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Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture

Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture

An Interesting Day in White Lecture​

I strolled through the giant wooden doors of White Lecture out of the blistering cold on a typical Friday afternoon, took a seat in the back rows of the room, and pulled out my notepad to take notes. The first thing I heard was “Masisi sal is a Haitian word that means faggot”.

The event consisted of a series of presentations by various professors on Black studies about different topics related to the common theme of Black Artfulness and Survival. Thomas DeFrantz, professor of the African and African American Studies Department at Duke, did a presentation on the art of Black social dance as tactic of Black resistance and survival.

Throughout history, Haitians have been subject to negative stigmatizations from the international community, particularly from European powers. As a response, Haitians began conducting social dances as a means of resistance to these negative depictions through positive self-expression. Thomas DeFrantz further explained these types of social dances in extreme detail. One social dance example he provided was Bone Breaking, a style of dance that comprises of combined, rhythmic movements of waving, tutting, and gliding.

Bone Breaking is a very powerful method of black expression and has widely transcended across the Caribbean and the continent of North America. Bone breaking evolved from Jamaican street dance, known as bruk-up, in which dancers mostly performed the dance to reggae and dancehall music. Overtime, the culture migrated to the North America, particularly to major cities such as New York City, and became heavily integrated into African American hip-hop culture in which the dance became more commonly known as Flexing.

The next presentation I witnessed was performed by Sherronda Brown, who mainly focused on the connection between Blacks and the apocalypse. I must say that I was truly bedazzled by the information that I was hearing. She talked about how institutional violence regenerates in the apocalypse and inadvertently dehumanizes and abject Black people which she describes as zombification. She depicts slaves as zombies that rise against their masters and lead other slaves to freedom with an intention of dismantling the established institutional system. Finally, she concludes that Black bodies never become human and that zombies reflect the ideology that Blacks are not human creatures and instead are beasts and savages who are socially dead.

I left that event as a different person. I had never thought about the Black experience in that way before. I am truly glad that I attended.​

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The Legacy of Malcolm X: Afro-American Visionary, Muslim Activist

For those who regard the Civil Rights Movement as a decade long, predominantly male driven movement that started with Ms. Parks’ dauntlessness and culminated with Dr. King cheering “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last,” Malcolm X is the anti-King. For those who don’t know, Malcolm Little, turned Detroit Red, turned Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz was nothing more than a teenage delinquent who grew up to preach racism and violence. To others, he was a Muslim minister, Pan-Africanist, and human rights advocate who was militant in his viewpoints, but only because he believe the government failed to fulfill the social contract to protect Black Americans.

Fifty years to the day of his assassination, this generation largely regards Malcolm X as the former, if they know him at all. Obliviously, we champion figures like Angela Davis, Assata and Tupac Shakur, and Mos Def, without even realizing that those individuals would be nothing without Malcolm X’s influence. With that being said, he deserves the same recognition that has been given to the idols of the Civil Rights Movement. Had it not been for Malcolm X, Cassius Clay would have not been able to “sting like a bee.” Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale would not have understood Black Nationalism and Public Enemy would not have known what it meant to be “Too Black, Too Strong.” His legacy has endured, but his name has since largely been forgotten.

Aside from his feats as an advocate, the conference sought to humanize Malcolm X, to take him out the militant activist perspective and depict him a just a man. His self-assured and professional demeanor was just the surface. He was a different man before prison and a different man after his pilgrimage to Mecca. Malcolm X believed in humanity and unity to combat oppression. During a time that mirrors the racial turmoil of the 1960s, Malcolm X is a role model for Black togetherness. "There can be no black-white unity until there is first some black unity…We cannot think of uniting with others, until after we have first united among ourselves.”​

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Black Love

“Black Love”

On the night of February 11, #BlackDuke all joined for the annual “Black Love” event. Well known in the black community, “Black Love” is endeared by many as an opportunity to discuss the perils of finding a “bae” in the Duke community. Discussed topics ranged from the hook-up culture, interracial dating, off-campus cuffetry, and how academic stresses can stifle a dating culture. For me, though, the narrative I fully expected was lacking from the discussion. Given that I can count approximately 3.5 couples in the entire black community, all heterosexual, in a community as rich with attractive individuals and diversity of sexuality as Duke’s black community, it is absolutely astonishing to me that so few people are “cuffed,” or even remotely considering the pursuit of cuffetry. Literally no one has a Valentine; it’s ridiculous. And since loneliness seems to characterize our community’s bae relations so accurately, I expected someone to cogitate the reasoning for this fascinating phenomenon, or at least bring it up as having been their experience in on-campus boo searches at “Black Love.” I misjudged.

On one hand, when I hear “black love,” I’m reminded of a shackling and oppressive history of black enslavement, and I think what besides a supreme love for a Divine Creator and community support could have helped our ancestors come to terms with the plight they had been subjected to against their wills? More contemporarily, “black love” makes me think of George and Wheezy. Florida and James. Raven and Eddie. (I’m deliberately leaving out the couple that had been my locus of understanding what black love could look like and be, because I’m sick of the husband telling me where on my gluteus maximus I’m allowed to wear my pants AND because that marriage was annulled in my consciousness the moment I discovered that the freakin’ obstetrician had “a thing” for violating women). Juxtaposed with those flowery and arguably unrealistic depictions of black love on television, however, is the seeming reality, both in the Duke community and in the black community in general—nobody is freaking cuffed! Why?

