Sing to It

“At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else.” So begins Amy Hempel’s very short story “Sing to It.” I have been thinking of this request lately, “no metaphors”, with Covid still very much with us, but with vaccines offering the hope that maybe, soon, things will be more normal, less devastating.

Two recent moments have prompted these musings. One came from Ellen Cushing’s article about Covid and forgetting in The Atlantic. To mark the things she has forgotten, Cushing keeps a list of questions about her pre-covid life: “How tall is my boss? What does a bar smell like? Are babies heavy? Does my dentist have a mustache? … How much does a movie popcorn cost?” The question that I can’t get away from, that reminded me that I am sad, was “What time do parties end?” I know, I think (I feel uncertain), when I used to come home from parties, but I haven’t thought about it in so long. I haven’t thought about whether I am going to a get-a-babysitter sort of party or a bring-the-pack’n’play-and-put-the-children-in-the-guestroom kind of party or a go-home-before-kids’-bed-time kind of party (is it a party if it ends before the sun goes down?). I don’t think about parties at all anymore, much less go to any, and somehow that feels like a measure of the many things we have lost.

The other moment, a more serious one, was a picture in the Guardian of a makeshift covid hospital in Brazil. Taken from above, it shows rows and rows of beds between temporary walls, like cubicles for illness and fear. What a terrible place to be sick. What a lonely place to die. Each bed is so much like the other, each person indistinguishable from the rest. But somewhere is someone who would recognize these people. The man in the center of the bottom row – someone is afraid for him, someone has been told recently that he had been put on a ventilator, someone will mourn and grieve him if he dies.

“At the end, I wanted to comfort him. But what I said was, Sing to it. The Arab proverb: When danger approaches, sing to it.

Except I said to him before I said that, No metaphors! No one is like anyone else. And he said, Please.”

“No metaphors! No one is like anyone else.” It is a hard request to honor lately, with the daily ticker of positive cases and deaths. At some point, the individuality of stories is difficult to speak about, to even think about. A metaphor can feel like a betrayal. Like the first step towards saying, don’t worry about the person you have lost, there are seven and a half billion more like her. I want some way of making every single person visible and utterly unique. I want some way to remember.

But metaphors, though they are formed by speaking of one thing in terms of another, by creating a likeness between them, are also how we talk about what we most cherish. Love poems and laments are full of metaphors, not because every love and every loss are the same, but because deep feelings require precision of language, and metaphors provide that. Metaphors is how we sing. Not necessarily to make meaning out of tragedy, but to honor ourselves and others and the frailty of our lives. Metaphors is part of how we use language to care for each other, a linguistic method of tending and acknowledging.

At the end, he said, No metaphors! Nothing is like anything else. Except he said to me before he said that, Make your hands a hammock for me.

So—at the end, I made my hands a hammock for him.

My arms the trees.

Danger has been with us for a while. Hopefully it is receding now, not approaching. But we still need ways to sing to it. What I am thinking about these days, in the late stages (hopefully) of the Covid pandemic, is what kind of songs we will sing about these days. Songs that need to speak both of the parties we didn’t go to and of the people who have died. Of the boredom and monotony of stay-at-home orders and the grief of closed borders. Of the popularization of medical terms, life without taste, of the hope of vaccines. Songs about how we have cared for each other, how our hands have been hammocks, and song of how we have failed to care. I am searching for songs of metaphors and songs in which nothing, no one, is like anyone else.

Games, TV & Politics with Media Critic Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian and Adriane Lentz-Smith EoN PhotoDespite the chilly rain last Friday night, a lively crowd of faculty, students and residents welcomed Adrian Lentz-Smith’s Ethics of Now conversation with Anita Sarkeesian, feminist media critic known for her role in Gamergate and co-author of History vs Women: The Defiant Lives that They Don’t Want You to Know.  Anita’s path was largely forged by her move toward radical politics as an undergraduate and the realization in graduate school that “Feminism wasn’t accessible.” Seeing feminism trapped in academic spaces with a particular language that made it inaccessible to most people led her to ask, “What can I do to live my politics right now?” YouTube and Jay Smooth provided an answer. She started making videos critiquing popular media with an intersectional feminist lens; Feminist Frequency was thus born against a cloth tapestry backdrop in her apartment. And despite advice from “everyone” not to include feminist in her title for fear of it turning people off, her channel took off.

Anita’s most influential work sprang from her series of video on Tropes Vs Women in Video Games that critiqued stereotypically helpless or overly sexualized depictions of women in video games. The response from some gamers through anonymous online platforms was swift and vitriolic; “The next five years looked like never-ending harassment – that continues to this day.”

