On The Origins Of Helping

In early December last year, I gathered online with other Duke graduate students who had been awarded a GradEngage Fellowship to work with a Durham-based community organization.  We discussed what it meant to “work on” or “work for” or “work with” issues and people who were the focus of these organizations.  As we talked, I remembered a probably apocryphal story of John F. Kennedy proudly telling Jawaharlal Nehru of Kennedy’s plan to establish the Peace Corps so American young people could live in and render assistance in countries across the planet.  Nehru, the story goes, smiled, nodded, and said, “oh, that will be wonderful for the American youth.”  That story was also on my mind when a few years ago I flew to Kigali, Rwanda, for a teaching position in which I’d work with gifted and talented Rwandan high school students, helping them prepare for and succeed in U.S. universities.  During the flight, I realized by overhearing conversations that I was seated among several rows of Americans who were traveling to Africa for a few days of some sort of aid work.  I smiled– smirked, really– to myself at the revealing use of the name “Africa” as a destination, as if a place so vast and diverse could unproblematically be described so monolithically.  Who were these “aid tourists” really interested in?  Were they collecting a badge of some kind?  Creating a line on a resume or application?  And yet, there I was, an American, descending, literally, to bring a kind of assistance to a place and people in some kind of need, getting paid in the process.  And here I am, mentioning that experience in the context of discussing another project to which I’ve offered aid and assistance.

Can helping an other ever be fully separated from what’s in the act for oneself?   Must it be so for the help to be ethically acceptable? Our internet-driven language has given us the term “humble brag,” which implies an emphasis on the self end of the continuum, but is the other end of the continuum ever what helping is fully about, even if there’s no brag or any public mention of an act of help?

An often-discussed idea in evolutionary biology is an equation developed by William Hamilton, which calculates that a gene for altruistic behavior might spread if  c < rb, where c is the cost to the altruistic individual, b is the benefit to the recipient of the altruism, and r is the relatedness between the altruist and the recipient.  This mathematical statement was a descendant of an idea described by biologist J.B.S. Haldane who said he would jump in a river to save two brothers, but not one, and eight cousins, but not seven.  Both are expressing the notion that when we help others, those others tend to be very close to self, so much so that we share most of our genes.  Subsequent work on the nature and evolutionary origin of altruism pushes and stretches this direct genetic linkage, suggesting that a tendency toward helpfulness, or feelings that incline us to help even those to whom we’re not related, may in fact be one of our species superpowers, enabling cooperation of non-kin individuals on a scale shown by no other species.  Duke evolutionary anthropologist Brian Hare explores these questions of helpfulness and friendliness in much of his work, including his latest book, Survival Of The Friendliest:  Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity.

In the case of my work with the Friends of Geer Cemetery (FoGC), who is the work for?  Is it for those buried in the now-neglected cemetery?  Yes, and clearing and ultimately restoring graves and celebrating stories honors those whose resting places have been neglected.  Is it for the descendants of those buried there?  Yes, and one of the goals of FoGC is to locate descendants and share with them what is being learned about their ancestors, engaging them in the group’s projects and decision-making processes.  The interest and excitement of some descendants when contacted shows the value they see in FoGC’s work.  The reluctance and silence of other descendants, perhaps indicating skepticism and caution, suggests some of the complexities and tendrils that this work entails.  Is the work for the broader community of Durham and, perhaps, the larger American society?  I hope so.

I have no ancestors buried in Geer Cemetery.  And yet, the projects of FoGC do benefit me — benefit all of us.  While I might and must wrestle, in humility, with the ethics of “helping” and “working for, with, or on,” I know deeply that I, we, all of us, are impoverished in powerful ways by systems and structures that have and continue to devalue and deface the lives and stories of one group of people, however we might define them, while valuing the lives and stories of other, more dominant groups.   Maybe that’s just something I imbibed growing up with a religious version of “love thy neighbor,” but I suspect it’s something more, a kind of impulse and instinct we’re only beginning to understand in ways we might call science.  If this is part of what we mean by saying a thing that makes us human, we imperil our humanity by ignoring it in a strong sense, as I argue happened in the creation of separate and unequal cemeteries in Durham, or in a weak sense, by doing works of social justice with self-interest at the fore.  The path between those edges may be narrow but it seems a vital path to walk, and to do so with urgency and care.

