May 222015
 May 22, 2015

Around this time of year, if you happen to stop by West Duke—it’s very quiet, sometimes eerily so, with the students gone—you’ll see on one of Kenan’s two video screens, usually used to announce events during the school year, a quite lovely watercolor map of the world. On it there are a smattering of red pins. Several, you’ll notice, are clustered loosely around where North Carolina begins and ends, and where its western borders meet those of Virginia and Tenneesee, whose own borders meet those of Kentucky and West Virginia, and then to the South, the lowest-most points of Appalachia in Georgia. And then there are the pins a bit closer in, toward where I imagine West Duke would register on a satellite map. Zoom out and you’ll see pins dropped in California, Ireland, Kenya, and Jordan.

It’s always exciting to see where Kenan students fling themselves and land during the summers, and what types of projects they undertake in said places (on said pins). It’s especially exciting to me this year to see projects equally balanced between home and abroad—and to see places close to Duke and Durham signify home for a number of undergraduates. The Bull City Dignity Project, spearheaded by Summer Fellows alum Lara Haft and Project Change alum Kari Barclay, as well as documentarian Mariana Calvo, will engage Durham high-schoolers and Durham community members in a documentary theater project. At the heart of the project—which you can read more about here—are questions surrounding the idea of “dignity”: “What worth do we place on ourselves and on those around us? Is dignity something we’re born with or something granted to us by others? How do our identities shape how people perceive us and how we perceive ourselves?”

There are four Kenan Summer Fellows this summer, and their first updates are just now rolling in: from San Francisco, CA (and eventually Nairobi, Kenya); Clarkston, GA; the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia; and, well, cyberspace. On the latter: Alex Zrenner, a Project Change alum and Team Kenan member, will investigate the ethics of online society and economy by focusing on a cyber harassment victim advocacy organization. I’ll be interested to see how Alex develops a sense of place and centrality through her research, which draws from instances of harassment that could be catalogued to no end online.

I’m winding down my tenure here—next week will mark my last blog post for Kenan before our new Bear Fellow, Cece Mercer, comes onboard to introduce herself with her first. Very soon I’ll publish what I’ve put together from my two weeks in Ireland last summer, which I spent partly in conjunction with the DukeEngage Dublin students (a new set is about to embark on their time in Ireland; watch the Kenan site for more), and partly in the throes of an investigation into the abrupt closure of a creative community center downtown. Central to the piece is a type of a mapping, a pin-dropping, which both reinforces the idea of claiming space and invites readers to embody the landscape themselves. Another way to do that is, of course, to imbibe the place-based stories of others—and luckily, you can, by following the stories of where Kenan students have immersed themselves this summer.


May 152015
 May 15, 2015

Deep in the trenches of fairly private (soon-to-be-public) writing this week, I’ve focused my outward attention on pieces of the “news”—or, information of a wider circulation—that consider the bounds of the “public” and make interventions in those bounds in turn.

  • Yesterday a friend posted this Awl article, “Podcasting and the Selling of Public Radio,” which considers a recent NPR-helmed event that served to pump up media and marketing folks with the idea of using public media as a branding service. Ira Glass, most famous for pioneering the This American Life juggernaut, provided a choice quote, dripping in sarcasm that seems to betray its actual honesty: “My hope is that we can move away from a model of asking listeners for money and join the free market. Public radio is ready for capitalism.” The article arrives at a fortuitous time, when podcasts, despite being produced in similar ways for years, have assumed a new, more urgent popularity through shows like Serial (disclaimer: I’ve never listened; I’m wary of any documentary project around which listeners rally by treating and talking about real people as fictional characters)—and some of these shows now happen to utilize advertisements that sound like the podcast itself. As Gillies writes,

“Advertising on public radio doesn’t totally undermine the virtues that make public radio public or worth supporting; we accept ads on city subway platforms and in non-profit magazines.3 However, what makes these ads troubling is that they don’t sound like ads: They sound like public radio. They exploit a special kind of trust listeners reserve for noncommercial educational media.”

