In the spring of 2018, I joined a group of student leaders and student activists in a protest on the stage of Page Auditorium during Duke’s Reunions Weekend. This weekend was a gilded one, as newly inaugurated President Vincent E. Price welcomed generations of Duke graduates to revel in just how far the university had come on so many accounts. In fact, this was a special celebration of the legacy of student activism.

What troubled me and my fellow protestors, however, was what truths Duke seemed to be sidestepping to justify celebrating what it called “progress.” There was, for one, the droves of student activists who would not set foot on campus, exhausted or wounded after years of researching, protesting, and challenging Duke, only to see change happen at a glacial pace. Adding to the toll taken on their well-being, just by virtue of the work of activism, there were Duke’s punitive measures. Through gestures ranging from a summons from Student Conduct to a police presence to discourage protest, the historical Duke has had no issue with flexing its muscle to quell dissent. For it to claim to honor past activists while threatening current-day activists presented an especially stinging irony to us.

We were also protesting because we did not want to allow Duke any opportunity to believe that its work was done. There were issues both on and off campus so pressing that an institution as vast and as powerful as Duke celebrating its progress felt premature, to say the least. Gentrification continued to force nonwhite, and especially Black, Durham residents farther and farther away from the heart of the city they helped build. A coherent hate and bias policy was yet to be found, in the wake of such events as a Black Student Alliance poster defaced with the n-word, a noose found hanging on campus, and a homophobic threat against a queer Jewish student scrawled on the side of a residential building. To many, Duke was still “the plantation.”

Knowing all of this, while I felt the planned protest was justified, I was simultaneously terrified. My sole consolation was that whatever happened would not happen to me alone. I locked arms with Trinity board of visitors member Bryce Cracknell ’18, and our group interrupted the afternoon’s fanfare.

As one of us read the manifesto associated with our protest, several of the alumni in the room began to stir. At first it was a trickle of shouts: “Oh, come on!” “Get off the stage!”

And then came the tempest. At the foot of the stage, alumni clamored, most (if not all) of them white. On the stage stood a handful of students, primarily Black or of color. From the crowd came shouts of “You don’t deserve Duke!” “Just be grateful you’re here!”

Once our manifesto was complete, we stepped off the stage and the alumni took the opportunity to get as close to us as possible as we processed out the room. I felt a compulsion to flee but stayed locked in place by the arms of my fellow protestors. Behind us echoed administrators’ apologies to the frustrated alumni.

In that moment, I was reminded that the problem of racism is a problem of roots. It is just as much a question of what nourishes life as we know and understand it, as it is about what antagonizes so many people’s right to live. Racism is often spoken of as a barrier. Too infrequently is it addressed as something that enables and permits.

Hearing those apologies to people who I am convinced were on the verge of spitting on me told me the side the university had chosen. At its core, regardless of the headway it had thought itself making on matters of race or general matters of equity, Duke was still content to settle the dust kicked up, rather than face what was unearthed.

It is with this memory that I read President Price’s sequence of communications announcing Duke’s effort to become an anti-racist institution. With the announcements came a website extensively outlining the number of initiatives the university intends to enact toward its anti-racist vision. Headings for the various initiatives address such goals as “furthering excellence for our faculty,” “revisiting Duke’s institutional history,” and “engaging with and supporting our Durham and regional communities.” The website is thorough.

Yet, I have to wonder: Has Duke University really reckoned with what racism means beyond a command of the vocabulary race scholarship has produced? Can a university like Duke, with its stronghold on the economic and political forces that define so many people’s access or lack thereof, truly make a claim to anti-racism? Would Duke be willing to face the truth that anti-racism is reckoning with the systems that make racism palpable and real, and give up power accordingly?

Given what I have learned in my time as a student and as an alumnus, I am sobered by how racism has affected so many at Duke and in Durham. For all the thoughtfulness that seems to have gone into this declaration of a new “anti-racist” Duke, I am ambivalent about how much fruit this statement will bear.

I speak of racism as a matter of roots because I also believe that the answer to racism requires uprooting. I believe this partially because of what I have witnessed at Duke, but also because of my own journey facing and understanding racism and other facets of oppression, both at and beyond Duke. In fact, much of this journey is intertwined with my matriculation at the university. What I was rooted to was called into question. I had to decide whether to yield to having certain definitions about myself and the world change or be utterly undone.

