On Homecoming: or, a Complicated Ode to My Alma Mater

By Michaela Dwyer

I’m reluctant to use an image to encapsulate my Duke homecoming experience this past weekend, but I’ll do it anyway (after all, what is “homecoming” if not a pastiche of collegiate symbols?). On Friday night, sitting in dress clothes awash in laptop light, I made a last-minute decision to attend President Brodhead’s famous homecoming dance, and I realized I hadn’t registered—for any part of homecoming weekend. I was suddenly immersed in a hyper-localized and mostly self-regarding panic. I was mad at myself that I assumed it’d be so easy to get in—that I could be so unintentional and nonchalant about my decision to opt into a weekend that is, for all intents and purposes, a pretty big deal in its neat little Duke context. I sat frozen in my ambivalence: would they throw me out if I arrived, unregistered? Would it not be totally ridiculous for them to do so? Why was I getting so worked up about something so comparably inconsequential to the messiness and thrumming life of the larger, greater “real world”?

The skim here may be that I’m a curmudgeon, forever skeptical of big, institution(-alized) university events like homecoming. I’ve never been one to outwardly profess an attachment to the supposed physical beauty of West Campus. As an undergrad (and still now), I’d sooner champion concerts and art openings over large-scale traditional happenings—from sports games to designated nights at downtown clubs—that continually draw huge quantities of Duke students. And I’ve always been reluctant to call Duke “home,” just as it’s been hard for me to give that title to any space I’ve transiently inhabited.

The arrival (and passing) of homecoming pushes me to ponder how much Duke is “home” for any of us, even for those who call it such. And what happens if we interchange “home” with “community”? The Chronicle is running a particularly good editorial series by recent graduates, all of whom are taking a “gap year” to seek out the “diverse ways Duke graduates can pursue and engage with the field of medicine outside the classroom.” The most recent column, written by my friend Jocelyn Streid, discusses the danger of dichotomizing “Duke” and the “real world.” She writes—and these lines keep running through my head—: “With the specter of adulthood on the horizon, we fall prey to decisions that jeopardize our integrity, our communities and our bodies because—well—we’re not in the ‘real world’ yet. It’s easy to call Duke unreal because college life looks like it lacks real responsibilities. But that’s a myth. As long as we are in a community, and exist in community, our actions matter. They matter because they affect others.”

Recently in Noah Pickus’s Discussions in Ethics course we looked at the Duke Community Standard, which states that “Duke University is a community of scholars and learners, committed to the principles of honesty, trustworthiness, fairness, and respect for others…As citizens of this community, students are expected to adhere to these fundamental values at all times, in both their academic and non-academic endeavors.” The impulse here is hugely communitarian: at Duke, we apparently share the pledge to act, both within and outside of academia, as an intentional community. We sign this Standard at various points throughout the “Duke Experience”: after convocation our first year, when registering for classes each semester, in conjunction with papers and exams.

Despite its attention to social responsibility, the Standard isn’t signed before a party, basketball game, or upon registration for homecoming (I arrived, late, and anxiously inquired as to whether admittance would honor an RSVP placed 30 minutes before the dance began. It would). It’s curious: homecoming sends the message that Duke inherently is, and will forever remain, a giant, shared enterprise, and it’s almost too easy to opt back into that vibe once you’ve “graduated” from it. That’s part of what I felt on Friday: rejoining the “Duke Community,” now as an alumna, felt like a surreally detached action from how I actually moved through Duke. My philosophy is communitarian in relation to the many networks I’m a part of; I think of my “Duke Experience” fractured into my commitment to communities in the arts, the Chronicle, the Baldwin Scholars, the Center for Documentary Studies, the Triangle at large. These, to me, feel like intentional communities in a way that my allegiance to Duke—in the big, loud, proud homecoming hoopla sense—does not, and probably never will.

But that ritualistic Duke hoopla is a vision, a space, that’s necessarily vague and incomplete. It treads a fine line between danger and benefit in its ability to transcend these distilled networks, these specialized stuffings of my—or anyone’s—time at Duke. Many of the most unique and powerful relationships I’ve formed and experiences I’ve had at Duke have emerged from between the cracks. Renewing that feeling of community was as easy as shimmying up to old friends also conveniently attending the homecoming dance on Friday. And maybe that between-the-cracks space is the grandiose, mystical Duke that we can all latch onto, the institutional outline that has the capacity for wildly different individual Duke experiences. It seems to me that what most bonds us as Duke students and graduates is the power to opt into and perform this universal, connective “Duke” that exists when we want it to—like on homecoming weekend. Maybe, and to my hoo-ha cynic’s chagrin, the ease with which we—I—can inhabit that is actually what’s making it easier than ever to make Duke and Durham into a definition of “home.”

“A revelation or a more efficient blinding”: On Book Banning Close to Home in 2013

By Michaela Dwyer

Growing up in Chapel Hill, the closest I ever got to illicit literature was during my first year of high school, when my class read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I should specify, though: those in my class who wished to read The Bluest Eye—which I gather was not included in the 9th grade English curriculum due to its ‘mature’ themes—had to get his or her parents to sign a waiver. The rest of the class read Richard Wright’s Black Boy, and my English teacher hopped between the two groups, huddled alternately in the classroom and in the hallway outside. I felt slightly edgy, dipping into earnest, if slightly jejune, discussions of race, gender, and sexuality with ten other 14-year-old honors English students.