  • I am in awe of the work of Duke-based Project Vox, as much as I am at what I perceive to be the widespread dearth of women philosophers studied—even represented—in philosophy’s academic life. Vox, a collaborative project begun by Duke philosophy professor Andrew Janiak and students and researchers at Duke, Columbia, and the University of Pennsylvania, aims to make accessible and advocate for the inclusion of the work of women philosophers in the academic canon (the title of this Atlantic article, which profiles the project, might better be “Creating the Female Canon”). Vox’s digital site, which is—speaking of publics—open-source, includes texts by 17th-century women philosophers as well as sample syllabi that incorporate said work. The emphasis of the project is as much on presenting this work as it is on ensuring it’s presented—and made visible—in the best possible ways. This reinforces Vox’s belief in the high stakes of this material; as Duke Ph.D. candidate Adela Deanova said, “We don’t want people to add women to a course for politically correct reasons. We want them to teach these works because they are important part of this time period, and if you are not teaching them, you are not giving students an accurate picture of what went on.”
  • Recently Durham invited residents to tour an auspicious location: Durham’s Central Park, which has recently provided room for a new occupant—a giant red construction crane—ahead of its forthcoming occupants: the many who will supposedly fill the 100-unit condo complex scheduled to be built in the next year or so. For Indy Week, my friend and Duke Magazine staff writer Elizabeth Van Brocklin jumped into the community-centered walking tour, which was also Durham’s first Jane’s Walk, a nationally organized activity meant to honor the legacy of urban anthropologist Jane Jacobs. Those on the tour learned about the buildings and businesses—past, present, and future—in the Central Park area. A walker with a two-year-old son, who moved from Los Angeles eight years ago, wonders what a Durham Jane’s Walk will look and feel like when is son is five—and when his son is twenty-five. The walk’s leaders, two founders of the Central Park (from which the neighborhood gets its name), intended the trip to be an invitation to the public: to Durham’s public, to anyone who cares about the future of the city, about how, as Van Brocklin writes, the city “can grow gracefully,” even, in Durham’s case, when new construction seems to demand the opposite.


May 082015
 May 8, 2015

“I was leaving the South

To fling myself into the unknown….

I was taking a part of the South

To transplant in alien soil,

To see if it could grow differently,

If it could drink of new and cool rains,

Bend in strange winds,

Respond to the warmth of other suns

And, perhaps, to bloom.”

-Richard Wright (excerpted as epigraph in Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns)

My excerpting Richard Wright above serves not as prelude to a great explication of migration as it functions currently in and out of the American South, or anywhere elsewhere; nor to a grand thesis on the intertwining of race, inequity, and urban and rural life as this intertwining functions historically and contemporarily. These issues require big theses, but moreso they require micro-level work: i.e., learning them in the first place.

Lately I’ve been hyper-cognizant of putting myself in the way of learning: of discerning when I am listening with an outward focus or an inward focus; of what I tolerate and do not tolerate in social conversation, especially in light of current events (a recent chat to which I was privy made prison into a flippant concept, and I reeled); of when I am speaking that which resounds personally, or when I am repeating vague claims.

I think about the mental and physical spaces I occupy most frequently, and what I take from them: my office, which this week has been quiet save for the outside movement of students attending DukeEngage Academy in preparation for summer projects and the looming of graduation exercises. The internet, which I use as fuel for my own work and a place to escape it. My pathway to and from work and to and from various cities in the Triangle, between which I circulate and think a lot about what it means to move and what it means to stay in place, and specifically to stay here, in North Carolina. (Aren’t you worried you’ll have a narrow perspective? a pushy stranger asked me earlier this week as I revealed my decision to continue my schooling in the region where I grew up.) The five Word document windows open at all times, as I draw together more than 100 pages of notes compiled between now and last summer, when I investigated the closure of a collective arts center in Ireland. (That this story germinated from Ireland’s historic and contemporary out-migration and in-migration patterns is no accident: the center’s volunteer base is made up of high numbers of both native Irish who chose to stay and internationals who chose to move—both groups striving to create meaningful communities in a country whose finances were on the down-and-out. These migration patterns were the subject of my own DukeEngage experience back in 2011.)

When I work with students on any given project, I first want to know what propels them. Why do they care about the things they say they care about? What does it mean to a given person to be “into” public policy? Renaissance art? Forced migration? These are the sorts of questions I’m not sure I fully asked myself before I packed my bags for DukeEngage, before I went to work with an immigrant-focused newspaper in Dublin run by a Nigerian editor. I knew that I was a writer, and that I came from a family almost wholly composed of Irish immigrants. I didn’t feel comfortable connecting these, well, connections to a community and an “issue” with which I felt mostly unfamiliar.

