Jan 302015
 January 30, 2015

I didn’t make it to the opening party for Area 919 last weekend, but I like to imagine that if I had, I’d have imitated the movements of a small child, insofar as I’d be playful and hop around but I would not—definitely not—touch the art. I’d bend over to peer through the open circles of Casey Cook’s undulating sculpture Whoa, Nelly! Through the holes my eyes would settle upon a painting on the opposite wall, which would mean they’d fixate on the dark grain of Damian Stamer’s Requiem. What at first looks like a contained interior scene—an abandoned piano, an old chair—slowly begins to expand: objects composed of scraped paint uncover other objects, until, hey, is that a tree branch up there? Looks like it. The wall placard explains that Stamer “create[s] haunting environments borrowed from the rural landscape of north Durham County, where he grew up.” I’m reminded of a recent holiday drive through north Durham, and then through Oxford, and then through southwest Virginia. I remember the darkness under the eaves of stately Oxford houses, which made me think about the riots Tim Tyson writes about in Blood Done Sign My Name. But I also remember how the sunset gathered on the long flat lawns outside the downtown, lawns abutting forests that looked like they could go on forever. If I could tie all that together in a painting, maybe it’d look—or feel—something like how Stamer’s looks and feels to me now.

A snapshot of Area 919. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum website.

A snapshot of Area 919. Image courtesy of the Nasher Museum website.

In my opening remarks for this year’s Ethics Film Series, which began this week with The Visitor, I gave some background for the theme—“Sound Beliefs.” I’ve given this background before, in writing and in speech; I repeat it, like a mantra: I wanted to pick something, some things, that felt both tactile and complex. I use this phrase as if the two terms stand in opposition, but when I say it they always hang together. I felt the same urge as I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Stamer’s painting, and then again when I stood between Cook’s sculpture and Neill Prewitt and Yuxtapongo’s installation Exploded Hipster, whose contents—local band and record label shirts, a stray Converse shoe, all crowdsourced from the Triangle’s music community—snake outward on the white gallery wall. Tactile, yes; they’re t-shirts, once hugged by warm bodies, some of whom I probably know personally, many of whom I probably follow on Twitter. I imagine a landscape of friendship and artistry, idiosyncratic and colorful, abstract and necessarily unfamiliar, to a certain degree (i.e., who did that Merge t-shirt belong to? Ah, yes, we’ve once made eye contact). But I also see that landscape, in front of me. I almost want to stick my arm through, to try it on for a while.

Area 919 is powerful in its assertion of a creative world through the hanging together of multiple creative worlds. This is something that art, and its curation, do well. “All of [the artists of Area 919] contribute to a vibrant and innovative artist community, helping to establish the Triangle as a growing creative center,” the exhibition detail reads. In effect, that exhibition detail is writing the community into a space, just as its artists are writing, painting, molding, imaging their selves, and their works, into a space. I feel similarly when I read the words of the women featured in “A Food Sisterhood Flourishes in North Carolina,” and the words of the many commenters, insisting that the New York Times should have included another woman chef, another women-helmed restaurant, to more holistically honor the vibrancy of North Carolina’s food scene. That web would look different, yes—as it would look different, from the get-go, from any one chef’s, or artist’s, perspective. And so it would from yours or mine.

It’s possible, but not easy, to build community on the foundation of diversity; it’s possible, but even less easy, for that sense of community to be validated externally in a way that feels fair, representative, and holistic to those who did the work in the first place. And yet that is the work that remains: the getting up in the morning, the painting, the writing, the meeting people, the attending (or not attending). The pieces included in Area 919 honor that work by bringing different worlds together in one space: so tactile that you, and you, and you, can peer through the circles, too.


Jan 232015
 January 23, 2015
Shavar Jeffries. Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.

Shavar Jeffries. Image courtesy of the Wall Street Journal.

Shavar Jeffries’s public talk next week, the first in Kenan’s new practitioner-in-residence program, carries a heady title: “Ethical Leadership: Self-Sacrifice as Public Service.” And it should: Jeffries, a noted civil rights attorney and 2014 Newark, NJ mayoral candidate, has over his career thus far committed himself to notoriously heady issues—urban crime, public education, and the politics that envelop these, and other, arenas. Jeffries’s work, and especially the nature of his leadership, remind me of conversations had over the two years I’ve been involved with the pre-orientation program Project Change. I’m reminded, specifically, of one of the program’s core stipulations: “You will be expected to think critically and creatively about how leaders emerge from everyday experiences to build and sustain inclusive communities that value diversity and promote social justice.”

In preparation for Jeffries’s visit, I’d encourage you to check out two recent articles that give a sense both for Jeffries’s personal background and the political and cultural context from which he, and his work, emerge. Almost a year ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed/profile of Jeffries; it talks about Jeffries’s upbringing in and outside Newark, and the ways in which he returned to the city with an eye toward political reform. For a longer read, there’s “Schooled,” Dale Russakoff’s lengthy investigative report in the New Yorker, which details the multi-pronged effort led by Mark Zuckerberg, Cory Booker, the former mayor of Newark, and Chris Christie, current governor of New Jersey, to revamp and reform Newark’s school system, one of the nation’s lowest-performing. Jeffries appears toward the end of the piece—which itself was published just around the time of the mayoral election—advocating for better communication between Newark residents and political leadership. This type of communication seems to require an empathetic balance—a call for both “sides,” so to speak, to see each other, and maybe less “side”-like in the first place. I’m curious, and excited, to hear Jeffries speak this coming week—to hear about how he strives to achieve empathetic balance in his own leadership, and how “self-sacrifice” has marked his growth as a leader.


