“Neither Quick nor Linear”

If you want to go on an adventure in plain sight on a Tuesday, you must first tell yourself it is an adventure. Hitch a bus from Smith Warehouse and sit in the very back, on the right, where you can rest your legs, fully extended, on the metal crossbar. Feel the weight of your body brace the window as the bus turns left; stare at the unfurling greenery as you make your way to West Campus. You make notes in your notebook under the heading, “To West on a Tuesday.”

The history of LGBTQ activism, advocacy, and acceptance at Duke was “neither quick nor linear,” as an information plaque in the Perkins Gallery tells you. This is part of a new exhibition—Queering Duke History—curated by Denzell Faison, who graduated this past spring. This is the exhibition you travel to West Campus to see. It’s about the history of queer activism at Duke; it’s about, as Faison says in his curatorial statement, “refut[ing] the prevailing theory that Duke University never actively discriminated against LGBTQ individuals.”

The exhibition feels both introductory and comprehensive; accessible, but chock-full of deep cuts—Chronicle editorials, banners, “Coming Out Party” flyers—from the Duke Archives. There are photos of impassioned student protestors and there is a hard copy of Steven Petrow’s controversial 1990s Duke Magazine article on the AIDS crisis. There is a big red “rejected” stamp on a queer student group’s charter.

photo-5-768x1024You come to West Campus, not for a class or a meeting, but in search of this exhibition—because you want to write about it, which means you want to place it within some larger conversation about the history of Duke and what Duke looks like now. You live and breathe what Duke looks like now, because you both went to school and now work here, so you focus on the visceral particulars. When you get off the bus on West Campus, you’re greeted by heat and negative space. Walking through campus on 97-degree days feels like a whole-body gulp of hot tonic. You take photos of the construction alongside Perkins and the Divinity School; there is no shade, due to the magnolia trees now being gone, but there is the chain-link fence and the excavated dirt behind it. There is the banner on the fake Gothic construction siding: “Coming Soon to Bostock: The Research Commons.” There is the mulch path you must now take to Perkins. A desire line you didn’t make.

Once inside, you walk around the Queering Duke History, which is arranged in a chronological circle. Some students walk through, en route to class, and bemoan loudly that they “hate how the [usual Perkins] entrance is closed.” Another stops and peers down into one of the glass boxes while talking on the phone in Spanish. You think about how maybe, now, the Perkins Gallery is an extension of the library’s commons, the sudden link between Von der Heyden and the circulation desk.

You think about your last interview in Dublin this summer, with a sociologist, in the rose garden at Trinity College. He studies the commons. He also, after the Great Recession, co-founded an online activist hub called The Provisional University, an “autonomous research project that emerges in response to the precarious conditions we find ourselves living and working in and a desire to transform them.” Their mission seems like a rebuke to the “tragedy of the commons”: its participants choose, in present circumstances, to collectively imagine better. They acknowledge what they’ve lost, but devise an image of how the community, the commons, could look different.

You think about how this particular exhibition seems timely: at the beginning of a new school year, in the face of campus’s changing facades, in this young university’s ongoing process of self-definition. You think that maybe, hopefully, others on camps are thinking similar things. But at some point you close your notebook and float out of the air conditioning and into the heat wave. You board a bus back to where you came from in the first place.

In other news:

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie will speak this Friday, the 5, at 7 p.m. in Baldwin Auditorium about the 2014 Duke Summer Reading, Americanah. The event is free and open to the public.
  • Last week, the Durham Herald Sun reprinted my recent Insider piece, “Surfacing.” You can read it online here.


In Dublin and Exchanging Amnesia

By Michaela Dwyer

The night after I arrived in Ireland I went to the Irish Film Institute. Dizzy from jetlag and the surreality of being in a familiar space again after three years, I hardly knew what was “on” at the theaters. I decided to bank on the time my DukeEngage cohort spontaneously watched and enjoyed the Iranian film A Separation, though I think part of my excitement that time came from seeing my Iranian friend excited to connect with the film.

