Duke University Alumni Magazine

Winds of Fury, Circles of Grace: Life After the Palm Sunday Tornadoes

By The Reverend Dale Clem M.Div. '85. Nashville: Abingdon Press. 204 pages. $10.95, paper.

n Palm Sunday of 1994, a tornado killed Hannah, my lively, energetic little girl." So begins a father's grief, and the story that Dale Clem set down on paper so he could begin to deal with his awesome loss. Clem M.Div. '85 could have given us a wild venting of stormy emotions. Instead, Winds of Fury, Circles of Grace is a thoughtful, honest account of a man's search for meaning in the midst of despair. In the process, he examines in a very personal way some of Christianity's most enduring themes--the promise of an afterlife, God's involvement in nature, and the relationship between suffering and faith.

     Certainly there were theological questions to be addressed after the well-publicized tragedy at Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama, where twenty adults and children were killed. Reporters repeatedly asked Clem and his wife, the church's pastor, Kelly Haugh Clem M.Div. '85, how a loving God could allow a tornado to hit a church of believers. Dale Clem's response was matter-of- fact: "God didn't send tornadoes...any more than God sent Hitler to Germany, communism to Cuba, or capitalism to the United States." As he expands on his confession, Clem renders absurd the claims of those who would point to the tornado as a sign either of God's wrath or His indifference.

     For Clem, the mystery of suffering is inseparable from the mystery of life itself; he is not after answers--not the easy ones, anyway. One minister accused Clem of being atheistic for suggesting that God is not the agent for everything that happens. Clem responds by showing how a transparent, user-friendly God would be one too small to worship, too boring to love. "Kelly and I never downplayed the absurdity of suffering and loss. What we attempted to do was dispel the oversimplified notion of God as puppeteer." Clem seeks to communicate the difference between wanting to figure out God and wanting to feel close to God. Ultimately, the abiding and peaceful presence of the Lord, for Clem, is enough for him to know.

     That is not to say that Clem's journey of grief isn't deep-felt and traumatic. Having kept a diary throughout his grieving, he is able to detail the struggle of confronting his daughter's absence. On the flight home after receiving the fatal phone call, he writes, "it took all my energy just to keep from screaming, 'My Hannah is dead. Stop the world--all is meaningless.' "

     It would be months before Clem could sing a hymn again. Meanwhile, he experienced the intolerable "dance of the grieving" in which he demanded that his friends simultaneously "go away and stay [with me]." While Dale was coping by seeking isolation for his writing, Kelly dealt with the loss by bonding with friends. Only by recognizing that people "grieve differently, on different schedules"--along with a standing hot-tub date every night--were the two able to keep their marriage intact.

      "Grief descended upon me like a cloak of numbness. Later, I would think of this protective blanket...as a wonderful grace." Being shut off from the world gave Clem a chance to carve out "a sacred space" where he could meet his daughter and talk. " 'What are you doing?' was a constant question I asked Hannah after her death," he writes. "There is always hope that something will speak to me of her new life." Her messages would come to him through "parachutists, hermit crabs, and rainbows"--incidental occurrences that his faith allowed him to view as laden with meaning.

     Clem also examines his daughter's view of God before she died, and how adults can learn from a child's vision. Whereas grown-ups may try to conquer or please God, "God was a friend, a playmate, a companion in Hannah's eyes." Ironically, after a year of reflection, Clem finds himself able to appreciate the moment more than ever. "I do not mind being silly with children," he remarks. He uses the metaphor of a piano that is dropped from a great height, then rebuilt. Such an instrument will always sound different afterwards; sometimes its tone will be richer.

     "Circles of Grace" refers to the rings in a pond when a rock drops, as well as "the process whereby we are drawn out of ourselves and deeper into God's mystery and grace." Suffering in itself has no meaning, Clem asserts, yet a wise man will learn from death "the courage to avoid obsessions of hoarding, having, conquering, and separating." Finally, "healing comes from sharing our wounds with others." Just as Jesus held out his pierced hands to a doubting Thomas, Clem shows his pain to the world, with the hope that it results in a strengthened belief in the reader. With this reader, his hope found fruition.

--Eric Larson

Larson '93 is a freelance writer living in Anniston, Alabama. He wrote about the Goshen tragedy while a staff writer at the Anniston Star.

Notes of a Racial Caste Baby: Color Blindness and the End of Affirmative Action

By Bryan K. Fair '82. New York: New York University Press, 1997. 211 pages. $24.95

f the title of Bryan K. Fair's Notes of a Racial Caste Baby: Color Blindness and the End of Affirmative Action sounds familiar, it is intentional. The title is a take-off on, and a rebuttal to, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, a 1991 work in which the writer Stephen Carter bemoaned affirmative-action policies and their ill effects on the self-esteem of beneficiaries.