Jan 152015
 January 15, 2015

I often tell people that Andrea Patiño, a Colombia native and a 2012 Duke graduate, is the most well-traveled person I know. She grew up in Bogotá, went to high school in Norway, has spent summers and semesters at Duke in the Netherlands, Ghana, Togo, Palestine, and New York City, and always seems to be traveling between continents. As a photojournalist and a cultural anthropologist, she seeks out multicultural stories; as an immigrant, she thinks a lot about mobility. In 2012, directly after graduation, Patiño was awarded a Hine Fellowship through the Center for Documentary Studies, and it was through this program that she moved to Boston, encountered the immense cultural diversity of neighboring city Lynn, and embarked on a multimedia documentary exploration—From the World to Lynn: Stories of Immigration, which opens as a full-fledged exhibition at CDS tonight. I spoke recently with Patiño, who is currently a graduate student in visual communication at UNC-Chapel-Hill, about the exhibition (which is also online here), how she finds herself in her documentary work, and the power of personal narratives.

KI: Tell me about the entry point to [From the World to Lynn]—was it through a particular person you met?

A map showing all of the countries from which immigrants have traveled to Lynn. Image courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

A map showing all of the countries from which immigrants have traveled to Lynn. Image courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

AP: I moved to Boston [to partner with nonprofit RAW Art Works] and was commuting to Lynn, and I realized pretty quickly that it was an incredibly diverse place. I did some research and found out that almost 30 percent of the population is foreign-born, which is a ridiculously high number—a lot higher than Massachusetts, and more than the national average. That was fascinating right away, and also in contrast to Lynn’s reputation. When you go to Massachusetts everyone says, “don’t go to Lynn, there’s a lot of crime and gang violence,” and so you never really get to hear the fact that it’s such a diverse place, and so rich, culturally and historically. That’s kind of outside of the narrative. Also, just the fact of going [to Lynn daily] and seeing all the different restaurants with different foods and walking the streets and hearing all these different languages. There was a Russian bakery, and a taco place, and lots of Iraqi people around as well. Lynn’s a refugee resettlement city.

When I was doing my work with RAW, I started reaching out to resettlement agencies, and the first one I went to was an Arabic association. Also through RAW I met children of immigrants and second-generation immigrants.

KI: I remember earlier this year we were talking about your current work, about how you’re trying to orient a lot of your documentary projects around immigration. Did [the Lynn project] cement that interest?

AP: I think doing this project reaffirmed a profound interest that I have [in immigration]. It’s such a relevant and important issue—especially in terms of questions about mobility nowadays when everyone’s moving around constantly. Once this project was done, hearing from the subjects [of the photographs] was really powerful, and validated my work in a way that was very profound. That really confirmed that [immigration] is a topic I want to keep working on, because it also felt important to them—having those stories out.

For me as well, I’m trying to figure it out. I’m an immigrant myself, and it’s a completely different kind of immigration story. I’m here for education and sometimes that gets lost; [immigration stories] are nuanced. But here in North Carolina, unlike in Boston, there’s more of a Hispanic presence and I will probably continue doing work on that for the rest of grad school.

A portrait of Antonio, who immigrated from El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

A portrait of Antonio, who immigrated from El Salvador. Photo courtesy of Andrea Patiño; part of the exhibit From the World to Lynn.

KI: Speaking of the story of your immigration, I was struck by your exchange with Antonio [an immigrant from El Salvador, photographed as part of From the World to Lynn] who flipped it back on you, and asked you why you were so interested in immigration. Can you talk a little bit about that dynamic?

AP: That was so surprising and honestly so good to me, to be confronted with that question. He was an undocumented, unaccompanied minor, which was a huge thing last summer in the States, but he came 11 years ago. At that point, as I was doing all the interviews, I was trying to figure out my own status. My work permit was running out in the States, and honestly it was a very hard. It produced a lot of anxiety. I was trying to figure it out: either I would have to leave, or try get a job that would sponsor my visa. And I’m explaining all of this to [Antonio] and he’s like, “why don’t you stay, and be undocumented?” It’s the first time anyone has asked me that. That was very powerful. Of course it’s something I had never considered, because of the implications of it. It meant I wouldn’t be able to go back home [to Colombia], or if did, I wouldn’t be able to come back [to the U.S.]. Some people choose [to stay, undocumented] because they don’t have any better option. I think that also reveals the nuances of why people come, why people stay, why people make those kinds of choices.

KI: Has, and/or how has, your thinking about immigration changed?

AP: I think it reaffirmed that personal narratives—though often dismissed—are so important in showing how complicated these decisions are. It also got me thinking about the right to migrate, but also the right not to migrate. The idea that if you don’t want to move, why would you have to move? Which is the case for a lot of people who are forced to move.

