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Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture

Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture

The Other

In 2008, Ghana hosted the African Cup of Nations (AFCON), the most prestigious pan-African football (soccer) tournament. When the Ghanaian Black Stars defeated Nigerian Super Eagles in the semi-finals there was so much jubilation nationwide, you would have thought we won the whole AFCON or finally achieved Kwame Nkurmah’s dream of Pan-Africanism. Why the craziness? Because Ghana and Nigeria are archrivals and we beat them on home soil. I remember how my heart pumped as I watched Nigeria’s demise. We had defeated them.

The idea that Nigerians were ‘the other’ came so naturally to me as a child. They had distinct accents, different names etc. But are they really? I will skip my ‘our-borders-were-defined-by-cruel-colonial-masters-dividing-ethnic-groups-indiscriminately #agape #weareallonebigfamily’ rant and concisely conclude that we should care equally about all human beings. Why does it matter that I was innocently brought up to see Nigerians as ‘the other’? Because, the mentality that people are ‘the other’ is partly the reason why the recent killings in Nigerian have received no potent response from Ghana or any other country.

In the past few weeks, the horrors of the ongoing brutal killings in Nigeria have struck a vein in me. We all know about the instability that has long plagued the North and we all know that it is escalating. What are we doing about it? As my Nigerian friend Bamidele Rebecca Iyanuoluwapo put it, ‘The killing of innocent people and destruction of properties in Wukari, Taraba State is low-key. The killing of people everyday in Jos, Plateau State is low-key. The fact that ethnic genocides are going on in some parts on the North is low-key.’ She is right. There are pictures of the horrors in Nigeria floating around but where is the outrage from the UN, AU, ECOWAS and Ghana? Why is it ‘low-key’?

I present no solutions to the crisis in Nigeria, but I would like to share two quotes from past Ghanaian presidents that I think articulate the progress of pan-africanism from independence to the present day.

1.‘Our independence is meaningless unless it is linked up with the total liberation of Africa.’
-President Kwame Nkrumah, first president of Ghana, on independence day in 1957.

2.‘Mind your own business’
- President Atta Mills, on post-election crisis in Cote Ivoire in 2011.

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50 Shades of Black: A Small Piece of My Black Experience

Throughout this piece, Black will be referring to all descendants of the African Diaspora, a definition I first heard given by Ms. Guinn. Maybe this dispersal (both forced and voluntary) can be seen as a means to understand the almost schizophrenic fluctuations of the definition of Blackness and the subsequent complexity of my people. It is a complexity that the majority of Black folks are unaware of. We seem to forget that the different shades of brown we wear are not the only variations amongst Black people, which can be seen in the ‘light-skinned’ vs. ‘dark-skinned’ feud that has followed us from the plantation. Each individual comes to define and reflect Blackness differently based on their experiences and environment. My arrival to Duke has caused me to look at my own reflection questioningly.

Back home, Blackness is characterized by grammatically incorrect sentences, dope boy dreams, athletic prowess, and ‘being about that life’, or at least that’s the way it seemed to me then. My story is like many walking the quads of Duke. I was called an Oreo, and when I spoke, I was told I ‘talked white’. Regardless, I continued to use Standard English, and I refused to take part in activities that made you ‘about that life’. My life may have been easier had I given in and went further to fit in, but I found myself taking pride in the fact that I didn’t. I looked down upon those who did. The story changed at Duke.

Duke was where I was supposed to fit in. Finally, there were Black people that understood that my culture was a reason to obtain excellence not debauchery. I was amongst some of the biggest and brightest Black minds in the country. Grades suddenly mattered to Black men, and Black females wore business jackets to class. The Mary Lou, which effectively acts as a community center, encouraged professionalism, class, and community rather than hoop dreams. Let’s not get it twisted. I am aware of the ‘ratchetivity’ that can take place; but somehow, it doesn’t come to define us. What transpired in response to these facts was shocking. My private speech got even more ‘ratchet’, and I yearned for the small talk conversations of the country. Suddenly, I realized that it needn’t be either or. I could be both a black scholar and be at home at home a) because it was my desired expression and b) because they function as different sides of the same dice, not opposite entities. It also dawned on me that my picture of home was not complete. Just because it is not Duke does not mean that each male is a thug and every female a breeding ground. I had to make my understanding more nuanced. In reaction to this, I have reached a few personal inferences.