And maybe, subconsciously, I did the same last week when I bought a ticket, ate a rhubarb tart, and sat down alone in a theater full of Irish moviegoers for a very Irish film. Jimmy’s Hall—touted as the last feature by British director Ken Loach—is based on the story of James Gralton, an Irish communist leader who became the first and only “illegal alien” deported from Ireland. Throughout the early 1930s, Gralton helped lead the Revolutionary Workers’ Group in County Leitrim. Despite the inclusion of fiery glances and somewhat vague political intimations, Loach’s film focuses on Gralton’s passionate (co-)direction and defense of a community dance hall in the townland of Effrinagh. The collaboratively run, inclusive venue offered free classes in music, dance, literature, geography, history, and the visual arts, among other subjects. It served as a place for the town to congregate outside the influence of the church, which is portrayed in the film to almost humorous extremity.

Graffiti atop old Dublin, near St. Stephen’s Green.

“This has to be the fourth time someone has brought up this movie to me this week.” This is Conor, one of the first people I interviewed as I attempt to document the abrupt closure and ensuing limbo of The Exchange, a collaborative arts-centered venue in downtown Dublin. Conor and his friend Philip, another Exchange volunteer, chuckled at the uncanny similarity between film and reality, past and present. Then they shook their heads and sighed, scratched their beards, and looked downward in unison.

Beyond talk of the typical romanticized-from-afar Irish regalia—shamrocks and green pastures, Guinness, et al—are the more complex things we think we know about the—or any—country. The Famine, the Troubles, the decades of emigration, the pervasive stronghold of the Catholic Church. The “800 babies.” (It’s worth mentioning that these issues barely break the surface of newer ones: immigration and multiculturalism, austerity and the banking crisis, Gen-Y ennui and frustration). And then there’s what many people I’ve talked to refer to as “the amnesia.” A collective forgetting—of the country’s history, of the past that continues to repeat itself in the way that forgotten pasts do. I meet another Exchange volunteer on the way to a community radio show on which I’m apparently guest-starring to talk about my research on their venue. He gestures to storefronts we pass and tells me his next project is finding a way to document Dublin’s abandoned buildings—spaces with histories that people seem not to know or care about. Apparently he’s discovered that The Exchange had a predecessor—another collectively run arts space whose façade still stands down by the River Liffey. It’s the amnesia again, he says. The city as palimpsest, Teju Cole says.

Being here this time has started to feel like an odd nesting-doll challenge in which I fold myself smaller and smaller into a network that becomes bigger and more expansive with each encounter, SMS text, radio show appearance. I see a narrative—of this project, of The Exchange or Gralton’s dance hall, of Irish history—ever so slightly taking shape; then it gets fuzzy, and all I see are people who, like me, care deeply about things. I see a buzzing livelihood around a scene that I’m not quite a part of and a history that, despite my heritage, I don’t necessarily share in an immediate sense. But I want to; in the same way I want to be in an Irish cinema seeing an Irish historical drama or in a hotel ballroom in Dublin 8 for the Africa Day Awards, celebrating the African community in Ireland. And in the same way that I keep asking myself why this project interests me so much. Is it because I would’ve sought out The Exchange had I lived here in its heyday? Because my understanding of strong community has always been through education and the arts?

Or is it that I want to work against the ways in which we may too-briskly position ourselves against an ‘other’—whether that be a group of young volunteers, the Dublin City Council, immigrants, emigrants, a country’s history? Because I want to challenge my own interests in the ‘story’ in the first place?

My response: yes, and. My greatest hope with the work I make, whether it be a blog post, an audio documentary, or choreography through a city street, is that I can open both myself and others to multiple ways of being. To claim spaces where we feel comfortable interrogating ourselves, and to see if those spaces connect us in turn. Is it all the Leslie Jamison I’m reading? Yes, and. Is it a challenge to collective amnesia? Yes, and.