I recently bookmarked Isabel Wilkerson’s award-winning The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration as part of a bulk order to amp up Kenan’s lending library (did you know that we have a lending library?). I’ve snagged it for now. Although I just started, reading it is helping me think through some of these questions in the present-day. It has reminded me that these are questions I want to pose to all students as they embark on DukeEngage projects both local and international; as they graduate; as they move out and into other spaces. I want to remind students—remind myself—that moving out and elsewhere is a privilege, and that staying put is also a privilege. And that “staying put” is never really staying put. In any place or space, we bring to bear our particular histories; we try to live in ways that do justice to ourselves—to tend gardens for our own growing.

But, of course, we live in a world of others—others complicit, either directly or not, in the realistic unfolding of our blueprints, our plans. What does it mean for me to choose to live in the South because I know I can make a home here (and already have)? What does it mean that my white parents left their northern urban center to make a home here while African-American families fled North Carolina for the north well through, and after, the mid-20th century? Does my living here subtract from the flourishing of someone else? These questions are the ground-level plans for a much larger structure—one we, I, can build, if we choose to.


May 022015
 May 2, 2015

Poet Saeed Jones’s review of Toni Morrison’s new novel God Help the Child starts like this: “When we talk about Toni Morrison, we are also talking about what it means to thrive in the midst of well-manicured and eloquent hostility.” It wasn’t until after I finished reading his piece—and it’s a great piece, an incisive and short dive into the what is the what of Toni Morrison and her work—that I remembered I began a review of Morrison’s two-books-ago novel Home, in 2012, with similar words, though framed as a question: “How to write about Toni Morrison?” I had to write something, so I went with what I associated with her at that time: nostalgia for high school English; my and my friends’ somewhat vague, though earnest, admiration of her work. Jones’s review does a bit more, saying that Morrison’s newest novel offers us “an opportunity to meditate on the tension between the idea of the artist and the reality of the artist herself.”

He goes on to explain:

“[Morrison’s] name becomes shorthand for a republic of women and black artists with ‘no home in this place’ to borrow a phrase from Morrison’s Nobel lecture, people who create, reclaim and celebrate art that is intent on offering something of use back to the people whom it illuminates.”

What intrigues me about this sentence is how it stakes a claim and interrogates said claim; Jones seems to be saying, even affirming, yes, these people—this “republic”—do create and share art with these aims, but also warning: don’t talk in brushstrokes, don’t manhandle the meticulous, don’t assume authority. In other words: What republic? Who’s running it? How do they want to be called?

I haven’t read Morrison’s latest book yet, but I’ve found myself recently wanting to return to those I have read: Paradise, The Bluest Eye, Song of Solomon, Home. The end of the semester seems to mark a desire to change the patterns in which I am reading. I’ve made a strong commitment to reading books predominately by women this past year—due in part to my role in Kenan’s Visiting Writers Series—and yet I feel myself turning away from this commitment in a kind of fatigue. I voluntarily read a sequence of women-authored memoir and essay collections this spring—many either implicitly or explicitly about the need for more women to tell their stories and claim their emotions openly, through writing and documentation—and somehow felt exhausted, despite my identifying with that “republic,” or wanting to feel that identification more forcefully. I was exhausted by these texts because I was exhausted by the pattern they created—which meant, in effect, the pattern created for them, authored by the “republic” of bookbuyers, of book-categorizers, of Amazon “you might like lists,” shuttling these titles along into lists that circled back in on themselves: women-authored, women-facing fiction/nonfiction written for women. Circularity is of course not necessarily insularity, but equating them makes for easier marketing, easier categorization.

My response to what’s happening right now in Baltimore has largely been to read—that which I can make time for, that which I am already reading that I can stretch to relate, in my mind, to Baltimore. Jones’s review belongs in this camp; so does Director of Duke’s Islamic Studies Center Omid Safi’s On Being piece (“Between Nepal and Balitmore”); so does, somehow, Leanne Shapton’s memoir/art book Swimming Studies; so does Duke mathematician Anita Layton’s Good Question. The latter, as in Jones’s Morrison review, both stakes and interrogates a claim: We have all sorts of data at our fingertipson healthcare trials and treatments, crime statistics, and weather patterns for example. But how do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? Watching mainstream media reports of and from Baltimore, I’ve become more cognizant of another kind of circularity—the circularity of my audience to newscasters seemingly determined to quickly, easily, and efficiently reinvent the wheel, to calibrate outrage on the same level with each new act of violence. This determination is one poised to offer, consistently, effect without cause: in other words, to say these things just keep happening. This is the claim, but where is the interrogation of said claim?

