By Kirby Wilson
Faulkner Fox had a long Election Day. The organizer met volunteers at the Durham bus station at 6:15 a.m., and all day she coordinated the free transportation of citizens to and from polling stations. She took one break—if one considers six hours of teaching Duke students a break—but she was at the bus station when the sun rose, and there when it fell.
By the time the polls closed at 7:30, many of Fox’s volunteers were eager for rest. Rest did not come. Because of glitchy computers at a few polling places, the North Carolina State Board of Elections extended the closing time of eight Durham precincts, some by as much as an hour. If the organizers were up for it, there might still be voters out there to enfranchise.
Fox was given another hour to organize, and she didn’t waste it. She and a few of the weary volunteers drove to the headquarters of Advance Carolina, a local progressive organization, where they cold-called potential voters from around the polling locations with extended hours. It’s impossible to know whether anyone they reached went to vote, but by the time polls closed for good, Fox knew she had done all she could to fight the rise of Donald Trump.
That knowledge wasn’t much comfort. Around 9:30, the time the billionaire’s election began to look almost certain, I texted Fox to gauge her feelings.
“Totally freaking out,” she replied.
For many Durham progressives, the election was a call to action. The only difference for Faulkner Fox was that she was the one who had to answer the phone.
“We’re all being assaulted all the time.”
Fox is used to a messy life.
For more than 20 years, she has been writing, mothering, teaching and organizing—and rarely in neat proportion. Some highlights from her life in politics: In 1996, around the time President Clinton signed his welfare reform bill, a disgusted Fox, infant and husband in tow, protested a fundraiser for Clinton’s 50th birthday held in Austin, Texas. (“It was me, Gunther, our 18-month-old, and a bunch of anarchists,” she told me.) In 2008, two years after giving birth to her third child, she co-founded Durham for Obama, a grassroots organization that proved instrumental in Barack Obama’s electoral success in North Carolina. She and Peck, along with dozens of other demonstrators, were arrested in the summer of 2013 during an NAACP Moral Mondays march on the North Carolina Capitol. They got out of jail late at night, so one of their sons, home from college, had to put their young daughter to bed.
Fox has received death threats for the better part of those two decades, first from anti-abortion extremists for her work in the 1990s with NARAL Pro-Choice America; then from white nationalists, some living thousands of miles away, after she participated in a vigil outside the Duke lacrosse house in 2006. Fox protested the students’ hiring of a stripper, not the alleged (and, as it turned out, nonexistent) rape. It didn’t matter.
In a normal political environment, it would not be unusual for Fox to dedicate a few dozen hours a week to progressive organizing. Combine that commitment with her responsibilities at home, where she has an 11-year-old daughter; her job in the Duke English department, where her work teaching creative writing has earned her a 4.6 out of five on Rate My Professors; and her writing career, and the daily limit of 24 hours already seems oppressive.
The week I first interviewed Fox, she organized a community screening of “I Am Not Your Negro,” a documentary based on James Baldwin’s observations about race in America, on Wednesday. Thursday, she attended a panel in downtown Durham called “Structural Racism and the effects it has on Women of color.” She took notes. Friday, she met with the staff of U.S. Rep. David Price and hosted a “women’s huddle” for local activists. Saturday, she met with two former students, one who was suffering through a crisis, and another who wanted an interview. (That one was me). She also tried to do her taxes. She did not finish them. Sunday, she attended a two-hour meeting of the Durham chapter of the NAACP.
In a normal political environment, Fox feels the time crunch, but it doesn’t stop her. When she was organizing for Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, she was sometimes frustrated when volunteers failed to match her intensity—particularly when they used a busy home life as an excuse to shirk campaign responsibilities.
“I’m on the phone, I’m like, ‘Hey, can you come do this?’” She remembered. “They’re like, ‘No I can’t, I have a kid.’ It’s like, my kid is on my hip right now while I’m on the phone with you! And you’re telling me you can’t come because you have a kid? I have three.”
The presidency of Donald Trump, just about everyone would agree, is not a normal political environment. It’s only been seven weeks, but Trump’s frenetic governance is already taking its toll on Fox.
She’s caught between her two selves: Fox The Writer and Fox The Activist. Fox The Activist wants to turn the most energetic progressive organizing moment of her lifetime into lasting change. Fox The Writer wants to finish her damn novel.
“Writing takes concentration. That’s what the frustration is right now. Unless it’s 4 in the morning, which is the time I’m writing, I can’t get in that mindset,” Fox said. “That’s not because of what I’m doing, it’s because we have an asshole who’s the president. It’s because we’re all being assaulted all the time.”
Her two selves are not usually at war. Organizing and writing require different parts of her, but Fox says she pursues the two passions for the same reason: she believes the world is built on lies—“slavery is ancient history!” “Men and women are equal!”—and she wants to tell the truth.
The arc of the moral universe is long. Novels are not usually written on deadline. But in Trump’s America, Fox is short on the commodity that activists and novelists often find in great supply: time. Fox has found the perfect political moment for her semi-autobiographical novel, a coming of age story about a race-conscious white protagonist who feels an acute sense of moral failure until she finds redemption in grassroots political action. She’s found the perfect literary agent. She just hasn’t found the time to perfect the book.
Of course, it’s no great tragedy that Faulkner Fox is tired. She’s suffered the fatigue of any parent for the better part of her adult life. She’ll send her book to the agent eventually; she wrote a memoir, Dispatches From a Not-So-Perfect Life, during the Bush administration. But under Trump, everything she does seems to have higher stakes.