When I first arrived at Duke, I was more absorbed with the joy of being accepted than I was with most other emotions. To say I saw my new school through a rose-colored tint is an understatement. I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Miami, far from the glitz of the shoreline. My acceptance to Duke was an exception to many of the rules of everyday life, and I came ready to prove myself worthy of the Blue Devil mantle.

I quickly learned that one of Duke’s favorite pastimes is visiting the nightclub and bar Shooters II, just off East Campus. So, I went. As I nervously huddled outside the club, making sense of the heat in the air as droves of eager first-year students clamored to join the noise inside, I struck up a conversation with another young Black man in the line near me.

Most of the conversation proceeded in a blur; I was mostly concerned with surviving the oncoming bustle as more and more students crowded the line to enter. Yet, eventually, I would learn that he was not a Duke student, but a native Durham resident. I was not from Durham, but a Duke student. Out of these facts came one of the most disturbing lessons I would ever learn.

“We really call Duke a modern-day penitentiary,” he said matter-of-factly. “We say that when you’re born, Duke signs your birth certificate. When you work, Duke probably signs your paycheck. And when you die, Duke signs your death certificate.”

The line continued to inch its way into the building. We would both make it into the club, only to lose each other quickly to the crowd. Still, those words never left me. I would eventually come to understand that, for all the excitement and accomplishment I felt in getting into Duke, my education was inextricably tethered to a history of subjugation and inequity in the city of Durham. Before I would even know Duke as “the plantation,” I had learned of it as “the penitentiary,” replete with bondage for many of the people who made both the city of Durham and Duke University possible. Just by virtue of attending a school that constantly rendered many residents of Durham feeling trapped, I was complicit in that foreclosure of access.

This was my first explicit experience of the nature of systemic racism as it enables and shapes Duke. As I continued to experience Duke for myself, that conversation returned again and again to remind me that even if my presence as a Black student at Duke seemed to reverse some racial tide, it was minuscule compared to the systemic racism that was built into Duke’s presence in Durham. I had embraced Duke, but what I rooted my identity in had been, and would continue to be, questioned.

I would come to understand through my time at Duke that I could not meaningfully reckon with racism at its root until I dealt with my identity as a participant in its function, even as someone oppressed by the very system. In this same way, I’ve witnessed Duke’s identity be questioned. Many of the protests, conversations, and demands issued in response to racism on Duke’s campus have revolved around wanting the university to face the truth of itself and respond accordingly.

Months after that encounter outside Shooters, I entered the gauntlet of academic and personal growth that defines the transition to college. Some of it was joyous, while some of it was uncomfortable, but I was still determined to prove my worth. I cannot help but admit how much of that determination was based in the reflexive sense that I did not belong at Duke. That the occasion of my being on campus as a Black first-generation student from a working-class neighborhood was historically uncommon. Still, I made the best of it through friendships and frequent calls home.

Then, a noose was hung on campus.

An image of the bright yellow cord, twisted into a sinister loop, circulated more and more widely until it reached the local and regional news circuit. I, stunned and disturbed, called my mother, and her immediate response was to offer me the chance to withdraw from Duke and apply for a local university in Miami. I insisted on staying.

In the following days, students rightfully inquired about the university’s response. There were e-mails. There were statements. There were convenings on the quad. Eventually, the university released an anonymous open letter penned by the student who had hung the noose, in which the person claimed the noose as an inside joke among friends, gone horribly awry. The writer went on to deny knowing the racial trauma symbolized by a noose in the United States, no less the South, and promised to do reading and personal reflection so as to ensure full understanding. Issuing from the student’s claim of ignorance came the administration’s firmly planted stance: “This is not the Duke I know.”

Yet, as a first-year, I noted the immediacy with which Black and other nonwhite students responded. It was muscle memory. To them, the noose was not an interruption, but a culmination of the history of race on and around Duke’s campus. Even if the student who had hung the noose claimed ignorance, which in turn allowed Duke to reassure us that the experienced bigotry coiled in a noose was a misfire of friendship, the response of Duke’s constituency suggested this was not so foreign to Duke’s identity. For administrators to say this was not the Duke they knew denied a great deal of institutional history. What would my brief companion in the Shooters line have to say about this Duke that this noose and the administration’s reflex gestured toward?

As I understand racism to be structural oppression, an “anti- racist” ethic must also be a structural one. I don’t see it generative to treat “anti-racist” as a personal identifier that reverses a previous “racist” identity, because anti-racism can only be revealed through actions and commitments. In short, to dismantle racism is to sever ties with what endangers nonwhite people, and to make a commitment to what protects them. As I thought about this, I realized I should reach back to some of my peers and mentors to gain their thoughts on what this means for Duke in tangible terms.