I have come to the conclusion that my people needn’t be saved from themselves, as I had believed before Duke. Like we admonish students for going overseas with a savior’s complex, I had to chastise myself for thinking that my presence and education should somehow teach other people, my people how to live. In reality, my only job is to expand their options and learn from the experiences that are unfamiliar to me. I had to reconcile my ignorance to historic hip hop performers and the intense dependence that others had on their message and power with the shared understanding that you can’t walk around a store for hours and not buy anything when your skin looks like ours.  In other words, it’s about realizing that though some reflections of Blackness are a different shade from mine, they are still black.
After my own moment of fleeting enlightenment, I am curious. Do we accept and acknowledge the hues of Black culture being represented in the ‘hoods’ and ‘country bumpkin towns’ many of us are trying to break out of? More importantly, do we appreciate them? Should we? Or am I wrong? Are we all representative of one grand Black culture, because of our shared subordination? As Black Duke graduates, what shade of black will we be? It is my hope that, once we are out of this space, we will not forget to acknowledge each person’s shade of Black with understanding and openness, as we are equipped with the understanding that there are gradations, there is no one color.

Audience: 

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#Twitter

“The British are coming!” “I had a dream” “That's one small step for a man, a giant leap for mankind” “Sharkeisha! Noooooooooooooooooooooo” “Go to hell Carolina, go to hell, eat…you know the rest”

What do all these phrases have in common? They are all under 140 characters, but are memorable messages of great importance (depending on who you are). Twitter is a website and application that gives its users the agency to declare a thought, feeling, opinion, fact, picture, and so much more, so long as it fits within the limit. Twitter is great for having your voice heard amongst those that find you interesting enough to follow, but does it encourage fellowship, or hinder it?

Every Thursday night at 10 o’clock hundreds of thousands of people gather on twitter in front of their TVs ready to retweet, favorite, or reply to the best tweets about Olitz and Mellie, or of how annoying Quinn is, Scandal’s biggest stars. There are also Duke basketball days or nights on which twitter timelines are filled with tweets about how bad UNC is and how Duke basketball can’t be touched (whether true or false). One of the biggest highlights for many of us avid tweeters in the Duke black community occurs at random times. These occasions include late nights doing homework, on snow days, or bored on a weekend night. We all gather together to form what is called #BlackDukeTwitter. Often times you won’t even see the hashtag, but all who call themselves a part of it know when the entity is at work. Topics of discussion in the past have included possible new SAT questions, the poor living conditions in some of Duke’s dorms as told by some of their residents, and gratitude towards Larry Moneta for our many snow days. #BlackDukeTwitter meets to discuss everything from Scandal, Duke basketball, and food point struggles to the LDOC lineup, micro aggressions on Duke’s campus, and the struggle bus.

While these vibrant discussions are the highlight of many students’ paper and problem set filled days at Duke, I found myself asking the following question during spring break: “Imagine if we got together and kicked it and joked around in real life like we do on Twitter when Scandal comes on “slash” there's a trending topic.” While I joke around often with my friends, I have never had the opportunity to joke around like I do on twitter with a population as big as the people I regularly interact with in real life. During an event for the Black Women’s Union, a large group of us were together, but we also had our heads in our phones and laptops waiting for the next funniest tweet. What happened to discussing current events together while hanging out without our phones and laptops in hand? I sometimes find myself talking more about how funny a trending topic was, then about the topic itself.

In the end, we are all extremely busy here at Duke, and I don’t think lightening your mood by scrolling through tweets is detrimental, in fact, I think everyone should have a twitter. I just encourage people to not forget their friends behind the twitter handles. Be a part of #BlackDukeTwitter, but don’t forget what it means to be Black at Duke.

