Thursday, April 24 in the Fitzpatrick Center, Nigerian-American author Teju Cole will present to the Duke and Durham community for the annual Kenan Distinguished Lecture. The lecture is co-sponsored by Duke’s Center for African & African American Research, Center for Documentary Studies, English Department, Forum for Scholars & Publics, Franklin Humanities Institute and the Office of the President.
Cole is known for writing the acclaimed novel "Open City" as well as for his multidisciplinary background in art history and photography.
“Cole is a break from tradition in two ways: he is our first novelist and our youngest speaker,” said Noah Pickus, the Nannerl O. Keohane Director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and Associate Research Professor of Public Policy Studies. “Our goal is to highlight more humanistic dimensions of ethics.”
Cole will join a legacy of notable speakers who have been invited to speak as part of the annual series, including Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, humanitarian Fiona Terry and, most recently, author and politician Michael Ignatieff.
“In the past, our invitations have tended more towards scholars that have publicly outward-facing work. This year is the first year that we really extended an invitation to someone so well-known publicly through his writing and his social media,” said Katherine Scott, Communications and Advancement Manager at Kenan. “The series is such a great way to engage not just different audiences on campus, but also the local community.”
The annual Kenan Distinguished Lecture in Ethics was established in 1997 in the academic year following the inception of the Kenan Ethics Program. The program’s mission was to promote ethics as a mode of inquiry that would not only be utilized on campus, but translate into action in the broader community. The lecture series brings a well-known speaker to campus and creates a forum for the Duke and Durham community to address moral issues of broad social and cultural significance.
Cole’s lecture is titled, “Here Comes Everybody: The Crisis of Equality in the Age of Social Media.”
“Cole’s talk will touch on the personal and global themes raised in 'Open City' such as population pressure in his native Lagos, the use of Twitter as an activist space during the Arab uprisings and the recent testimony by drone victims before the U.S. Congress,” Pickus said.
For many in the Kenan community, the themes of Cole’s talk will be familiar. His novel "Open City" has been assigned in classrooms and discussed in the Kenan employee book club. "Open City" follows a Nigerian immigrant and graduate student living in post-9/11 New York City as he explores questions of relationships and identity.
“It’s about the bright and dim sides of globalization, the limits of human sympathy and the peculiarities of liberalism, belonging and alienation—all critical ethical questions for our time that a novelist of his power illuminates brilliantly,” Pickus said. “I’ve taught the novel several times as part of a course on immigration and identity, and it pushes students to move beyond easy ethical answers and glib political responses.”
The exploration of globalization and ethics is a particularly relevant topic as Duke University extends its reach beyond the triangle area through initiatives like Duke Kunshan University and DukeEngage. The lecture aims to fuel conversation about these and other issues raised in the Duke and Durham community.
“Kenan focuses a lot on ethics broadly speaking, but we are particularly interested in issues of global migrations, human rights and other program areas,” Scott said. “Because of Cole’s personal experiences and his writing, he will be able to speak to those themes greatly. His use of narrative to convey some of those themes will be really appealing to a lot of people and give them a gateway into dialogue on these issues.”
After the lecture, there will be a question and answer portion for the audience to raise and explore pertinent ethical issues. Later, there will be a reception where students will be able to continue the discussion with Cole and each other.
“I think one of the strengths of having a public lecture is that it allows for a diverse community of voices,” Scott said. “I invite anyone to come and be a part of that and bring their thoughts and voices to the conversation.”
The Kenan Distinguished Lecture with Teju Cole will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Thurs., April 24 in the Fitzpatrick Center. The event is free and open to the public. A student reception will follow. For more information, visit the Kenan Institute's website.