The weight of this realization feels important—like a smaller-scale, self-authored but outward-focused recalibration. It feels sort of like how I feel reading and then talking, with one or two others, about Toni Morrison. Whether in 2006 or 2015, this has felt like a process of uncovering new truths. How do we use the data to make the best and most ethical decisions? We reject amnesia, first of all, and in doing so, understand why the shorthand has come to be—and maybe we reject that, too.


Apr 242015
 April 24, 2015

“The way in which we choose those who will die reveals the depth of moral commitment among the living.”

(Justice William J. Brennan)

Today the sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and classes have ended for Duke undergraduates; I’m reading over my notes on the death penalty.

Earlier this week, scholars and practitioners—both local and non—gathered for the last Conversation in Human Rights for this academic year, “The Death Penalty in N.C. and the U.S.” The panel consisted of two law professors, a political scientist-economist, a historian, and a practitioner. The discussion was lively and embodied; Corinna Lain and James Gibson, both from the University of Richmond School of Law, spoke animatedly about their co-authored paper, “Death Penalty Drugs and the International Moral Marketplace”; Seth Kotch, from UNC-CH’s Department of American Studies, rapidly talked us through his research on the case study of Alvin Mansel, an African-American man from Western North Carolina who sat on death row but was eventually commuted and given parole. Isaac Unah, from Political Science at UNC, and Gretchen Engel, who heads up the Durham-based Center for Death Penalty Litigation, honed the local focus with an overview of recent death penalty cases in North Carolina.

On a general level, I was struck, as I am often in academic panels—or any panel for that matter—by the rapid-fire, real-time bringing together of different types and snippets of knowledge (each panelist was given a total of six minutes to present his or her thesis and ideas). Ideally, in such a scenario, each panelist brings to the table a distinct disciplinary perspective; also ideally, such perspectives can mesh together so that the panel becomes or at least feels to the audience like a conversation, rather than an abstract issuing-forth. And this Conversation indeed felt like a conversation; the panelists were engaging, they played well together, and they played well with the audience. All this despite, or perhaps in light of, the subject matter, which has felt unavoidable in the local and national news lately. And, probably, it should feel that way; comments were made more than once during the discussion that alluded to how little Americans know about the death penalty—we make up part of the remaining 18% of U.N. member countries that still allow it; we source drugs for lethal injections from European pharmaceutical companies, while the EU restricts the death penalty—regardless of whether they choose to support it or not.

To behold a somewhat cheery, dynamic conversation about these issues is disorienting, but moreso compelling, given the manner in which issues surrounding the death penalty are taken up in the national, public sphere: in conjunction with high-profile cases, such as the Boston Marathon bombing—first, the facts, then reportage on the emotional response. There was something powerful in Monday’s conversation in the admission of this action happening, it’s inherent to our national and local landscape, and it can be approached in these various ways. Those who research and advocate for issues relating to the death penalty (and/or its abolition in the U.S.) know about things like the Innocence Project, about its mission to a) exonerate and b) reform the system—a proactive effort, and a public-facing and publicly inclusive one at that. Being privy to this week’s conversation made me wonder to what degree these multi-faceted, emphasis-on-knowledge-production-and-question-generation conversations are happening with regard to the issue of the death penalty, and to what extent they increase the accessibility of the issue in the first place. I’d err on the side of to a large extent—that is, when they happen in the first place.


Apr 172015
 April 17, 2015

The strongest feeling I feel regarding the ubiquity of inchworms is annoyance, but the second-strongest is wonder: at their incremental ways of moving, at their ability to canvass the canopy some-odd feet above our heads and some-odd feet below the tree branches. Their assertion of space jibes against mine: I deserve to walk home free from these small leech-like green bodies, to not-dip under their transparent web-threads dangling down from the trees.

And then the rain comes, and with the pollen they are gone—dead, perhaps, or otherwise invisible by the human eye. My body sighs in relief. I expand the radius of where I can comfortably maneuver myself. I don’t dodge the plunging stairwell that connects my downstairs office to the control center of Kenan, as I did yesterday when I saw a green worm floating in that negative space and chose to take the elevator instead.

As someone with a background in movement training, I’m partly fascinated by this choreography of avoidance and partly unnerved by it. It invokes a privileging of private, individual space—the same privileging I denounce when undergraduates cluster together with loud voices at Durham establishments, or extend their limbs farther than their limbs can reach on Duke buses.