     Fair '82, an attorney and professor of constitutional law at the University of Alabama, has no such anguish. He calls himself a "racial caste baby," one whose need for affirmative- action help was directly caused by the lingering effects of American discrimination and exclusion. And he is glad such help was available. "Unlike Stephen Carter, I am not an 'affirmative action baby' who now, belatedly, disdains it and its supposed stigma," he writes. "I would never pull up the ladder that helped me climb out of racial poverty."

     In defending affirmative action, Fair asks how it is that after years of excluding blacks and other minorities from education and employment opportunities, we can now believe that just three decades of affirmative action has leveled the playing field.

     His slim book is part memoir, part history lesson, part legal brief--an ambitious effort that might have benefited from a narrower focus. Part 2, in which Fair discusses significant moments of American racial history, is the weakest section. Beginning with the racial, racist attitude of whites that made slavery possible, Fair meanders through American history, pointing out compelling but already well-documented incidents of white privilege and black caste along the way. He does make one interesting point: that those affirmative-action opponents who claim race-based policies denigrate our hallowed Constitution should remember the unseemly compromises and ugly exclusions that went into framing the original document. But in general there is little new here, and little to persuade either the scholarly opponent of affirmative action or the average white American who thinks he's paying for the sins of his forefathers.

     Fair goes on, however, to deftly critique the concept of "color blindness," a favorite with opponents of affirmative action. He argues that instituting such a system now in effect "preserves white rule in the United States, extending racial caste from one generation of blacks to yet another and maintaining America as a 'white' country. The color-blind doctrine ignores the reality that America remains a divided and unequal nation, that racial enmity is again on the rise, and that whites continue to hold economic and political advantages, in large part by virtue of their historical control over blacks."

     This critique is right on the money. But it might have been more persuasive had Fair spent less time proving the historical control and more time illustrating its lingering legacy.

     In the more interesting first section, Fair recounts his childhood in Columbus, Ohio, as one of ten children raised by a single mother. With no help from any of her children's fathers, Fair's mother struggled to raise her family on welfare and by working at a series of low-wage, dead-end jobs. At age seven, Fair began running errands and shoveling snow to make money; by age nine, he was working in a local rib joint.

     "Being poor, hungry, and on welfare did not make me idle or dependent," he writes. "I was never lazy, and I was dependent only when I was a child."

     Although he glosses over some important points--such as why his mother had ten children on a limited income--he reminds us how desperate life can be in our inner cities, and how little hope many children have of overcoming circumstances that are not of their making. For Fair, the turning point came when he was bused, voluntarily, to a predominately white junior high school with better facilities, more engaged teachers, and far higher expectations of its students.

     Fair was admitted to Duke in 1982 as part of a program designed to bring more diversity to the university. His test scores fell far below the median, and he quickly realized he was not as academically prepared as many Duke students. But although he struggled and sometimes failed, he says being an affirmative-action admit did not harm his self-confidence. "Indeed, all the harm that I suffered came well before Duke, during my years of educational deprivation in ghetto schools that lacked rigor and were run by teachers who had no idea how to improve their students' skills. Duke gave me a chance for more. I learned that its high standards were not beyond my capacity, but, rather, only beyond my training."

     But it is in the final section of the book that Fair makes his greatest contribution to the debate over affirmative action. He painstakingly analyzes the important Supreme Court decisions on the issue, beginning with Regents of the University of California v. Bakke.

     Fair believes that, in education at least, the debate could be quieted if all colleges and universities adopted the kind of diversity program supported by Justice Lewis Powell in writing the decision. Such programs consider all applicants for all available places, based on qualities ranging from academic achievement to maturity, work experience, or a history of overcoming disadvantage. In such programs, race is but one of a number of "diversity factors" university officials may use in making decisions.

     Fair argues that none of the affirmative-action policies adopted in these cases had the purpose or effect of excluding all whites, and therefore cannot legitimately be compared to the discriminatory circumstances they were enacted against. He also addresses several of the most common complaints against affirmative action, including the belief that such policies push unqualified people up the ladder of success. What makes this claim pernicious, Fair says, is the implication that affirmative action is the only process by which unqualified people ever get hired, promoted, or admitted to college. In fact, incompetent people are advanced over more competent people all the time, in every segment of our society.

     Look at Dan Quayle. Imagine how Americans would respond to a black politician who couldn't spell potato and who bumbled his way through debates. "An inarticulate, poorly educated African American who was catapulted to high national office owing not to his family's political connections or his supposed ability to appeal to women (as Quayle was) but to affirmative action and his ability to draw black votes would be seen as a vindication of and a justification for every critique of affirmative action."

     The debate over affirmative action is one in which most people have long ago chosen sides. Fair's book may not change many minds on the subject, but his well-reasoned arguments will give opponents and proponents alike food for thought.

--Kimberly McLarin

McLarin '86 is a former reporter for The New York Times and a member of the Duke Magazine Editorial Advisory Board. Her first novel, Whatever Doesn't Kill You, will be published by William Morrow next year.

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