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Heartache

You take a step and then you take another step. You’re on the bus
You regret having only gone to sleep only a few hours earlier
You blame your team for winning but not really because you figure you could sleep on the bus and well, you like to brag about your team to people back home
You find a seat in the back of the bus because you want your space to sleep, think and be
You arrange your body in a manner that is somewhat comfortableYou fall into a sleep that your mind and body yearned for
But you have a nightmare.
You dream of a world where nonviolence prompted violence
You dream of a world where innocent children and adults were the victims of bombings
You dream of a world where the best and the brightest were pierced by arrows of hatred
You dream of a world where people your own age decided that they were strong, brave and selfless enough to risk their lives
Who jumped on buses,
Without knowing who or what they would arrive to
Your body jerks at the sound of parents screaming as they learn about their child’s death
You fall to your knees when you see the caskets of the young and innocent
Your heart aches for the precious faces that no longer smile
Your heart cries when you see the faces of the ones you love in these caskets
You wish you had the power to protect them, to shield them, to hold their hands
But you don’t.
You sit paralyzed
You sit paralyzed
And, You stay paralyzed
And then you feel the slap of a heavy rough white hand
Of someone who thinks you deserve such pain
You look down at your body
At the darkness that makes you invisible yet outs you as the most visible
The heavy rough white hand continues to destroy and dismantle
The blows persist
But so do you.
It continues for what feels like decades and decades and it then it feels like centuries
You persist, and you become stronger, and you are proud of who you are.
We are here! Someone’s voice sings.
Your eyes snap open and you take in a sharp breath
You slowly rise
Your neck is sore from the hard armrest and your lower back hurts
You sit up and look out the window
You’re back at Duke

But the heartache is as painful as ever

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Leaning Into Discomfort

Every day on Duke’s campus, we are faced with a subconscious decision –the red pill or the blue pill?

Every semester, 56 Duke students take the red pill. They embark on a journey about which they know nothing besides the many controversial Chronicle articles and Facebook posts. This journey ‘Common Ground,’ is formally described as “a student-led diversity immersion retreat program dedicated to exploring human relations in personal and powerful ways. “

It is easy to write this off as cliché, thinking: how could a single weekend possibly change anyone’s established ideals on race, gender, sexuality, etc.? Why would you go on a retreat with strangers to get to the bottom of any problems I’m facing?  Sadly, it is even easier to dismiss the newly “enlightened” Common Ground attendees off as “drinking the Kool-Aid.” I know these viewpoints well because, prior to attending Common Ground, I felt the same way. I was tired of all of the social media posts and articles praising the retreat for changing people’s outlook on life. I was tired of the cultish “CG Parties” I would hear about from someone who subsequently told me I wasn’t welcomed. And I was definitely tired of the secrecy associated with the event – as if people who’d went learned something that they couldn’t share with us mere and unenlightened Duke students.

Out of the 56 attendees, very few are black students. I originally wrote this article aiming to convince black students in our community that Common Ground is an experience. It should be shared by us all - whether we wanted to go for our own growth or to help others. Many of us, though we do not see ourselves as “racist,” will subconsciously align with racist or prejudice ideals. I have done so myself in my time at Duke. Without knowing anything about them, I often ignorantly assumed people outside of my own race looked down on me. Common Ground reminded me of how to look beyond color and into a person. However, it also reminded me that those prejudice ideals I had were not without basis. There are still many people on Duke’s campus who will judge me just by the color of my skin. I felt as though the retreat served a dual purpose – to prevent me from assuming certain individuals hold prejudices against me, and to open the eyes of those who are blindly prejudice allowing them to see their wrongs. I was told at the end of the retreat by a white female that I helped her “look inside of herself” and changed her perspective on a lot of things. There was an unspoken understanding; my words about life experiences had changed her perspective of black people . She was trying to unlearn racist ideals that had been instilled in her. She had acknowledged her racism and her privilege to be able to walk away from feeling her discomfort - instead she stayed and tried to learn more. Now while I thought this was a positive thing, others who I’ve spoken with feel as though this shouldn’t be our place as black students. Between Common Ground and conversations with black students who have had just about enough of defending themselves, I found myself stuck between a rock and a hard place. I tried to organize my thoughts from three completely different perspectives. The first: Your racism isn’t my problem. The second: If we aren’t speaking up, someone will on our behalf. The last: Will any of this ever really change regardless? Can I just take the blue pill and move on?