Mobility for me is such a big issue. When I first came [to the U.S. and Duke], I did my first summer abroad in Netherlands. I said I needed a visa, and everyone was like, “what is that, why can’t you just…?” Which is completely understandable: If your mobility has never been questioned, growing up, why would you even think about it? I’m somebody who has been able to travel a lot despite all these limitations. I’ve been denied a visa here and there, which is really frustrating. Of course a lot of people say, “why don’t people come [to the U.S.] legally?” but don’t realize that there are all these processes. It’s virtually impossible [to immigrate legally, to obtain a visa] if you are, for example, an impoverished person from Central America.

Also, for me, the situation in Lynn with the Iraqi refugees was really interesting. It connects to the idea of the war in Iraq, to America’s involvement and how that had a very tangible impact on people’s lives who are now coming here. What’s that relationship between an American citizen whose taxes paid for the war and someone who’s coming here? How does that relationship work? How are we involved and responsible?

KI: How has your photographic style evolved through your other projects—including photographs of slave castles in Ghana and Palestinian youth in Nablus—up to this point, a show made up solely of portraits?

AP: [During a class] last semester at UNC was the first time I really had to think more deliberately about style. [With the Lynn project], I was going with my gut, trying to figure things out by myself. I thought portraits were more important in this project because I really wanted them to go together with the voices of the people telling the stories, so you can see the portrait while listening.

KI: What does it mean to you to come full-circle and exhibit your work at Duke?

AP: I’ve been at the Center for Documentary Studies forever, from [being a] front-desk receptionist to having an exhibit there. It definitely feels like a bit of a completion. [The place] was so important in my Duke experience, even though I only took one class there.

This is the first time I have an exhibit up. I remember [at the beginning of the fellowship], my advisors were talking about how you’re going to try many ideas and maybe many of them are going to fail. But you’re going to have time and support to do the project you want to do. I think that kind of support is kind of rare, for somebody to tell you right after graduation that you have the opportunity to fail if you need it. So going back to Duke, and back to CDS, feels like a good first exhibit and also a closure to a long circle.

KI: What are you working on right now? What’s your next big project?

AP: I’m thinking about my [graduate] thesis pretty soon. I would be interested to see how Obama’s recent executive action is going to play out and unfold for a lot of families.

From the World to Lynn is on view at the Center for Documentary Studies until April 13. See more of Patiño’s work here.


Jan 092015
 January 9, 2015

Over the holidays I parsed through a lot of film lists—particularly those incorporating the terms “best,” “film,” and “music,”—and film synopses. I was looking for the perfect fit (the perfect picture, you could say) to round out this year’s Ethics Film Series. The title, “Sound Beliefs: Music, Ethics, Identity,” plays with the idea that music can act as a space and as an action at and through which identity is contested, exchanged, and upheld.

But let me back up: One night recently, I found myself watching Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do the Right Thing. I’ve been aware of the film for many years now, and aware that I’ve wanted to see it for just about as long. It took scrolling through a Criterion Collection thematic list—“Great Soundtracks”—to bring the film back into my consciousness. And now that it’s there, I can’t remove it—a thumping inkblot, raw and terrifying in its prescience. Lee’s neighborhood street in Bed-Stuy feels microcosmic: a full-spectrum look at the issues that recur for us 25 years later: racism, ignorance, gentrification, violence, competition, pride. (If you’ve seen the film and can identify the climax, you know exactly what I’m talking about; if you haven’t, there’s a particular sequence of scenes involving police brutality and a community response that mirrors events of late, and for which “intense” and “uncanny” feel like trite comparative classifiers). Something similar can be said, I think, about the image we glean of Olympia, Washington and the Pacific Northwest through Sini Anderson’s 2013 documentary The Punk Singer, which profiles the musician Kathleen Hanna and her band, Bikini Kill. In Olympia in 1990 Hanna and her bandmates were working on a zine, also called Bikini Kill, about feminism and punk rock; at their shows Hanna would exclaim, “girls to the front!” as an affront to male-dominated music culture. 24 years later, some things have changed, some more ostensibly than others. Watching Lee’s and Anderson’s films felt at times like a punch in the gut and a call to call out the broken-record tendencies of our present times.

Bikini Kill posters. Image courtesy of MTV.com/VFiles.

Bikini Kill posters. Image courtesy of MTV.com/VFiles.

I wanted to talk and show films about music this year in part because I wanted to piggyback on last year’s theme, “The South,” by choosing a topic that feels—to me, at least—both tactile and deeply complex. I make this statement as someone with no formal training in music, but as someone who has approached music more or less formally, at different times, through literary study, arts journalism, and dance. And I make it as someone who often feels most present when immersed in live art. Throughout the almost six years that I’ve inhabited Duke and Durham, I’ve found safe and elated spaces in live music events, somewhere in the feedback loop between performer and audience, and increasingly in the space where that distinction is tested and blurred. (See a post I wrote around this time last year about another music-related film, Inside Llewyn Davis). I’ve also been in musical spaces where I feel uncomfortable, as a woman; others where I notice, and then can’t stop noticing, that most people in the audience share my skin color. These are not, at least at face-value, condemnations, but they are realizations that happened because I was there in the first place. And I was there presumably because I liked, or thought I’d like, the music.

