To March on a Saturday

By Michaela Dwyer

This past Sunday I tweeted, “note: don’t wear Keds to a rally.” It was “favorited” (that benevolent form of Twitter approval) in quick succession by three friends.

The previous day—and the night previous to that—I’d spent much of my time mind-circling around the proper attire for Saturday’s Moral March on Raleigh/HKonJ. I felt like I was preparing for a dance performance or field trip, much like the over-conscientious grade-schooler I once was. Then and now, my mother had ensured I had a bevy of warm jackets at my disposal. Also heavy-duty winter gloves. (I have Raynaud’s, so cold-weather outings quickly feel like an assault on my extremities—if numbness can be classified as an assault.) But I couldn’t decide on shoes: would the mood be rowdy, and would, in turn, nicer boots get scuffed? Would more sturdy hiking shoes prevent me from wearing the style of coat in which I felt most comfortable, most myself? What image did I want to present of myself to the other ralliers and would that image align with maximum body heat?

As I paced around my room considering outerwear and shoes, I realized I was treading a deeper insecurity about the next day. At the march, what would happen? Presumably, thousands of people from around North Carolina and elsewhere would walk a few blocks toward the State Capitol in downtown Raleigh. People would speak. There would be banners and flyers. There would, as online information claimed, be no civil disobedience—en contra to the Moral Monday protests that took place over the summer last year.

But what about the number of possible negative happenings that those bare-bones probablies don’t include? Violence—physical or otherwise—against the marchers, provoked by the sheer number of people gathering en masse? Overcrowding? Counter-protests? A pandering pile of cookies left out by our governor ? Promises of more of the legislation we were rallying against? Cold fingers and toes?


The DukeImmerse students and I have lately been reading a book of “anthropological philosophy” called Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. The author, Jonathan Lear, profiles the Crow Nation just before their confinement to reservations, and how such confinement devastated Crow culture as tribe members knew it. A statement by Plenty Coups, the last great Chief of the Crow Nation, propels Lear’s investigation: “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground. And they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.”

The March on Saturday.

Lear writes at length about what he thinks Plenty Coups means by such a pronouncement: After the traditional Crow culture is rendered non-functional by the introduction of a new culture and way of life (the reservation), things couldn’t “happen” in the same, or even remotely similar, ways that they used to.

At least partly to cut through my chronic fear of the unknown, I’ve been thinking about what it means for something to “happen” in the first place. Recently I feel as though I’m regularly bombarded by news about bad things happening: someone I’m close to being diagnosed with a serious illness, the perpetuation of statewide policies that I feel violate my rights as a woman, supporter of public education, voter, human, et al. My job at Kenan quite naturally brings me into contact—however physically removed—with issues facing communities worldwide that could be categorized as “heavy” and “complex.” It is both a privilege and an overwhelming task to sit, reflect, and write on these various happenings each week, to tidy and term them, at least for my mind’s own sake, under “ethics,” when I know that my contribution is not immediate and that these occurrences lie largely beyond the power of my outstretched arm.


On Saturday, that arm ended up bundled in a meager sweatshirt. I chose to cover my core with a down vest I haven’t worn since high school, and the two friends I drove to the rally poked fun at me (“nice vest!”) in the same way one might “favorite” a tweet. Underneath was a sweatshirt emblazoned in Helvetica with the words “Support Your Local Artist”; I thought the statement mildly appropriate for the event. I found the sweatshirt, discarded, while working for a state-funded program at Meredith College last summer, when Moral Mondays were hot, literally and figuratively, and I presided over teenagers while many of my peers marched a few miles down Hillsborough Street. I imagine that the bulk of those peers, and also several of those teenagers, were at the march this past Saturday. I didn’t see many of them, but I was at the back of the crowd and had no real sense of its size. It turns out there may have been 100,000 people there. Among them were more Duke undergraduates than I’ve seen at any off-campus event besides designated bar nights in downtown Durham.

Last fall, a friend, mentor, and former teacher wrote the piece I’d like to write about why I had to at some point stop imagining the rally into a negative realm, or at least straddle that fear while standing, flimsy Keds laced, among an enormously calm, ethnically and generationally diverse group early Saturday morning. He writes,

“The Legislature has made clear that it’s time to pick sides. The human instinct is to hope that this too shall pass, but this is no longer operative. We want to think bad things are just temporary and that eventually right-minded people (to be named later, but people with more strength and greater resources) will put this thing right. We want to believe this because we want to believe that the universe is essentially just.

But things do not just pass. And while we’re waiting, things are being done that can’t be undone.”

I think back to Plenty Coups. “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground. And they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.” Our (because it is our) North Carolinian predicament is far different, our contextual narrative far from that of a singular devastation. But we’ve internalized pieces of a similar threat as it pertains to us today. Laws and policies, especially those that come to counter the ways in which many of us live or want to live our daily lives, are peculiar at best and obliterating at worst in their power to ride along with our habits one day and invalidate them the next. After this nothing happened. It’s hard to think of our habits as something we actively create, as what’s happening, especially when it’s laws, policies, and major [largely negative] events that make the news. It’s radical to imagine that our quotidian experience matters on the large-scale. It’s radical to gather with tens to hundreds of thousands of people to attach bodies, signs, and a march to that imagination.

And it felt radical, on Saturday, to be a part of that happening. To say yes, we are able, and we are making this happen right now.

“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.”