It is the end of the semester and we are tired. It has been a long year. I found Duke senior (and Kenan student) Leena El-Sadek’s Chronicle column this week, “Counting down and looking back,” particularly apt. She uses the metaphor of a running a recent half-marathon to chart her own exhaustion and frustration with uneven (read: unequal) terrains:

“One month till the Duke finish line.

They fooled me. I waited for the final semester email, but it never came. Faculty and family begin cheering, and I realize I’m only a couple of weeks away from the finish line. I begin to pick up my pace, but certain powers step out in front of me. Some people step out in front of me. I realize that I know these people. The America I come from is not the America they come from. I ran the same race, I conquered every hill and I never stopped. On paper, though, it looks like they beat me. Life isn’t fair.”

And yet she keeps going, keeps running: “I want to conquer those hills. I want to finish those miles. And maybe just then, I’ll run and feel like a winner.” This work is duly enervating because it is necessary—the continuity, the keeping-on itself is necessary. And so, as the semester closes, we grasp more and more at the spaces, activities, and people that make us feel more comfortable—partly as a reaction to the exhaustion, be it physical, emotional, intellectual, political, cultural…you name it. I can’t speak for Leena’s exhaustion; she speaks it, and speaks it eloquently, herself. In terms of my own, I’m looking back at a post I wrote a year(-ish) ago, after Teju Cole’s visit to Duke. In that post I was looking back at a note I wrote for Recess at the end of my senior year as a Duke undergraduate. I feel now, as I did then, the anxiety of summing things up, of creating clean conclusions even, and especially, as the self has exhausted itself. I have recent Duke, local, and national events on my mind, and they hang heavy: the noose incident, the adhan debate, the murders in Chapel Hill, the lives of people of color lost to police violence. I think also about spaces where we have come together: in a lunch with Leslie Jamison, where a group of young women conversed with a writer about creative work and self-care; under the Chapel, where administrators and students tried to process and move forward: some by standing in solidarity, others by implicating Duke in the university’s own problems (Public Policy professor Fritz Mayer wrote an evocative piece about this gathering here).

I feel compelled to compose a conclusion where these uneven terrains coexist, as I think Leena does in her column. This impulse does not move to affirm immorality, inequality, or violence; rather, it acknowledges our culpability. “Dehumanization exists simply because a particular person or community has no place in the larger narrative,” Leena writes. “Inequality exists because we fail to recognize the long-standing effects of our socially constructed policies.” Our power to choreograph avoidance exists alongside our power to choreograph accountability. But choreography is one thing, and embodiment another.


Apr 102015
 April 10, 2015

A few months ago while applying makeup in front of a curved mirror in my family’s home, I noticed a cloudy spot on my right cornea. My usual hazel-green beneath had morphed to milky, and in my usual medical panic, I searched for answers: had I punctured it with my fingernail when wiping sleep from my eyes? Was it evidence of a more serious condition? Had it always been there, and I’d not noticed it until now? The scope of possibilities—of imaginative possibilities—loomed. I saw an opthamologist, who told me it was “benign as it could be,” even if it was evidence of early macular degeneration. Until then, I lived in the space of stories I’d spun for myself. Each narrative was self-controlled: I told them, and I listened in turn.

The cover image of anthropologist and writer Ruth Behar’s book The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart is a photograph of a mural on Miami’s Calle Ocho. The image is perfect for the book, she explained earlier this week in a lecture at the Center for Documentary Studies. It is of a face, perhaps that of a woman, and half of it—the paint, but also the flesh—is peeling. The scrape ranges from the corner of the mouth to the eyeball above. It almost encroaches on the pupil.

Ruth Behar's The Vulnerable Observer. Image courtesy of Amazon.

Ruth Behar’s The Vulnerable Observer. Image courtesy of Amazon.

It made sense for Behar to reference her book—indeed, the talk (“Ruth Behar and The Vulnerable Observer: After Twenty Years, What Next?”) was specifically about her book, and its evolution in the cultural imaginary since its publication 20 years ago. How does her discourse in Vulnerable Observer—which blends personal essay and ethnography to advocate for a more humanistic anthropology—apply now, given the changing nature of the academy, of the media, of storytelling? Does ethnography still matter? What do we do with the ubiquity of documentation? What do we do with the archives we’re overproducing through our apps, our phones, our computers?

Behar did answer, or tilt toward answering, each of these questions. But perhaps, at one point, before she wrote this lecture, these questions bewildered her—as they bewilder me. Maybe these questions thrummed when her vision field became sprinkled with bright lights during a recent drive. This episode was woven into her lecture. The episode reminded her of her youth—of experiencing migraines vis-à-vis visual “auras.”

