“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.