. Having observed him as more reserved than Wilmington men dating black women in our nonprofit circle, and not sure why we were meeting exactly—did he really just want to talk about writing?
In one image, a Black man-turned-vampire with negro rule emblazoned across bat wings clawed at white women in flowing dresses billowing down to their ankles. I was afraid of how Ronan would feel if he knew that. It was an easy mistake to make as a white transplant in a region submersed in historical silences. But he also trampled the myth that when white and Black people got together it constituted rape. In asserting the legitimacy of interracial relationships, Manly undermined a central theme of the white power structure and white supremacy: love across color lines was a reality in Wilmington, whether or not Wilmingtonians wanted to admit it.
For all of his social justice know-how and experience, Ronan was soft-spoken. Weeks later, on a brisk December day, hundreds of people showed up to listen to activists, poets, and musicians share messages of peace and hope at the gathering.
Facing a boycott threat for the peace gathering and realizing the implications of Hugh MacRae, I quickly changed the location to Maides Park, a modest park in a traditionally African American neighborhood, located on Manly Avenue. I hoped it would make me and the rest of the city feel somewhat whole again. Back then, white Populists and Black Republicans had formed a powerful Fusionist coalition and together took control of North Carolina state politics in the election of When white Democrats plotted to regain power, they banked on racial division and launched a full-blown propaganda campaign to stoke white fear for votes.
But those who favor amnesia ignore how the past holds our future in its grip, especially when it remains unacknowledged. The new world walks forever in the footsteps of the old. This, to him, was Blackness. Ronan was African American, I was white.
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Still, I invited everybody I knew. We talked until closing.
I was standing in the crowd when Denny, a decades-long organizer, introduced me to Ronan 1a slender African American man who worked for a nonprofit that helped support the gathering. I was afraid of what that meant about me, who I was before I met him. Historians trace some of the roots of the Wilmington Massacre of to an editorial that asserted Black men and white women were capable of falling in love. Her tone was complimentary, her definition of Blackness as less-than, so her revocation of his given skin color was a good thing to her, an easing into whiteness.
But when he invited me upstairs, I refused his invitation, as much as I wanted to stay. Strip malls sat empty.