And yet I frequently find myself in musical spaces where I’m unfamiliar with the language in which the lyrics are voiced, or unfamiliar with the musical language itself, and find myself moving and compelled nonetheless. I use the phrase “find myself” here intentionally because I think the physical response is subterranean and visceral. I start to envision a feedback loop between emotional affect and the structure of sound: it’s fuzzy, and almost wacky, but there’s a pulse there.

I imbue art, and in this case music, with a hopefulness for a better world, and that hopefulness probably looks like a fusion of Adrienne Rich’s The Dream of a Common Language and Radio Raheem’s iconic Love/Hate speech in Do the Right Thing. In other words, like music and like art, it’s not static; it’s nuanced, and tends toward the full-spectrum, so it’s not often easily digestible.

In a similar way, selecting the “perfect picture” or the perfect film series isn’t possible, exactly, but I’ve chosen four films that look to complicate these themes, to place us in, at once, the collective and the individual and idiosyncratic. I hope they offer a spectrum of sound and stories.


Dec 302014
 December 30, 2014

The year 2014 ends at the end of tomorrow. This is the season to cast judgments on the seasons that preceded it; it is also a time for gathering (read: mustering) optimism for the year ahead. This optimism will inevitably flitter and fry and become barely perceptible by the time next December, and especially the end of December, rolls around. But I don’t think this pattern precludes optimism, or hope, or anticipation in the first place; this is the material of which conversations are made, and had. These are the things that will sustain us over the next 12 months, and beyond. In that spirit I’ve rounded up several events and programs Kenan will present, or have a part in presenting, this spring semester; I have great hope that these events will get people talking, and sharing, and creating new resolutions that may not necessarily begin with the new year.

  1. Kenan’s new Practitioners in Residence program: In many ways, the 2014-15 academic year seems a boon in residencies for Kenan. In the fall, we hosted author Eula Biss, and starting this spring we’ll ring in a new practitioner-in-residence series that aims to engage professionals from various fields whose work intersects with ethics in interesting ways. In January we’ll be visited by civil rights attorney Shavar Jeffries, and in February we’ll host Jon Favreau, former speechwriter for President Obama.
  2.  Speaking of practitioners in residence, acclaimed author Leslie Jamison will visit Kenan, Duke, and Durham as part of the inaugural Kenan-CDS Visiting Writers Series. Jamison’s essay collection The Empathy Exams has landed on just about every “best-of-2014″ list imaginable (and, it’s worth noting, so has Eula Biss’s On Immunity), and we’re excited she’ll be here to participate in a public reading as well as several other events open to the Duke and local communities. KIE’s Communications and Advancement Manager Katherine Scott made a short video in which I talk all about Jamison’s residency; you can watch it here.


    Tony C. Johnson and dancer rehearsing.

  3. Last year it was the American South; this year it’s New York, Havana, and Dublin (among others). Spring 2015′s Ethics Film Series, “Sound Beliefs: Music, Ethics, Identity,” will examine the intersections of music—as performed, written, and embodied in public and private space—and identity. As it happens, these themes often collide in cities, and global cities at that. We’ll begin the four-film series with the 2007 feature film The Visitor, and continue with a very timely presentation of the documentary Buena Vista Social Club in February.
  4. The Language of Genocide and Human Rights, a Humanities Writ Large and Bass Connections jointly funded project, will continue to meet throughout the spring months and will culminate with a series of events including a conference and exhibition coinciding with Holocaust Remembrance Day. Read more about the project here and read a field paper authored by one of its participants here.
  5. Keep a lookout for programming created by the newly formed group of Student Human Rights Fellows, a program supported by the Duke Human Rights Center at KIE. First up is “Embodying History Through Dance: The Civil Rights Movement,” a performance and discussion with local choreographer Tony C. Johnson and AAAS and Dance professor Thomas DeFrantz.
  6. More Ethics Book Clubs! Since a recent article in Working at Duke, the Ethics Book Clubs have been a hot topic. The spring will mark the beginning of a new staff book club in the Program of Education and the Service Learning Program. Stay tuned for more.

There will of course be our yearly standards, including What is Good Art competition and exhibition, spring Campus Grant applications, and co-sponsored events, residencies, and programs. Check out our current listing of spring events here. And, of course, I’ll be here on the Insider to write about whatever else happens, as it happens.

P.S.: Here are two end-of-2014 lists I enjoyed reading: literary website The Millions’s Best of the Millions 2014, and Rebecca Solnit’s roundup of women speaking up and out in 2014.


Dec 242014
 December 24, 2014

The December holidays in North Carolina—where I’ve been spending them since I was born—are often marked by intense fluctuations in temperature and precipitation that is not frozen. (It don’t snow here/ it stays pretty green). This year fits the pattern. I’ve been driving in circles around the Triangle in its of-late foggy attire, running errands, noting gaps in Christmas lights, buying onions and celery for stuffing. I drive a mile from my family’s home to a coffee shop where I’m meeting a high-school friend, and I see, once inside, that a handful of others from my high school fill the handful of tables. I suspect that we all discuss, basically, the varying degrees to which we are happy with our lives.