While she didn’t get into the details of that time, she shared what she thought came from that experience. “It created a conversation that the gaming industry was not having – doing that educational work and the harassment around it created this space for developers to talk about representation in their studios.” It also changed the conversation around online harassment, “Issues around online harassment were not taken seriously—not by law enforcement…not by the general public. Social media made it worse and more accessible…And it keeps happening.”

To give a taste of the kind of critique common on Feminisit Frequency, Anita shared her take on popular TV shows from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Xena’s portrayal of the “evolution of a [female] character trying to survive trauma” not previously seen on television to Battlestar Galactica’s troubling take on race and poor story arc that led to “a dumpster fire” of a last season. Most interestingly she pointed out how popular media can challenge the stories we tell ourselves, “We think in stories, we tell our stories all the time, most of them are lies…We might join communities that also enjoy those stories… and talk to people around the water cooler about them.” But, she suggested shows like The Good Place and Brooklyn Nine-Nine are “subtly progressive” and “that’s how the stories get in.”

Anita Sarkeesian and Adriane Lentz-Smith EoN Photo

As the conversation wound down, Anita shared her worry about the current politically climate where she saw that the “Left sometimes eats itself.” Her answer to that is within our political imagination. “We need a society that really thinks about liberatory politics – I love thinking about where I want us to go. I’m not a good activist if I can’t articulate where I want us to go in the future.”









Friday’s conversation was part of Kenan’s Ethics of Now series to engage the Duke and Durham community around issues that impact us all. These conversations continue in February with Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy, and in March with Francisco Cantú, former border patrol agent and author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border

Seeing Bias: a conversation with Jennifer Eberhardt

 Jennifer Eberhardt, social psychologist and author of Biased, spent twenty plus years investigating the consequences of the psychological association between race and crime and thinking about what we can do about it. On Friday evening, she joined Duke historian Adrienne Lentz Smith as part of Kenan’s Ethics of Now series at the Durham Arts Council. This public conversation considered how we might use what we know about bias and the brain to make a more equitable world. Eberhardt warned, “People think about bias as a personal journey but it’s something that we should be holding our institutions and systems responsible for.”

She went on to emphasize,

“The connection between the mind and the world, the mind and the institutions in the world –there’s a pretty tight connection…how we think affects the kind of systems we build and those systems then affect how we think.”


What are you going to do? What is our role in stopping hate?Eberhardt began thinking about such things long before she graced the halls of Stanford as a full professor. She recounted stories of her childhood and the way in which place influenced how she experienced the world – stark differences between racially divided neighborhoods and schools made her ask questions that she still asks today. Questions she noted that “spoke to the power of the environment to determine how your life will be, even your potential and whether you will reach it or not.”

She provided real world examples of how we can use what we know about bias to combat it whether stopping racial profiling by Oakland police or on neighborhood listservs like Nextdoor. To address bias, these organizations worked to create processes to “slow people down” and make them think through a situation – cues that focused on behavior and set norms that denounced racial profiling were often enough to decrease biased actions. Eberhardt succinctly noted that their approach worked to change the familiar slogan “If you see something, say something.” to “If you see something suspicious, say something specific.” Eberhardt hopefully noted that in this way, “Changing the behaviors can change the mindset.”

In a brief Q&A exchange with the audience about how these issues relate to Durham, Eberhardt ended by sharing her experience talking with survivors from the Charlottesville protests. The incident forced the community to wrestle with themselves to answer the questions that we all perhaps should consider: “What are you going to do? What is our role in stopping hate?”

Friday’s conversation was part of Kenan’s Ethics of Now series to engage the Duke and Durham community around issues that impact us all. These conversations continue in February with Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy, and in March with Francisco Cantú, former border patrol agent and author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border



SUMMER 2020 Pathways of Change

pathways of changeInterested in business and human rights?

The Duke Human Rights Center at the Kenan Institute for Ethics is soliciting applications for Pathways of Change, which offers summer internships with organizations looking to make business work for communities, not just bottom lines. Students will explore the compromises, contradictions and tradeoffs between business needs and human rights within and outside of the corporate world by working with organizations determined to create accountability, ensure sustainability and align the needs of communities with the aims of business development.

In addition to working with the partner organizations, students conduct “profiles” of the people in their organizations and write “letters home” about the best ways to affect change in corporate human rights practices.