So she, like me, went to the doctor. Her current state of bright blinking was diagnosed as retina detachment. It made her anxious. She visited Florida, where she slept by the sea, and suddenly the vastness of the ocean terrified her. She visited an aunt with late-stage macular degeneration. Their ailments found and fondled each other. Behar’s aunt recognized Behar’s pain as she recognized her own—stories openly and evenly told, and received.

Stories—or the blanket concept of story—feels very much in vogue right now. Podcast popularity is suddenly reeling; live storytelling series, such as The Moth and The Monti, are well-attended; new multimedia templates unfold online each week, advertising their features as additive, even formative, bits for our brewing narratives. Just this week, the Franklin Humanities Institute unveiled Story Lab. Stories are sexy, or maybe the feeling they evoke is—in other words, it is now enough to shout “story!” and people will listen.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if people will truly listen. Listening is the ugly work: it feels invisible; it’s highly personal; it requires the investment of (deep) time and (deep) energy. As Leslie Jamison writes, It’s made of exertion—that dowdier cousin of impulse. Can we imagine a “Listening Lab” at Duke? Perhaps— though I think it would shroud itself in other language, dilute its visibility, become something else.

Ruth Behar at CDS this past week. The image onscreen was drawn by a friend in reference to Behar's ethnographic work in Mexico (Behar is pictured on the right).

Ruth Behar at CDS this past week. The image onscreen was drawn by a friend in reference to Behar’s ethnographic work in Mexico (Behar is pictured on the right).

And maybe this, too, is not a bad thing. But how do those “something elses” connect? How can we make listening, as empathetic stance, more visible? Can, and should, it be branded? Can its diverse models be celebrated without being prescribed?

In introducing Ruth Behar, Alex Harris—CDS co-founder, professor, and photographer—described Behar’s ethnographic stance as a paradigm for how to become someone we want to tell stories to. I scribbled this down in my notebook, and underneath it I wrote: How do we become.

When we adjourned to Behar’s reception, I fell in step with an older woman. We walked upstairs into the pre-storm humid breeze, and she remarked that she’d seen me nodding often during the lecture. “Yes,” I said. “I’m trying to become both a writer and a scholar. I haven’t read Behar’s work, but this talk was very affirming for me.”

I wish I had gone on to ask her what she thought of the lecture, but I was caught up in the warm buffer of Behar’s words and the promise of cheese cubes and cauliflower. I left that talk feeling like I could do anything and be anyone. I ate alone and walked off into the dark, conjuring my future story, imagining the permission I would give myself to live it.

When, in the practice of everyday living, these permissions—small, large, sometimes tentative, sometimes exuberant—are given regularly. They must be handled with care, for they are the giving and receiving of stories; they are acts of entrustment; they are, as Behar said, part of “a history of our shared mortality.”

How do we become someone others want to tell stories to? We demonstrate our capacity for listening. We sharpen our ability to see beyond our typical line of vision. We exercise presence even as the paint is peeling.


Apr 032015
 April 3, 2015

There is, in my haphazardly arranged wire desk organizer, a small sheet of paper that’s sat untouched since last October. It is untouched, but even worse, it is uncolored; this is a sheet that emerged from a coloring book, all thin black curved lines buffering a large peace sign, overlaid with the words “confidence,” “collaboration,” “creativity.” This sheet is my souvenir from my first volunteering gig with Girls Rock NC, a nonprofit organization that may best be described by its adherence to the three nouns listed above. Girls Rock NC—with sister orgs in several states—“empowers girls and women—through creative expression—to become confident and engaged members of our communities.” Its staff and volunteers, many of whom are local artists and musicians, facilitate summer camps, workshops, and other development opportunities for young women and women-identified community members.

I’m thinking about those three nouns this week, as I sat dumbstruck and disgusted by the news on campus this week, and as I came in to work on Thursday, noting in passing the Duke Chronicle’s front-page headline: “We are not afraid. We stand together.” It so happens that this week also marks the 20-year anniversary of Tejana musician Selena’s death. Reading about Selena—about whose work I am minimally familiar and limited to Spanish language-class curricula—led me to a 2009 video interview (conducted by Duke Press) with poet and performance scholar Deborah Paredez. Paredez is talking about her then-just-published text Selenidad: Selena, Latinos, and the Performance of Memory, and specifically about the creation of the term “Selenidad.” She explains how her use of the Spanish suffix -idad, which makes a non-noun word into a noun, “evoke[s] something that was of Selena but not just her.” Selenidad is at once specific and general, a holding pattern for the various types of emotional production surrounding Selena’s fame, music, and afterlife. Selenidad is different, but not separate from, other –idads: creatividad (creativity) and comunidad (community).