The December holidays provide, even demand, a space for returning—to family, to a hometown, to a singular coffee shop. Likewise there is a return to familiar questions: what have you been working on lately? How is such-and-such and so-and-so? These times are primed for story-gathering, and this is what I like to do. I glean windows into other lives and some of the furniture and movement that occupy them. I listen closely to get a tableau and in exchange I provide my own: shaky, at times enthusiastic and contradictory, and, of course, necessarily incomplete. But it feels less convoluted when voiced aloud—and so there’s some back-patting, too, in relaying the story of a year, or the story of a “lately.”

Lately I’ve been rereading Rebecca Solnit’s A Book of Migrations. Back in May and June, I used it to think through how I was approaching Ireland on my third visit there, about to undertake an independent documentary project. Solnit researched for and wrote her book as she reapproached Ireland, newly a citizen of the island country, albeit a native of California. She returned to walk Ireland’s west coast, alone; seven years prior, she had visited the country with a prior lover. She writes in some remembrances of that time, but mostly her book considers the nature of time itself—and memory, geography, and history. Now I’m rereading A Book of Migrations to return to the mindset of my approach, which I like to think will help my writing.

Solnit talks about one particular exchange, in Cork, where she was staying with archaeologists, about to begin her walking journey:

All through the meal and into the night, they told me stories, and the conversation rolled forward in a series of anecdotes that brought forth other anecdotes. American conversations tend to be dialectical, a give and take of short statements, or even more laconic, the kind of monosyllabic exchanges so popular in tough-guy texts and television. In the West and even more particularly in the Western, silence is a sign of strength. Ireland has a different conversational economy, one in which the ability to talk well is a gift and perhaps even a weapon…(Solnit, 62).

As someone quite interested in Ireland, I’m interested in the charge of its having a “different conversational economy.” But that’s another blog post. Right now I’m thinking about storytelling, especially as I’m now with family and will soon be with more family who will elicit stories from me, and with whom I’ll reciprocate. I’m also thinking about storytelling as the “old” year folds into the “new.” I’m thinking about it between dueling sensations: that the stories I tell around this time of year are often winding and contradictory, but also that they’re resolution-building. Balanced between de-centering and re-centering, these stories are all, after all, evocations of the self.

I wrote about listening a few weeks ago, especially in the context of recent protests, political action (and inaction), and conversations about race. I’m carrying that piece, and that thrust, with me into the new year. I’m curious to see if my conversations can more resemble a rolling of anecdotes rather than a predictable back-and-forth that charges toward a palatable summary of the “lately.” I’d like to hear about others’ windows but not immediately project myself into them, eager to think that I’d be there, too, in that living room, or in a plane flying home, had I chosen differently that one time. I am, after all, here now, in 60-degree Southern weather, in the rain, during the holidays that compel me towards those I keep returning to.


Dec 162014
 December 16, 2014

I admit that since author (and 2014 Kenan Distinguished Lecturer) Teju Cole took a self-described “Twitter break” back in July I’ve been eager to note and collect his creative output wherever else it appears—Facebook, Swiss magazines, et al. I quite like the material and content of what Cole writes, photographs, etc—but perhaps more than that I’m intrigued by his shape-shifting, his ways of playing with and emphasizing form—and the person behind the form—itself. Lately he’s taken to his official [author's] Facebook page to post updates with a personal inflection: a book recommendation, an image from recent protests in New York City, an article he published.

Last week, Cole posted an interview he’d done with The New York Times, part of “Reading the Times With,” a recurring series. “When I agreed a while back to participate in the New York Times’ feature ‘Reading the Times With,’” Cole writes, “I had no way of knowing that the date we’d selected, Dec 10, would prove to be such a heavy news day.” Indeed, posted last Thursday, this article coincided with the release of the Senate report detailing the C.I.A. and its torture program.

In the piece, Cole’s interviewer, Susan Lehman, proceeds to ask what he thinks about the Times’s coverage of the report that day. And Cole proceeds to dissect it. He gives the headline a “B+,” for his perception of its mild language and avoidance of the word “torture.” He then evaluates the paper’s coverage of events in Nigeria. He advocates for replacements for [most of] the current Times’ op-ed writers. He likes, and consistently reads, the Arts section. He discloses that he’d really like to write for satiric news site The Onion.

The fact that I’m surprised by this interview, and by the existence of this Times feature, is perhaps a reflection of my recent distancing from the Times. When my family began receiving it several years ago, the paper—especially the Sunday paper—functioned as a world-opening for me, in the same way watching Italian existentialist films for the first time during a high-school summer program did. I was starting to develop a vocabulary for the things I was curious about as a young adult, and for that reason it felt important for me to chomp down articles on films (some Italian and existentialist) that would hit North Carolina theaters approximately three months after they did New York. (Then and now, I still read the Arts section much more frequently and deeply than I do others).

But now—and I think discovering the Twitter parody account “The Times is On It” resonated with me—I feel differently. I cringe when the Times’s travel reporters pounce on Durham’s “DIY District”; I grow suspicious of the paper’s complicity in developing “Brooklyn-esque” as international currency and category. I ogle at minimalist design and travelwear in T Magazine but feel as though I’m living in another world, from which such pricey minimalist world is unattainable. I guess that’s the point; but should a major national newspaper read like an escapist venture?