Democratizing κλεος, or, Keeping The Great World Spinning

By the nature of our species, everyone has a birthday.  A quick calculation (7.9 billion divided by 365) shows we each share a birthday with something like 22 million other living people, which gives us claim to about 4 milliseconds of unshared birthday time.  Yet, if you are anything like me, you have a feeling about your birthday that makes the whole day feel somehow like “your day,” a day to mark you as special in some way, a day to commemorate you.  Surely this comes in part from our traditions of birthday parties, cakes, cards, and gifts, but the human need to be recognized as a unique, authentic self goes beyond these traditions since it has fueled centuries of philosophical consideration and exploration.  (For one summary example, take the often-assigned essay by Charles Taylor that has hovered around undergraduate courses in composition, philosophy, and rhetoric in the decades since it was written:  http://elplandehiram.org/documentos/JoustingNYC/Politics_of_Recognition.pdf)

In the ancient world, standing out from the crowd (being outstanding) and being worthy of remark (being remarkable) were highly desired outcomes.  The Greek poets gave us epic stories in which heroes sought κλεος, (kleos), often translated as honor or glory, by facing, well, heroic challenges or by exhibiting bravery in combat.  That word, κλεος, probably came from a Proto-Indo-European wood root, kleu-, that meant “to hear,” carrying a meaning of one’s honor or glory being heard by others beyond the limits of time and place.  So the greatest thing one could do was perform some feat that made people talk about you for many, many years to come.   Some of the famous names of Ancient Greek myths and literature bear the mark of this idea:  Hercules, or Herakles (Glory of Hera) and Sophocles (famed for wisdom), for example, contain this word root and so carry the idea of being heard about, talked about, being worthy of being remembered for their deeds and qualities (https://www.etymonline.com/word/Hercules).  Of course, any body of myths or poetry worth its salt considers the complexities of an issue beyond a single valued dimension.  So, Homer tells us in The Odyssey that in the underworld Achilles reconsidered his decision to choose κλεος over long life and would have preferred longer life over fame, once his life was over.

Also, if there is great value in a thing, there is a kind of great loss in its absence.  With the sometimes slippery sort of attribution that attends our internet age, the artist Banksy is credited with the lines “they say you die twice.  One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”  https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/28811.Banksy  The cessation of being talked about, the end of κλεος, is surely the case for most of the humans that have ever lived.  Think of the number of people outside your direct experience of time and place who are outstanding enough, are remarkable enough, for you to know and repeat their names, therefore keeping them alive in the internet-Banksy sense.  Compare this to the number of humans that have ever lived, maybe 110 billion (extrapolating from:  https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12288594/) and you have some idea of how rare and fleeting κλεος, being kept alive in speech and memory is.

Colum McCann, author of Let The Great World Spin, told in that novel some of the stories of August 7, 1974 in New York City, the day Philipe Petit strung a wire between the World Trade Center Towers and walked, suspended, a quarter mile above the city streets.  McCann uses this signal event to tie together the otherwise unremarkable and commonplace lives of a sprawling set of characters, from a Jesuit priest, to a pair of prostitutes, to a couple of aspiring artists, and to a group of mothers grieving the loss of their sons in the Vietnam War.  While the novel speaks powerfully for itself, McCann said in response to a question on his driving impulse for writing the book, “what interests me is the democracy of storytelling; it goes across gender, it goes across borders, it goes across boundaries.  Really what interests me is the people who are in the real world, the anonymous lives, the little corners of human experience that we don’t necessarily always think about.  One of the great privileges of being a writer is that you become alive in a body that’s not your own.” https://youtu.be/kAMZSpHfURg