I don’t know much about Selena, but I want to—I want to know how her legacy speaks to Latin@ culture in the United States today, about how her status as a woman musician shaped women in music today. About how young women—Tejana, Latina, or otherwise—look to her for inspiration or affirmation. I want to draw a line between her work and that of Kathleen Hanna, and her band Bikini Hill, the subject of our final film (The Punk Singer) in this year’s Ethics Film Series. Hanna is another unapologetic frontwoman of a pioneering musical group—one about whom academic texts and non-academic texts alike could, and have, been written. Prior to Bikini Kill’s emergence as a band, the title was used for a “zine”—a self-published documentary compendium of texts, illustrations, and other materials celebrating and advocating for feminist art and music.

As it turns out, these zines included coloring books, with sheets perhaps not unlike the one that continues to sit at my desk. They circulated (and continue to circulate) in order to widen the circle of affirmation and community especially among women. Likewise, my decision to screen The Punk Singer is both curatorial and personal: it is a move to both further widen this circle and to contribute to its documentation—to see how ideas and emotions overlap, how identities take shape both on-screen and in the movie theater (and in the concert crowd, and so on). By deciding to engage with the cultural production of Selena, or of Kathleen Hanna, in the present-tense, we are bringing their work into a new space of existence—in other words, a space, like Selenidad, that is both them and not-them.


Mar 282015
 March 28, 2015

This week I’m thinking back to the Insider interview with Kari Barclay and Erin Leyson, two undergraduate students involved in last year’s multimedia art project #Migrations (led by Kenan’s first Graduate Arts Fellow, Caitlin Margaret Kelly). The piece they created brought together different live Twitter feeds clustered around terms—both ‘neutral’ and non—related to migration and immigration. I asked the two students to articulate their thinking about the relationship between art and policy in light of their work on #Migrations.

EL: I think the point with our project is that we weren’t really making a point. We’re giving everyone the tools they need to make their own point. That’s difficult for me, coming from a public policy background where everything is very pointed. We could easily push an agenda, [but] we don’t really want to do that. We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it…

KB: Some things exist outside the realm of the political or the realm of what policy can affect or change. The language that we use around migration is very much an everyday occurrence. It’s not something you really can legislate. Policy is more informal and it comes through experiences.

We want people to be able to come into the space, look at things, and think about it. Last week, Kenan hosted author Leslie Jamison, who writes gymnastically about empathy. Two days ago I sat it on the final group meeting for the Humanities Writ Large/Bass Connections project “The Language of Genocide and Human Rights.” Nora Nunn, a first-year doctoral student in the English department, gave a presentation that situated trauma in post-genocide Rwandan cinema. Last night I screened the 2006 musical film Once, about an Irish singer-songwriter and Czech pianist who meet, make music, and fall in love in Dublin. My first thought when enumerating this series of events is, when will I next hold a position that enables me to come in contact with such a swath of people, materials, and ideas? My next thought, a two-pronged one, is, do, and how do, these different things connect? This is a question I imagine is on people’s minds when they ask me what I do in my position at Kenan, as they did as I bobbed between bar tables at the reception following Jamison’s public reading last week.

Much of Nora’s presentation revolved around the idea of “empathic unsettlement,” discussed by historian Dominick LaCapra in Writing History, Writing Trauma. Empathic unsettlement, LaCapra writes, “poses a barrier to closure in discourse…from which we attempt to derive reassurance or a benefit.” Nora applied empathic unsettlement to different examples of films about genocide, highlighting the dominance of ‘harmonizing narratives’—often Western-produced, unambiguously hopeful stories of spiritual uplift following a violent or traumatic event. In either smoothing over such events or focusing on singular stories of traditional ‘success’ or overcoming, these narratives exclude all else. They negate space for questions, confusion, and alternative stories. Nora’s research was more interested in works, such as the films Matiere Gris (Grey Matter) and Munyurangabothat compose narrative through conflicting narratives—flashbacks, fragmented dream-sequences, documentary realism—and thus give us, as viewers, something more complex to wrap our heads around.

Importantly, this complexity doesn’t come in policy-memo form, assuring us that genocide won’t happen again. This complexity—like the complexity of empathy—is taken instead, as Kari alludes, as everyday, as a natural occurrence, which we must in turn work to excavate.