“I’m not sure if we have done a really thorough job in terms of coming to terms with us being a predominantly white institution,” says Li-Chen Chin, assistant vice president for intercultural programs in Student Affairs, who also teaches in the program in education. She specifically cites how Duke’s curriculum is shaped by an agenda that prioritizes white, Western histories. “When you talk about the history of the Americas, we can’t ignore the role of the Black diaspora and Native community. There really needs to be a fundamental shift in the curriculum.”

While my personal experiences are primarily tied to my Blackness, my time in Durham, and my own experiences of racism, I know it’s vital to remember that the question of anti-racism is also a question of the land. Chin’s mention of the role of Indigenous people and anti-Indigenous racism in the forming of American society speaks to much of the work done by Indigenous people to name that. In fact, Duke, in its reckoning, must face the fact that it is based in the state with the largest Indigenous population east of the Mississippi River. As I explore Duke’s history, I am reminded that anti-racism cannot be wed to the insistence on coexistence within our present way of living. Even I, as a Black person, would have to reckon with the question of taken land. Chin’s comments also reminded me that history, and the way it is told, is a function of power. Elizabeth Barahona ’18 is a former president of the Latinx student organization Mi Gente and a current history Ph.D. candidate at Northwestern. I talked to her about this question of history and how it shapes knowledge in the present.

“Duke was made Duke University because of the donation made by the Duke family of $40 million,” she told me. “Because of that sort of donation, Duke has always positioned itself as not ever having slave money.” Instead, she says, Duke cites the tobacco money that lines its coffers in lieu of slave money. Yet, she points out a flaw in that logic. “Leslie Brown, [a] Durham historian, says that Black women who were rolling tobacco and processing it…were working in slave-like conditions. And we all know from the history of Reconstruction and the history of Jim Crow that slavery never ended. Slavery was transformed.”

I know intimately the harm intrinsic to sharecropping. My mother’s expression still turns somber when we discuss Duke’s tobacco money, because her grandfather was a tobacco sharecropper. The exploitation of his financial, physical, and mental faculties left him worn and penniless. While he may not have worked the same plantations that fed Duke’s wealth, the irony of his life and Duke’s founding within the same industry relentlessly stretches across state borders. This history may feel distant, but I sense it is still present in Duke’s configuration today.

Two years after I graduated from Duke, I lived on Onslow Street, which cut through the heart of Walltown, a historically Black neighborhood near East Campus. As I commuted between my home and downtown Durham, I would often hear some variation of this phrasing as people reflected on their hustle through morning traffic: “Durham sure has grown. Nobody used to want to live here, it was so bad.” Those comments would either come from a fellow transplant to Durham, or from a colleague at Duke, lauding the university for drawing business to the region. Each time, though, I was troubled because I grew up in a rapidly gentrifying Miami neighborhood like Walltown. Then and now, it felt as if the powers that be were all too eager to discard Black life when there was money to be made. It was lucrative.

I will not deny that as a student and an employee, I benefit from Duke’s wealth. Yet this does not prevent me from noting that this wealth is both the result of and reason for much of the oppression Duke purports to combat. Any critique of racism necessarily becomes a critique of capitalist wealth. If nonwhite people are regularly dispossessed of access to health care, education, and housing with the usual concern being who can “afford” to provide these resources, then I am very interested in challenging the notion of wealth at its core. What is “wealth” that is not contingent on another’s lack or another’s endangerment?

“In terms of an institution being fundamentally just, everything about its creation has to be considered,” says Chandra Guinn, director of Duke’s Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture. “To exist within a capitalist system means that there are some questions around morality and fairness that are probably not going to be answered in a positive light. Does Duke become Duke without [Julian] Carr’s contribution of the land?” (Two years ago, the university removed Carr’s name from the building that houses the history department; even as Carr was instrumental in the relocation from Randolph Country, he was an active proponent of white supremacy.)

With this in mind, I reached out to Charmaine Royal, who heads up Duke’s Center for Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation. In our conversation, we discussed how Duke may see its anti-racist effort as making it an equal stakeholder in the decisions communities make to heal, when in actuality much of it might be Duke simply allowing communities to take the lead to name and resolve historical harms.