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New Sites, New Perspectives

Public Policy

I am now a few days removed from my Roots to Rights alternative spring break experience. The trip included several hours riding from place to place, and it was a bit hectic to move from one hotel to another. But this experiential education tour gave me a unique perspective on a region I have lived in for my entire life but soon realized I had a lot to learn about.

Our tour of Ole Miss campus in Oxford, Mississippi stands as one of the highlights of the trip for me. Our tour guide, professor Jen Stollman, said that she wanted to demystify the South for people. As someone who grew up in Durham, North Carolina, I always viewed my hometown as a progressive hub that was merely surrounded by rural communities of Confederate flag-waving racists. But Stollman emphasized that people should not look at the South as a foreign, backward place, but as a complex region still dealing with the remnants of its troubled past. Stollman noted the contradictions of the South – how, for example, it included more interactions among whites and blacks. And yet, the first thing many people see upon arriving at Ole Miss campus is a towering monument for Confederate soldiers.

The trip included many unique opportunities. We heard civil rights icon Julian Bond speak at Alabama State University, visited the National Voting Rights Museum in Selma, Alabama and heard a detailed recounting of Bloody Sunday – when six hundred protesters, marching in remembrance of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s death, faced billy clubs from police officers.

But it was also important to hear about these issues in the context of the twenty-first century. An archivist at the Southern Poverty Law Center spoke about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, a 2012 book on the War on Drugs and mass incarceration. We saw the urban blight of several Southern cities – the lack of jobs, affordable housing and quality education. Chandra Guinn, the director of the Mary Lou Williams center and a staff member on the Roots to Rights trip, said that the Confederate monument for Duke is the Aycock East Campus dorm. I had conversations with several fellow students like Daniel Kort, Aubrey Temple and Richard Phillips about the fractured social circles at Duke. And Ms. Guinn challenged me when I spoke of “self-segregation” at Duke as coming from a point of privilege.

The essence of the trip weren’t the visits to the birth or death places of Martin Luther King Jr., or the consumption of good soul food or the meaningful conversations I had with students and staff members. It was the combination of it all. This trip has undoubtedly given me new perspectives on civil rights, both fifty years ago and in the present moment.

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The Need to Pay Attention

Prospective Biology & Theater Studies Major

In the past few days, I've traveled to Charlotte, Atlanta, Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham with the 2014 Roots to Rights trip. We've visited a number of Civil Rights monuments and important locations, namely the King Center and MLK's birthplace in Atlanta, the Civil Rights Memorial in the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, and the Voting Rights Museum in Selma. 

It's been a lot to do in a short span of time, but the experience has been nothing but eye-opening and sobering. Walking through museums memorializing those who were murdered, beaten, lynched, abused physically and mentally, I began to fully understand what was being faught for and the sacrifices that thousands of people made to stand up for human rights. For the first time, I've begun to realize that, before now, I've known about the Civil Rights movement, but I haven't understood everything that it represented. It was not just a movement lead by such great people as MLK, Medgar Evers, Coretta King, and Julian Bond, but rather a movement of thousands, from all walks of life, united in nonviolent confrontation against extreme hate and violence. This does not diminish the work of their leaders, but we shouldn't forget those who were killed and injured and who we don't learn about in textbooks, those who raised their voiced against injustice just as surely as MLK, and, perhaps even more importantly, those who were killed not because of protesting or standing up for themselves but because they happened to cross paths with people who hated them for the color of their skin. One of the most profound things that I've heard in the past few days is Mrs. Till's request to give her son, Emmett Till (who was beaten to death for allegedly whistling at a white woman), an open-casket funeral, because she had had enough of the world turning a blind eye to the brutality that African Americans faced on a daily basis. We need to acknowledge and notice that these things are happening, all over the world, and we need to be vocal about it. Not acting is just as bad as actively supporting violence and hate crimes.

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