“I’ve been to the left of anyone who’s ever run for office,”
A native of West Point, Virginia and the daughter of an activist and a paper mill engineer, Fox met her husband, Gunther Peck, while organizing a graduate student unionization effort at Yale. After growing impatient with the buttoned-up academic writing of her American Studies Ph.D. program, she moved to Durham in the early 1990s to work at NARAL. (She told me she believed the Bull City was just the right amount of southern for Peck, a native of upstate New York.) After a few years in Austin, Texas, where Fox gave birth to their two sons, she and Peck found their way back to Durham.
When I pulled up to Fox’s three-story house near Duke’s east campus, I was taken in by the colors. It was a clear, windy day, and the sun glinted off of the ornaments hanging from a tree in the front yard. The red-framed door beckoned.
As soon as I entered the house, I was greeted by cluttered rooms to the right and left—one filled with music equipment, the other, toys. Fox, 53 with slightly unkempt brown hair, soft features, and a style she described in her memoir as “casual-slob,” led me into the sitting room, attached to the kitchen by a half wall.
She was interrupted almost a half a dozen times during our interview. The student who sought life advice dropped by her house. Her nine-month-old puppy, a black goldendoodle named Levi, after the legendary abolitionist Levi Coffin, wanted to play. Her daughter wanted to make mac ‘n’ cheese.
As we talked in the sunlit room that appeared to be furnished entirely from Asheville street shops, I thought about how unlikely it seemed that this house had been the headquarters of a major political operation just eight years prior. Durham for Obama, which Peck says organized 11,000 volunteers, delivered a 70,000-vote Durham county victory for Obama in a general election swing state he won by just 14,000.
A framed picture of Obama posing with the family was displayed just to the left of the living room’s entrance.
“I put that up because we were having a party,” she said. “I don’t always keep it right there.”
Although it may not be an exaggeration to say that her organization’s work tipped North Carolina Obama’s way, Fox knew at the time he was far from perfect.
“I’ve been to the left of anyone who’s ever run for office,” she said, almost serious.
Still, a black community organizer had considerable appeal to the southern progressive, and Fox was loyal to him. She was an Obama delegate at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. She worked upwards of 40 hours a week for his campaign. Her home became a de facto campaign office.
Fox even deflected some unwelcome publicity. She, along with the Obama campaign, wanted to go to the local jail to register voters, so she wrote Mayor Bill Bell to ask permission. When the Durham Herald-Sun caught wind of the plan, Fox sensed the story could look bad for Obama. Black Candidate Turns to Local Jail for Votes. It was a racist narrative, she said, but it needed to die. Even though she had, in fact, worked with the campaign to register the inmates, she told the paper, "[The campaign] didn't ask me to do that. That was my idea."
Anita Earls, who helped Fox continue to register inmates after the campaign washed its hands of the work, said DFO filled a special niche in Durham’s progressive organizing environment.
“DFO was sort of this strange animal that didn’t pay homage to the political machine within local politics,” she said.
This led to some conflict in Durham, which Earls says has long been dominated by a few progressive organizations—the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People among them. When DFO members began canvassing a neighborhood the committee felt was part of its political territory, they were met with a bullhorn-toting committee member who told them to ‘Go back to Duke.’”
A testament to what Earls said is Fox’s impressive ability to organize across racial lines, Fox was able to smooth over this flap with the Committee with a few well placed phone calls.
From DFO to DFOA
After Obama’s historic victory, Fox continued to champion progressive causes in the president’s name. DFO formed a health care policy group in 2009, advocating for a single-payer system. Members canvassed and campaigned hard for progressive candidates before the 2010 elections.
But the 2010 Republican Tea Party tide that flipped political control of national and state legislatures demoralized many in DFO. The North Carolina losses were particularly painful: Republicans hadn’t controlled both state houses since Reconstruction. The activist energy around Durham largely dissipated.
Fox and DFO members worked to mobilize campaign workers during the even-numbered years of Obama’s time in office, but the sustained activism of 2008 and 2009 seemed—with the notable exception of the Moral Mondays movement—to lay dormant.
Then, liberal political armageddon: Donald Trump, who accused the first black president of the United States of being a foreign fraud, was elected president.
It only took a few days for Vickie Miller, one of the DFO stalwarts from 2008, to call Faulkner and suggest the group reconvene.
“I was devastated,” Miller told me. “I was trying to find an outlet, a place to go where people were feeling my pain.”
In December, when North Carolina Republicans called multiple special sessions to pass laws that stripped appointing powers from the newly-elected Democratic governor, Fox felt she had no choice but heed Miller’s call to organize. After Trump’s inauguration, her responsibility to people like Miller became even more apparent.
“People don’t want to be at home alone or on Facebook freaking out,” Fox said.
Even though today’s organizing energy comes from a more negative place than Obama’s early promises of hope and change, Fox and Peck say it has been extraordinary.
“People are waking up daily. It’s one of the most amazing organizing moments in my adult lifetime because there are tons of terrified people,” Peck said.
By February 13, the transformation from hopeful idealism to solemn resistance was complete. Durham for Obama, the organizing home to dozens of local progressive activists, officially changed its name to Durham for Organizing Action.
Fox prescribes to the theory of the NAACP’s Rev. William Barber II when it comes to politics: progress comes in cycles. Reconstruction was followed by Jim Crow. The civil rights movement and the election of Barack Obama were met with a backlash that saw the disenfranchisement of black voters in southern states, mass incarceration and, finally, the election of Donald Trump.
Fox said she will always be an activist, even when it’s personally inconvenient, because there will always be something to fight. Even when rights are won, there will always be someone ready to take them away. Today, that someone is Donald Trump. She’s not going to tell people not to be fired up.
“I don’t really want to run an organization,” Fox said, “but I’m not going to demobilize people.”