I was faced with a challenge to perform such excavation on Tuesday, as I composed opening remarks for the screening of Once. I felt I needed to justify the film’s inclusion in a series related to music, ethics, and identity; since Once is a musical film, and a romance at that, it carries an air of immunity to critique or analysis. Yet its plot and style refuse easy categorization or unequivocal uplift; its two central characters, who meet and make art together, make difficult choices in order to honor their obligations to others. They are grounded in a realism, and a reality, of Ireland in the mid-aughts: one teetering between the demise of the Celtic Tiger and the imminent economic collapse that coincided with the global Great Recession. They are immigrants and nationals, and carry those complicated ties, and choose to make art—to make, in effect, an ethics of “making it” in the first place. This is the space they forge and the infrastructure for the points they make. This is the space which we enter, as viewers, singing along but asking our own questions along the way.


Mar 202015
 March 20, 2015

The Leslie Jamison Do Lunch.

Author Leslie Jamison’s visit to Duke as the second Kenan-CDS Visiting Writer in Ethics, Society, and Documentary Art was a two-day whirlwind that engaged undergraduate and graduate students, faculty, staff, and Triangle community members. Taken on face value, this description would suit just about any campus residency involving a high-profile practitioner, artist, or scholar. But this one felt singular, in a way; as a professor and mentor of mine said, Jamison’s visit, which centered on her much-awarded, lauded, and widely read essay collection The Empathy Exams, “touche[d] so many needs and nerves across campus.” I think this was due, in part, to the issue at the heart of her work—empathy—which prompts (and prompted) such wide-ranging micro and macro reverberations.

A Team Kenan Do Lunch on Wednesday brought Jamison and 20+ students together to explore questions surrounding the anxiety of expertise in storytelling, gender and writing, and the challenges of crafting a healthy relationship between creative work and everyday living. Staff book club, which convened on Thursday morning with Kenan and Center for Documentary Studies staff members, prompted a lively conversation about the metrics of empathy—When do we give? How do we position ourselves in terms of the needs of others?

Jamison at the public reading.

Jamison at the public reading.

Jamison’s panel discussion at the Forum for Scholars and Publics on Thursday, for which she was joined by Jehanne Gheith (Associate Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies and MSW), and Lauren Henschel (Duke senior and documentary photographer), was, in one audience member’s words, “awesome, moving, powerful, transformative.” The panel, entitled “Ghost Pain: Caregiving, Documentary, and Radical Empathy,” allowed the trio to share their experiences encountering pain and engendering empathy in their respective practices. Another audience member praised the discussion’s “grounded personal moments of vulnerability.” Their reflections on each others’ work felt electric and connective (and they said as much afterward).

At her public reading on Wednesday night, Jamison read “The Broken Heart of James Agee,” a short essay from a small collection of essays—”Pain Tours II”—within The Empathy Exams (a version of “Agee” was published in The Believer in 2012). About Agee’s infamous Let us Now Praise Famous Men, a 400+-page genre-bending, hulking textual thing that attempts to write about sharecroppers in the Deep South but instead writes about how hard it is to write about, and therefore document, anything, Jamison writes:

Empathy is contagion. Agee wants his words to stay in us as “deepest and most iron anguish and guilt.” They have stayed; they do stay; they catch as splinters, still, in the open, supplicating palms of this essay. If it were possible, Agee claims, he wouldn’t have used words at all: “If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here.” In this way, we are prepared for the four hundred pages of writing that follow. “A piece of the body torn out by the roots,” he continues, “might be more to the point.”

Jamison, Gheith, and Henschel after the FSP panel.

Jamison, Gheith, and Henschel after the FSP panel.

Jamison’s visit was about writing, but it was also, and fundamentally, about so much more. It was about presence: it was about different folks coming out to one or more of her events, and connecting with each other—I had no idea I’d see you here!—and connecting with Jamison in turn (she wrote personal notes in the books of attendees, and they signed her copy of The Empathy Exams). It created a space where global health students met English students; where scholarship became public and personal; where Triangle community members mingled in academic building, talking about what they do, where they work, and how they encountered Jamison’s work. This visit, much like Eula Biss’s in the fall, had a pulse, and that pulse had—has—indentations. Those indentations will live on in our shared conversation, in our shared air—the latter of which, as Jamison said, is as ubiquitous as instances of, and possibilities for, empathy.