(Hi)Stories In The Time of Plague

Photo credit: James Wahlberg

Geer Cemetery currently hosts an on-site exhibit, In Plain Sight, which features histories and stories of the people buried in the cemetery and of their communities.  The exhibit is open for self-guided tours as described in the exhibit website.  Docent-led tours are completely booked for the weeks the exhibit is scheduled to be open.  During a break in the weeks of rain Durham had this February, I stopped by Geer Cemetery to view a sign that I’d built remotely for the exhibit.   Across the cemetery, I noticed a man, a woman, and two children making their way along the carriage path that leads from one exhibit display to another.  As the group finished their visit, the man called to me from his car and asked if I was “part of this,” waving his hand back toward the displays.  Through my mask, I answered that I was wondering how I could let him know something of the enormous amounts of time and energy that others in the Friends of Geer Cemetery had put in to produce the exhibit and how my connection to that work was recent and minor.  He said, “this is really great,” and seemed to want to say more but wasn’t sure exactly what.  I asked what had he taken away from the exhibit?  “The stories.  The stories of the people, and everything they did and their lives.”

Feeling like a bit of an evangelist, I thanked him for visiting and encouraged him to tell others about the exhibit and the cemetery.  As I prepared to leave, one car — and then another — stopped on Camden Avenue, and their drivers asked me if this was a cemetery and what was going on.  I told each a few sentences about the cemetery and the exhibit and both said they planned to come back to learn more.  Driving away, I wondered at the energy of these socially distanced encounters, mediated across two layers of masked isolation and considered that in these pandemic days we may be especially hungry to engage and share stories.

A few years ago, I had the joy of a semester-long graduate seminar on one book, Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, set in and around Florence, Italy, during the plague year of 1348.   In the framing tale of the book, a group of ten friends retreat from the contagious density of Florence, isolates themselves in what we might today call a pod, and tells each other stories.  The friends’ storytelling is highly structured, with a different person in charge of the day to determine the order in which each storyteller will share.   Through those structures and stories, they explore their relationships with their cultural institutions, their society’s expectations of and limitations on them, and their own inner worlds, even as they detach from their society for safety reasons.  The stories upend conventions, are sometimes irreverent, and can open ways for readers to consider themselves by fresh lights.

Photo credit: James Wahlberg

As we deal with our own year filled with news of a plague and devoid of opportunities to experience stories communally, I imagine that a place dedicated for a time, as Geer Cemetery currently is, to stories and histories is exactly what we need. We too, in our public discourse, seem eager to see ourselves by new lights and reconsider social ills that have plagued us for many generations.

Continuing and expanding those stories, a new body of work compiled by the Friends of Geer Cemetery takes a quantitative and comprehensive look at what we so far know of the people interred in the cemetery.   This work will assist descendants and scholars alike who want to find stories of individual people and to consider demographic dimensions of the occupants of the cemetery.  Sorting these data by cause of death, I am surprised to see only four and five known cases of pneumonia during the plague years of 1918 and 1919, respectively.   Duke scholar Dr. Kaylee Alexander has organized this new work and developed tools for analysis and exploration.  But, as she cautions, the ways we structure our engagement with these materials are worth considering too.  “One recurring critique of using data in the humanities, and particularly of using data to talk about individuals who have historically been dehumanized, is that these methods further anonymize and dehumanize.”

And here I wonder if I’m closer to understanding the interest and energies I sensed on my brief stop at the cemetery.  The In Plain Sight exhibit puts visitors at or near the graves of people it features, and it portrays those people and their communities in ways that humanize and personalize them.  Especially during a pandemic when our human connections are strained and stressed, we may be hungrier than usual for such connections and to make those connections in a public space and with a sense of community.  So, I appreciate even more the ongoing work of the Friends of Geer Cemetery.  Not only do their efforts to “reclaim, restore, and respect” Geer Cemetery help Durham consider and come to terms with its social trajectories across many generations, these efforts may also help sustain us during a time of isolation and plague.

A Tale of Two Cemeteries

James Wahlberg will be working with the Friends of Geer Cemetery to develop stories and histories of people buried in Geer Cemetery for museum exhibits and web publication.