In Cole’s interview he mentions Margaret Sullivan’s “Public Editor” column, which I enjoy for similar reasons that I enjoy Cole’s interview: it represents critique as practice. In her column, Sullivan writes things like “How to Survive a Journalistic Disaster 101″ (about the Rolling Stone/UVA sexual assault reportage fiasco, which I wrote about briefly last week) and “Pricey Doughnuts, Pricier Homes, Priced-Out Readers.” In the latter she addresses a common criticism from Times readers “who are frustrated by what they describe as elitism in the paper’s worldview, and who would like The Times and its staff to remember that the median household income in the United States is close to $52,000 a year, and that about 15 percent of Americans live in poverty.” (She goes on to say that fewer than one percent of front-page news articles deal with poverty). Her conclusion? The Times’s “lofty” coverage helps keep its traditional audiences intact while paving the way for the hard-hitting, perspective-broadening journalism on which the paper prides itself.

She and Cole (and I) would probably agree that there’s more road to be paved, and be paved conscientiously. But it’s columns like hers and interviews like Cole’s that keep me reading and writing about the news, which to me means thinking about the “news”—and particularly large mainstream news sources—as occupying a particularly odd place between institutions and individual people. This seems an apt reminder right now, when journalistic ethics feel particularly tenuous, and off-the-page human action is loud and unapologetically present. How to reconcile these spheres? I’d say part of it is bending the words of mainstream media to match the nuance of lived experience. It’s a tall order, but I’ll happily share the words of those who are trying.


Dec 072014
 December 7, 2014

Last weekend, Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for a Republican representative, apologized for criticizing Sasha and Malia Obama’s appearances at the annual White House turkey pardon. “Please know that these judgmental feelings truly have no place in my heart,” she wrote. “Furthermore, I’d like to apologize to all of those who I have hurt and offended with my words, and pledge to learn and grow (and I assure you I have) from this experience.” Lauten formally resigned.

At the National Book Awards ceremony this year, author Daniel Handler—otherwise known as Lemony Snicket—introduced author Jacqueline Woodson, the winner of the Young Adult category—with a joke about her race. “I clearly failed, and I’m sorry,” he wrote later, in a tweet. “My remarks on Wednesday night were monstrously inappropriate and yes, racist.” He donated $10,000 to the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and agreed to match up to 100,000 for other contributors.

A Huffington Post journalist apologized for being a member of the media. The NYPD officer who killed Eric Garner said, “I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner.” He did not use the words “I am sorry.”

As I began to write this piece, Rolling Stone Managing Editor Will Dana published a “Note to [Their] Readers.” He explained that the magazine now has reason not to believe the rape claims of a UVA student the magazine reported on in a high-profile news feature several weeks ago. “We are taking this seriously,” Dana writes, “and apologize to anyone who was affected by the story.”


In her notes for “All Apologies,” the last essay in the collection Notes from No Man’s Land, Eula Biss explains that for source material she tracked instances of the word “sorry” in national newspapers from the past 30 years (No Man’s Land was published in 2009). The essay catalogues and arranges apologies in a way similar to what I’ve done above. In between recounting official apologies issued on behalf of the U.S. federal government—for the victims of the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for Japanese internment—Biss weaves her own:

“Stop,” my brother told me. We were standing in the yard with rakes in our hands. My little brother was not a skinny kid anymore. He was fully grown, and we stood facing each other suddenly as adults. “You always do that,” he told me, “and then you think you can just apologize. If you were really sorry, you wouldn’t do it again.” (Biss, 193)*.

The Lauten incident came up in a conversation with my parents the other day. When does an apology feel genuine?, my mother wondered. This question feels new to me now, as much as I’ve been taught—implicitly and explicitly, and since preschool—to think about it, and to Do the Right Thing in turn. When I was younger, the course to apology felt much more clear: If you do something wrong, say you’re sorry, and mean it. And so: when I was five, I shoplifted a small model Dalmatian from Blockbuster; 101 Dalmatians had just been released. I felt so bad about it that I confessed an hour later to my parents, who brought me back to the store so I could apologize to the manager. He accepted, sheepishly. I think, this week, of “Criming While White,” but I did not offer this story, or any other story, in a tweet.

That question my mother raised feels new to me now, I think, because it’s not easy to answer. It’s not easy to answer because its response depends—upends—on the person, or persons, for whom an apology is intended. And that circles back to another question, which feels to me like the question, and often goes unsaid: Who, or what, compels us to act?


Right now, and this week in particular, I feel small. This feeling remains as I pull at my small strands of short hair, thinking that when I reach the ends, answers will rebound, and I’ll feel more than the meeting of my fingertips. This feeling of smallness is ironic—dangerous, even—because I know that my various layers of privilege out-embody me. I decide this week to catalogue recent cultural apologies, to try to focus on something specific. There is anger, and violence, and racism, and I am overwhelmed, and I feel sorry that I am. I am overwhelmed right now in witnessing social spaces where empathy seems secondary, and yet I am complicit in holding those spaces because of my skin color. I write to puncture that space, but I also write with the fear, and guilt, of taking it up.

“If I apologized for slavery, would you accept?” This question forms one small line at the bottom of page 196 of Biss’s book. It would be easy to miss if you were reading quickly or unattuned to Biss’s economy of sentences or the way she fits big inquiries into small spaces. This is probably one of the lines that made reviewers find her book provocative. It is part of why I find her book provocative, and necessary.