“Unless we deal with the history, and see our role in what is, we won’t understand what we really need to do to change things,” Royal told me. “Maybe when we see what we’ve done, we’ll realize we do need to step out of the way…. I have my doubts about how deeply we want to get into that.”

That “step out of the way” spoke to a core belief I found myself struggling with. It wasn’t until I returned to James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time, which is included in Duke’s anti-racist and Black liberation reading list, that I found the language:

…people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.

The anti-racist struggle is just as much a struggle to give up as it is to gain. Duke must be willing to face the “danger” of its form and function being shifted and transformed. As I see it, “stepping out of the way” means Duke cannot center its own interests in the conversations and subsequent solutions. If the problem-solving efforts reproduce the same power dynamics that yielded the issue, then it is not a challenge to racism, but an attempt to placate.

As I write, my mind returns to the moment when I was descending the steps of the stage in Page Auditorium, hearing fresh apologies from administrators to alumni that were in my face reminding me that a future alumnus did not deserve Duke. I remember realizing that even if Duke did not create what felt like violent racism, it did not immediately condemn it. I remember that Reunions Weekend is a bid for the ongoing favor of alumni—a push to keep Duke’s roots intact.

I reached out to Bryce, who grounded me as we left Page, to ask his thoughts on Duke’s relationship with its alumni, and how that might affect anti-racist efforts.

“If the purpose is to continue to get money from alumni, I don’t know that the university can make fundamentally different decisions,” he says.

Still, he says, even in donorship there may be some assumptions worth investigating and deconstructing. “What alumni are we missing? Why are they not engaged or involved in broader Duke networks? What can you get from alumni other than dollars?”

What Bryce illuminated for me is the question of imagination. While Bryce’s considerations home in on specific issues within Duke’s operations, I am especially excited by how they point to the possibilities for an education that is not tethered to the precariousness of Black, Indigenous, and nonwhite communities. This is about Duke no longer making justice fit into its current framework, and instead, allowing justice to define what new frameworks are necessary.

For all the thoroughness in the intention of Duke’s anti- racism initiative, I haven’t seen a true and productive interrogation of Duke’s fundamentals in its past efforts. Duke has a number of ways to enact its anti-racist vision, but here is what I know: Race and racism have always been a matter of roots.

I cannot remain satisfied with the pruning of branches.

Ivory Jr. ’18 studied political science and minored in French. He is a Miami native who continues to carry the city with him and is currently pursuing an M.F.A. in creative writing at North Carolina State University.

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Brianna LaShay Whitfield, '16's picture
So eloquently stated. Thank you.
Sarah Elizabeth Haas, '15's picture
You have articulated so many of my thoughts and feelings (and conversations with fellow alumni) in such a powerful, thought-provoking way. I, too, cannot remain satisfied. Duke is an incredible place that shaped me in so many ways, but it is also deeply flawed and rooted in racism. It is extremely difficult to reckon with those two truths. One of my pride points as a Duke alumna, however, is that rarely are Duke students and alumni complacent or apathetic about Duke as an institution and are constantly questioning, advocating, and pushing it to be better. Duke's administration, however well-intentioned, has never seemed to meaningfully question the status quo or be a leader, not a follower in anti-racism efforts. (P.S. I am really glad you are getting an MFA, you have an incredible way with words!)
Roger Austin's picture
Mr. Ivory, What did the manifesto associated with the protest held during the spring 2018 Duke Reunions Weekend say? The contents of the manifesto seems central to the narrative but are not included, at least not explicitly. The Duke community at large needs to know why Duke alumni attending that day (I was not attending) “were on the verge of spitting on (you),” and why Duke administrators felt the need to apologize to those Duke alumni for the reading of your protest’s manifesto. Please publish the protest manifesto, or include a link, in the comments of the upcoming issue of Duke magazine, Mr. Ivory. That manifesto could be as helpful as your recent article in helping the Duke community address racism and, if not already, it should be included in the archives. Thank you.
Roger Austin's picture
Thank you Duke for making the manifesto available at https://docs.google.com/document/d/1fz2uNFjIFZZsrya4wD9h6PPb23nmbljcDVLQBBrNRWY/edit It's an interesting document. Did the protestors try to read the entire 18-page document to those attending the Spring 2018 Duke Reunions Weekend or did they try to deliver a condensed version? The article in Duke Magazine reads as if the protestors did read the entire 18-page article, and that may have been a tactical mistake if the goal was to be persuasive.