Was it the best of times?  Was it the worst of times?  Answering those questions during the Jim Crow era in the American south depended heavily on one’s position in a space of racial categories.  The Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896 upheld the doctrine of “separate but equal” and so sustained and legitimized very separate and very unequal facilities for people of color and white people.  These facilities included those for education and transportation and the cemeteries people used to bury their loved ones.  Durham used public funds to establish Maplewood Cemetery just southwest of downtown in 1872, but it was not until 1924 that the city created Beechwood Cemetery to provide public accommodation for burial of people of color.   Before 1924, African Americans had privately purchased and used several burial plots, including Geer Cemetery, located at what is now the intersection of Camden Avenue and Colonial St., just northeast of downtown Durham.   This cemetery accommodated some 2000 people before the city of Durham deemed it full and closed for additional burials in the 1940s.  The subsequent fates of Maplewood and Geer Cemeteries say much about the separate and unequal ways of 20th century Durham society and continue to speak to the uses of memorials and history that are very much under discussion across the south today.

Maplewood contains the final resting places of many prominent white Durhamites including Julian S. Carr and several members of the Duke family.  The grounds of Maplewood today are well-kept by the Cemeteries Management division of Durham city government.  One section of the cemetery is shaded by a grand old oak tree.   Geer Cemetery contains the resting places of many prominent African American Durhamites including Margaret Ruffin Faucette, founder of White Rock Baptist Church, and Augustus Shepard, father of James E. Shepard, the founder of North Carolina Central University.  Until very recently, Geer Cemetery had nearly vanished into a tangled overgrowth of trees, vines, and grasses.  Fallen trees and trash littered the ground; one very large tree smashed a number of gravestones when it fell.  As I first walked the grounds of Maplewood and Geer Cemeteries over a year ago, I was struck by the stark difference in their conditions.  I encourage anyone asking questions about structures of institutional racism to visit these two sacred places and feel the differences through their feet as they stroll the pleasant park-like spaces of Maplewood and then carefully tread the uneven and unkept grounds of Geer.  Such comparative visits can provide a small, embodied experience of the distances we have yet to cover to undo systems built on separate and unequal foundations.

Geer Cemetery has not been completely abandoned.  In the decades since its closure, families of those interred continued to visit their loved ones’ graves and perform acts of maintenance and upkeep.  Yet green and growing natural forces gained the upper hand.   Some of the families and others with an interest in the past and present of the burial ground formed an organization, the Friends of Geer Cemetery. After decades of change and growth, this group has a new momentum to, in the words of the group’s present mission statement, “Restore, Reclaim, and Respect” the cemetery and the stories of those buried there.   One of the key issues facing the organization is establishing a clear deed of ownership for the land.  While the initial purchase of the property is recorded in city records, the current legal status of that deed has been lost.  Friends of Geer Cemetery has organized and supported volunteer clean-up efforts in the cemetery and has worked with the city of Durham to begin to bring the city’s resources to bear in clearing and cleaning the grounds in a more significant way.  Before the Covid-19 pandemic, I participated in several clean-up days and was moved by the physicality of the experience.  The weathered and often jumbled grave markers, the casket-shaped depressions in the ground, the grave goods and other mementos left at loved ones’ gravesites resonated with my own experiences of that ultimate common human event of burying and remembering family and friends lost to death.    The state of disrepair of the cemetery provoked something else in me: an anger at the disrespect of honoring a burial ground of one racial group while allowing the burial ground of another group to become effaced in a short time, based on the “mere distinction of colour,” a phrase James Madison used to describe what we now know to be a  socially constructed categorization without biological meaning.   

The Friends of Geer Cemetery has obtained grant funding to perform an archaeological survey of the cemetery and to develop an on-site exhibit highlighting the stories and histories of African Americans in Durham, especially those buried in Geer Cemetery.  The exhibit, In Plain Sight, is now open for a limited time for self-guided tours and for docent-guided tours as described on the exhibition website.  I invite you to walk the ground in Geer Cemetery and read the exhibition’s panels telling the stories of the land and of those buried there.  I invite you too, as you may have time, to walk the ground in Maplewood Cemetery and feel with your feet and see with your eyes, the tale of these two cemeteries on opposite sides of one small southern city.

(Photo credits:  Carissa Trotta)