I think of her writing as active listening. I read a voice that is frustrated, and pained, and aware of its power—and therefore further frustrated and pained. I read a voice that listens: as a journalist, to black communities in San Diego; as a neighbor, to the history of Rogers Park, in Chicago. I am talking about this book a lot right now with people I am close to who look like me, and who look like Biss: white, well-educated, middle-class. It is an easy point of connection. Admitting to the desire for this connection is not as easy. I want people who look like me to read it because it offers a model of self-inquiry and self-critique that is uncommon, and uncommonly public.


I am sensitive; I have always known this about myself. The thing I fear the most is doing the wrong thing. (Do the Right Thing). Through 12 years of prestigious and progressive public schooling and through most of four at Duke, I often prefaced contributions in class with “I’m sorry” or “I’m not sure if this is right, but…” Then I learned, through a professional workshop, that I didn’t have to apologize, as a woman, for taking up space or for having ideas. Throughout those 16 years none of my peers held me accountable for that. Many of them, of course, were doing the same thing.

Throughout 16 years of progressive education I did not often engage in conversations about race, either with those who share my skin color or with those who do not. I did not have the language, despite believing I did, to place myself among others. I did not have the language to place myself.


Ideally apologies are as much about self as other. They reflect, they incur, sympathy, sometimes empathy, and they are self-reflexive in turn.

Apologies are ideal because they are impossible. When the words are said and when the reparations are paid, the body remains. I believe in the body, even when I am most cerebral. I dance with my body; I also write with my body, and listen with my body. I attend a demonstration. I don’t say much, other than I’m glad to be here. I join the chant of “Black Lives Matter.” I thank those who organized it. I listen. I bookmark a lot of articles by a lot of different voices and I read them. I look at news images. I listen. I critique my listening. I realize it is a privilege to listen. I listen because I should not have to be told to do so in the first place.

“I listen as much to my own imaginings, as I watch those fleeting glimpses of my thoughts cross my consciousness, as I listen to others,” Dr. Wahneema Lubiano writes, as part of the new “No Apologies” campaign at Duke. “And I know that my work, my affinities, my life, are all richer for that listening. Listening is my way of recognizing the beckonings from others that might not be noted as easily when I am only hearing my voice speaking.”

I consider what the world would look like, what our conversations would look like, if we replaced “work ethic” with “listening ethic.” I write in order to do so. I write to try to make that which out-embodies me visible, and to claim it, and to interrogate it: that is the responsibility and product of having privilege and choosing to listen. This is not an exceptional action; it is an everyday practice.

“Listening does its own work,” Lubiano continues, “[it] is a result of strength, of endurance even against a long history of marginalization—yes, but it is at the same time a muscle, the deployment of which makes a social world possible.”


*Excerpted from the essay “All Apologies,” from Notes From No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss. You can listen to a collaborative reading of the essay, produced by Ninth Letter and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, here.

Nov 212014
 November 21, 2014

It’s common knowledge—at least at Duke— that as the semester ends, academic work picks up, and students move into isolation and try to hold out for a) Thanksgiving, that harbinger of ‘the end,’ and, in quick succession, b) winter break, that solidification of one semester’s end and a few weeks to pretend that the next one won’t begin. Spoiler: it does, eventually.

Working on the flip side—no longer as a student, but now as a staffer who works in oftentimes student-oriented university programming—it’s common knowledge that instead of trying to reform student behavior or their workload or both, we try to avoid planning too many large-scale events during the end of the semester. This past week, however, a few large-scale events presented in some form by Kenan drew admirably good-sized amounts of students and publics alike. It’s heartening to witness people attend events out of sheer interest, and even more so to witness people attend events out of an apparent interest in coming together against a backdrop of intense isolation. Because especially in these days of early darkness and chapped lips, coupled with the ambiguous sense of things ending and maybe? maybe not? beginning again, it’s easy to feel alone.

A typical scene at Hack Duke. Photo by Katherine Scott.

A typical scene at Hack Duke. Photo by Katherine Scott.

A recap of some events this past week that energized my late-fall blues:

Friday, November 14: Opening of the Nannerl O. Keohane and Frank Hawkins Kenan Gallery. Several students, faculty, staff, and community members gathered for the opening reception and remarks. The gallery will house both a permanent collection—chock-full of outstanding visual art by local artists, including CDS faculty member and photographer M.J. Sharp, and past What is Good Art winners—and a rotating collection, now displaying Kenan’s Good Question series. You can see photos from the event here.

Saturday-Sunday, November 15-16: Hack Duke: Code for Good. Team Kenan co-sponsored the third-ever Hack Duke event, which brought together teams of students to huddle together over the course of two days—largely sans-sleep—and engineer projects exploring the connection between technology and social good. The teams organized around four tracks: Inequality, Energy and the Environment, Education, and Health and Wellness. See the students in action here, and learn more about the event and its teams on the Hack Duke website.