The Fine Print

  • Each internship comes with a $5,000 stipend. Students are responsible for arranging their own travel and accommodation on-site.
  • Pre-selected partner organizations host a summer intern for 8-10 weeks typically in Boston, New York, San Francisco, or Cary, NC.
  • Students are required to write blogs and profiles throughout the summer for the KIE website as well as completing interviews with site supervisors or other organizational leaders


Application & Selection Process

To apply to the Pathways of Change program, please include the documents noted below in a single PDF titled with your last name and Pathways (lastname_Pathways), in the order listed. Please email application to ada.gregory@duke.edu

  • Cover Letter expressing why you are interested in an internship in business and human rights and indicating your preference in potential placements. Please list only partners you would be willing to intern with. If you are flexible on placements, please note that.
  • CV including major, related coursework, expected graduation, and languages other than English
  • Writing Sample:  5-10 pages, please note at top which class it was for. This writing sample can be about any topic — something that showcases your best academic writing.  


The deadline for applications is Friday, January 17, 2020, with the first round of interviews (with Kenan) likely taking place the following week with successful candidates referred to partners for review and interviews by early February. Selected finalists will be offered placements no later than end of February. 


Business & Human Rights/Corporate Social Responsibility Possible Placements

Read student reflections and learn more about these organizations and their leaders on the Pathways of Change Blog or from the selections below:

  • Accountability Counsel, an NGO in San Francisco. Flexible with start/end date. Requires a 10-week commitment.

Letters home: Working from the Bottom and the Top to Amplify Community Voices
Profile:   Natalie Bridgeman Fields, Founder and Executive Director

  • Business for Social Responsibility, a non-profit consulting organization based in San Francisco and New York. Start date no later than 1st week of June and requires an 10-week, 40-hour commitment.

Letters home:  Corporate Pride in a Fractured World, by Noah McThenia
Profile:  Aron Cramer, President and CEO of BSR

Letters home:  The Power of the People, by Carter Teng
Profile:   Heshan Berents-Weeramuni, Communications Director

  • SAS, a multinational software company based in Cary, North Carolina. Flexible start date and 8-10-week commitment.

Letters home:  Wayfair Walkout: Era of Employee Activism, by Amanda Kang
Profile:   Cassy Creekman, In-house Attorney

Check back regularly for updated information about partners and important dates.  Questions? Contact ada.gregory@duke.edu.

Interested in Pathways in Women’s Rights or Environmental Justice, check out the DukeEngage Pathways Projects.

Exploring Civil Rights from Selma to Montgomery on Kenan’s Alternative Fall Break

This fall Kenan took about a dozen students to Montgomery and Selma to explore the historical and contemporary struggles for civil rights in the US. Students visited The Legacy Museum, the National Peace and Justice Memorial, the Dexter Avenue Parsonage, and the Rosa Parks Museum; they also traced the route from Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma to Montgomery with Aroine Irby who marched that route some 50 plus years ago. Two students who went on the trip last year returned to serve as student leaders, helping this year’s participants reflect on everything they did and saw. Below one of the student leaders, Linda Zhang, shares her thoughts on what it was like to be back in Alabama.

“I feel hopeful and hopeless, heavy and uplifted at the same time.”

“Going to Montgomery for the second time, I focused less on the factual content of the trip (albeit their undebatable significance), but more on the human element that made we feel the way we did: the drive, motivation, fear, and hopes of people fighting for civil liberties.”

“I talked to a guide at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, the nation’s first memorial dedicated to the legacy people terrorized by lynching. He is a retired marine who served in the military for more than 20 years and now gives tours to visitors at the memorial. While our conversation started with a Q&A about the memorial, it naturally drifted to his person life. It turns out he was born and raised in the very land on which the memorial was built. He said, “they built the museum on my backyard but it’s better this way, the story is finally being told.””

“At the freedom rides museum, a wall was covered with pictures of student protestors who went on the bus ride: they were our age, Black and White, male and female. They boarded the bus knowing they could lost their lives but they had a larger cause and belief that’s bigger than life itself.”

“The common question at Duke centers around what we want in life, but the trip with Kenan anchored my thinking in what we can’t live without.”

“The museums and sites force a confrontation”

“From the civil war artifacts to the soil of thousands of lynched African-Americans – this trip showed the students the undeniable truth of our history. More importantly, it showed the students how the preservation of memory is interpreted by the south.”

“Throughout the trip, it became clear how the preservation of memory differed between the historical sites and museums in Alabama. The Equal Justice Initiative and the First White House of the Confederacy have stark differences in their presentations and interpretation of history. As a result, we are challenged to come to terms with the balance between cultural pluralism and historical fact.”