Then, and now, my take on the permissive action is the same: of course my parents signed the form. Why would they not? I was an English-inclined student under the jurisdiction of a fantastic English teacher who upheld Morrison’s work over many other authors’. Reading The Bluest Eye was a chance to work slightly outside the curricular norm—a norm [still] largely populated by a white male canon (Shakespeare, Fitzgerald, Salinger, et al). The novel, Morrison’s first, details a year in the life of Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl growing up in post-Depression Lorain, Ohio. Its up-front treatment of racism, incest, and child molestation—among other themes—has landed the book on several banned book lists over the years, including this year. In 1994, school administrators in Fairbanks, Arkansas declared it “a very controversial book” containing “a lot of very graphic descriptions and lots of disturbing language.”

Ralph Ellison and his novel.

This judgment call isn’t far from the one placed on Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, banned recently—and uncannily in conjunction with national Banned Books Week—in our own state’s Randolph County. One parent, noticing Invisible Man among two other choices for 11th grade summer supplementary reading, supposedly read the novel and was offended by it. “It,” meaning a collection of specific chapters, which the parent excerpted in over ten pages in her appeal to the school board. “This novel is not so innocent,” she wrote. “Instead, this book is filthier, too much for teenagers. You must respect all religions and point [sic] of views when it comes to the parents and what they feel is age appropriate for their young children to read.”

The regular recurrence of book bans throughout American history—and often of the same books, I’ll add—emphasizes the degree to which personal moral judgments continue to rub up against, and assert power over, curricular ones. While public schools are obligated to serving their students in loco parentis, they are not permitted to do so in a way that restricts students’ civil liberties (public libraries, unobligated to youthful charges, do not operate in loco parentis). In most cases, according to the American Library Association, attempts to “challenge” books (requesting removal of “material from the curriculum or library, thereby restricting the access of others”) are defeated by the communal efforts of teachers, students, parents, and librarians. Randolph County’s case presents a particularly messy tug between individual and community interest: both the school and district levels advocated for the book to remain in school libraries. The school board, however, voted 5-2 to remove all copies of the book, effectively banning it, and thus elevating personal repulsion to county-wide policy.

The irony abounds here, particularly considering the actual book in question. Ellison’s narrative follows, and is narrated by, a black man navigating various geographies and social and cultural strata in the already-potent context of early 20th-century America—all while seeing, and staking, himself as socially invisible. In the introduction to the text, Ellison lays out the conflicted spheres his protagonist inhabits: one of post-WWII American society that, even in “progressive” political communities, denies blacks the civil rights so espoused by the U.S.’s wartime diplomacy, and—crucially—one within himself, grasping for situations and communities in which he can find his voice and become visible. Add to this the novel’s formal experimentation, and we can see why board chair Tommy McDonald called Invisible Man a “hard read” and slammed a “no” down alongside it.

Invisible Man is, indeed, a hard read, and it will be, for anyone who engages with it, for different reasons. Perhaps it’s hard to put stock in a narrator who openly admits that he has “become acquainted with ambivalence,” who outright acknowledges his invisibility—and, by extension, the role we as readers play in maintaining it. Perhaps Ellison’s political references and language switches seem foreign to readers who have not experienced them firsthand. Perhaps a smattering of chapters deal with material that wouldn’t (read: shouldn’t) be brought up at the dinner table.

It is important to note, however, that high school, or any level of formal education for that matter, is not, and never will be, the dinner table.

Banned Book trading cards from the Chapel Hill Public Library.

The committee’s report on the attempted ban puts it bluntly: “The committee all agreed there were parts of the book that were not pleasant, but when reading the whole book those were not as prevalent. They also agreed that ‘life’ is not always pleasant.” No experience or artifact worth engaging—whether it be a work of art, a community, or life itself—is merely a sum of its parts. It’s unfortunate to see a novel pegged and gutted to a few excerpts one person, and then a handful of elected officials, deemed objectionable. It’s further unfortunate that a policy action presumed best for a community operates on the one flawed assumption that literature will never abide: when we all read and discuss the same text, we extract the same narrative, the same meaning, the same understanding of right and wrong. (In this case, emphasis on the “wrong.”)

“Respect[ing] all religions and point [sic] of views” is a practice that necessitates reading and talking about books like Invisible Man. As citizens and educators, we are responsible for promoting the study and discussion of complicated materials that reflect the very complicated world in which we live. This is a fundamentally inclusive approach toward life in a democratic society, the same society Ellison chose to write about because he found it “mysterious and uncertain…and still, despite its raw violence and capriciousness…promising.”

Events like Banned Books Week celebrate and encourage tackling “hard” literature, whether through collecting banned books trading cards in Chapel Hill or grassroots-organizing a massive giveaway of Invisible Man for Randolph County high-schoolers. How exciting it must feel to be a high-schooler in Randolph County today, clutching a free copy of this now-illicit tome. How wrong, however—and yes, I stake this as a moral claim—that these copies may never enter a classroom space, where students can compile their knowledge and experience, curricular and extracurricular, and make the text dance.

And, to sign off, I’ll leave you with a fitting passage from early in Ellison’s novel, in which the main character, the “Invisible Man”, describes a statue at his alma mater:

 “It’s so long ago and far away that here in my invisibility I wonder if it happened at all. Then in my mind’s eye I see the bronze statue of the college Founder, the cold Father symbol, his hands outstretched in the breathtaking gesture of lifting a veil that flutters in hard, metallic folds above the face of a kneeling slave; and I am standing puzzled, unable to decide whether the veil is really being lifted, or lowered more firmly in place; whether I am witnessing a revelation or a more efficient blinding.”