Tuesday, November 18: “The Sacredness of the Secular and the Secularity of the Sacred: Re-imagining the Role of Religions in Public Life.” Renowed philosopher Charles Taylor participated in a public interview with KIE Senior Fellow Luke Bretherton in the Goodson Chapel at the Divinity School. The Chapel—a formidable space fit for a formidable guest—was packed full, mostly with Divinity School students. Taylor and Bretherton talked about the changing nature of faith communities, the convergence of political issues and religion in the public sphere, and the line between beneficent and misanthropic action in modern institutions (among other topics). We sent some live-tweets out during the event (if you want to backtrack to this Tuesday’s Twitter timeline), and there will be a video of the talk available soon through Kenan’s website.

Wednesday-Thursday, November 19-20: “Appropriate? Or Appropriation?” fashion show and panel (11/19), and discussion (11/20) with Adrienne Keene on “Social Media, Activism, and Mascots.” The Forum for Scholars and Publics and Team Kenan teamed up to present a series exploring Native American fashion and identity. The fashion show and panel on Wednesday evening displayed apparel and jewelry from Native American designers and brought together Adrienne Keene, postdoctoral fellow at Brown and author of the blog Native Appropriations; Jessica Metcalfe, author of the Beyond Buckskin blog & boutique; Susan Scafidi, Fordham Law professor and and founder of the Fashion Law Institute; and Shayne Watson, fashion designer (Shayne Watson Designs). Keene returned the next day to the Forum for Scholars and Publics for an invigorating lunch discussion on recent mascot appropriation controversies. There were two excellent student-authored pieces reflecting and reporting on the series of events: one from Recess in the Duke Chronicle, and one from Duke Today.


Nov 142014
 November 14, 2014

Where does this piece start? Where does the conversation begin?

Say it begins in a room on West Campus, at the bottom of a building, beneath exposed orange pipes. Gathered around a table, in the same place where last week Eula Biss sat, are two South African writers—one a librettist and composer, the other a journalist and blogger. Gathered around them is a mix of people: they are racially diverse, they come from Durham, they come from Duke, they come from both. They come into the city, and into this campus, and into this room, at different points in time. Some come into the room after the discussion starts. Some say that they have just moved to the city from Brooklyn, and from elsewhere. The librettist and journalist have moved to Durham for just a month, to share their stories with people like the ones who’ve come here to share theirs today.

Neo Muyanga and Khadija Patel are the inaugural recipients of the WiSER-Duke Visiting Writing Fellowship. The new cross-institutional program, between Johannesburg (the University of the Witwatersrand) and Durham (Duke), is designed to grant accomplished non-academic writers the chance to work within academic spaces. I first became interested in the program because I read that one of my former professors, Sarah Nuttall, would be helping to facilitate the exchange. Then I began reading about the two fellows’ work—about Muyanga’s compositions and co-founding of the Pan African Space Station, and about Patel’s journalism for South Africa’s Daily Maverick and her current book project on Mayfair, a suburb of Johannesburg. Enthralled by what I now knew, I expected to sit, further enthralled, as the two talked about what they do. There would be probing but mild-mannered questions from the audience about their work, and we would eat nice food and leave feeling happy with ourselves.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion writes in The White Album. In her first book, The Balloonists, Eula Biss quotes her back: “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ writes Joan Didion, with a certain skepticism. We also live by the stories we tell.” I like how Biss, with the same skepticism, re-fashions Didion’s words in order to say something not only about our tendency, as humans, to narrativize in order to make meaning. Biss seems to be suggesting that we’re bound by these stories, in our action and inaction. And I’d go further: that which binds us in turn renders us, and our stories, necessarily incomplete.

I like the different angles Didion’s and Biss’s words create. I felt these angles take shape during the event at the Forum for Scholars and Publics. The conversation with Muyanga and Patel was formally structured around the term “black money”—referring to the rise of the black middle class in Johannesburg but also, I found out, to the trajectory of the black middle class in Durham. The conversation hinged on the stories its participants were willing to tell, about how race, urban development, and economic power interlock in Durham. We think there’s a connection here, the South Africans said. I’ll give you my context if you give me yours.

The first response: this conversation should begin elsewhere—downtown, outside the academy, in a black church, or library, or other community space. This sentiment—that the conversation is necessarily incomplete—is one I don’t often hear voiced so plainly during on-campus discussions about Duke and Durham. I appreciated it, as much as I appreciate how necessary it is to hold these types of conversations on campus. The comment gave the event texture, and gave spirit to the comments and questions that followed, things that piggy-backed off each other, like: who do cities belong to, and how does that ‘who’ factor into how cities are designed? If cities from Durham to Brooklyn to Johannesburg are modeling themselves into a universal currency of artisanal hipness, who’s able to ‘play’ in these spheres, and who’s left out? When we imagine the cities—and realities—of the future, do we envision the oppressed rising to extreme wealth? Do we want the realities we live with now?

Muyanga and Patel responded back, fashioning the audience comments into reflections on their experiences of Johannesburg. I caught Muyanga afterward and brought up my research project in Dublin, how I’d been investigating the closure of an arts space in the city center. My story didn’t really have a point; it served as a sort of proof that I’d studied the types of things we all spent an hour talking about. I realize now that being in that room and sharing something about living in Durham would have been enough. I have lived in this particular city for almost six years now. I know my knowledge is incomplete, but that gives me fuel—as does sitting in a room on West Campus, sitting alongside others, and placing ‘our’ cities in conversation.