If I may venture a guess, I think that there are quite a few contributing factors to the phenomenon of general baelessness in our black community. For starters, you have to consider the type of black kids who are coming to Duke—mostly middle to upper-middle class; very respectable; having, for the most part, been to the best high schools and preparatory programs in the country. In effect, you have put 800 black valedictorians in an overwhelmingly white space, all of which have been convinced by their parents that exceptional negritude is fundamental to black success and is ideologically unproblematic. Some of us are a bit nerdy or socially awkward, but just about all of us have been told that we are “hot stuff,” contributions to the race—“uplifters”—for as long as we can remember. And yet, many of us have had difficulty navigating race relations, since our respectability made us “too white” for black spaces, and our melanin always made us stand out in white ones. I’d like to posit that that complex scaffolds an environment controlled by pride, formed out of black students’ scorn for their racial pasts. An environment of pride makes genuine, authentic interactions with other black students difficult to come by (to say the very
least). Pride stifles trust and vulnerability, the undeniable building blocks of any successful relationship (platonic or otherwise).

The same phenomenon doesn’t exist in our interactions with whites, I’d imagine, because they landlord the spaces we’re being allowed to rent, like the college environment—the spaces were not made for us, and no has blueprinted a re-model to accommodate our needs and preferences. And yet, we know how valuable the real estate is, and can’t forget how long the waitlist of exceptional negros is behind us; but, I digress. My interest is in deconstructing the environment of pride, such that we facilitate the kinds of loving interactions we’d like to see… (To be continued)​

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Connected Cores

HK on J was a tremendous moment in time that we got to experience. The march was held in Raleigh and the air was filled with opportunity. We got the chance to speak out against a plethora of injustices and utilized it.  I was with the Duke NAACP and many other Duke students as we took to the streets with the NAACP banner and chanted out against marginalization of black bodies and the ways in which structures in NC and the US help devalue the lives of other oppressed peoples.

Then we were able to hear the many activists speak out against these injustices with a concluding speech given by the NC NAACP President Reverend William Barber. He spoke of the heart as being a core and related that to the fact that we have to use our hearts to have true compassion for the folks who experience these injustices and how the lack of that compassion was very dangerous in and of itself.  As we think about what this march really meant to us and what issues we could personally relate to, it is also important to realize why the people marching beside of us are marching as well. For as we think about our fight against injustice, if we forget about the reasons that others are oppressed in the process then the fight has meant nothing. 

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Black Popular Music - CLG workshop at IHouse

February is Black History Month. It was created to understand the history of African-Americans from the time they were displaced from their homeland, the hardships they faced and their ongoing struggle to make this land their home. Their resilience and rebellion found expression in the form of music. In celebration of Black History Month, IHouse offered a workshop last Thursday about “Black Popular Music from Spirituals to Hip-Hop”, hosted by Lisa Giragosian, with a presentation by Alec Greenwald, Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture.

The origins of Black music can be traced from the historical context. When people were brought as slaves, they lost their identity and tried to keep their culture alive through music. Their musical traditions began as a form of communication - call and response and their artistic creativity came to the fore when they made musical instruments like the banjos and drums from gourds and hollow tree trunks/ animal skin. The theme of early Black music was mostly coded messages seeking freedom from slavery, conveyed through simple lyrics (“Follow the Drinking Gourd”).

Alec took us on a historical journey through various genres that evolved under the secular traditions of Black music – from the melancholy notes of the blues to the vibrant and energetic beats of hip-hop.

  • Game Song / Play Song: Created by children, involving distinctive imagery and complex dance steps
  • Work Song / Field Call: Lifted spirits, offered encouragement, coordinated the movements of workers
  • Rural Blues: Three phrases performed in simple harmonic foundation, expressing feelings of sadness
  • Boogie Woogie: Evolved in barrelhouses, railroad camps inspired by rhythmic clacking of steam locomotives
  • Urban Blues (Electric Blues): Amplified form of Rural blues that evolved in urban areas
  • Rock ‘N’ Roll: Filled with teenage sense of rebellion, independence, and an aggressive beat
  • Soul: Gospel influenced music with passionate vocalizing, powerful rhythms and honest lyrics appealing to the younger generation
  • Disco: Dance music (soul, Latin-soul, funk) played by mobile DJs in discotheques; recordings exceeded the standard three minute length to keep the dancers moving
  • Funk: Instrumental, vocal dance music based on jazz, blues, R&B, soul; the rhythm helped them dance
  • R&B: Dance music incorporating various styles like jazz, blues; encompassing all types of popular Black music other than hip-hop
  • Hip-hop: Original poetry based on range of experiences and world views sung in rhythm and rhyme; four essential elements are – DJ, rapper, dancer and graffiti artist

Just reading or talking about music may not be that interesting. But Alec kept it lively by playing some music (on the laptop), humming tunes and dancing a few steps. In order to fully appreciate and enjoy Black music, it is important to understand their history and culture. As Lisa nicely summed up, the presentation was not only about music but a combination of history, geography, anthropology, sociology, culture, dance etc.

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Live Jazz at the Mary Lou

Weekly Jazz Wednesdays add music to study sessions and coworker meetups

John Brown perched on a stool, his fingers flying across the thick strings of his bass. He closed his eyes as the drums, piano and trumpet conversed with each other, taking turns carrying the melody.

Across the room at Duke’s Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, students studied notes on laptops and visitors watched the jazz ensemble, bobbing their heads to the beat.  The tradition of “Jazz @ the Mary Lou” is 10 years old, and Brown, director of the Duke Jazz Program, brings different musicians to the center every Wednesday evening, from professional performers to up-and-coming high school students.

Read more.

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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.


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