Monuments, murals and memory: The racism of 'greatness' at Duke

On Sept. 27, I assembled in Duke Chapel with other students, faculty and employees for Founders’ Day Convocation. Wearing my Sunday best and watching robed importance file past me in ceremonious procession, I thought back to a contrastingly undignified campus incident from a few days before, when a student-painted mural celebrating Latinx Heritage Month was defaced. Confronted now with a display of Duke’s institutional greatness, I could not reconcile it with the disappointing message of unbelonging directed against Latinx students.

How fitting, then, that the convocation speaker would address the very idea of “greatness.” Dr. Michael Joseph Sorrell, President of Paul Quinn College and a Duke alumnus, took us to his favorite Bible passage (Isaiah 58:10-12) and declared that “greatness” is fundamentally about being “there for those who need us the most, the hungry and the oppressed.” He did not take greatness as a given but held it out as an aspiration. Will Duke prove itself to be great? How might we make that happen?

I keep returning to his line: “Duke, I’m not here to praise you; I’m here to challenge you.” Even as Sorrell was honored with the Distinguished Alumni Award, he did not return the praise but instead spoke of the “anger and hurt” that students across the country are feeling, betrayed by the very institutions that are supposed to protect them. Yet, he highlighted the ways in which Duke University has, in the past, helped make important social changes by welcoming students who had previously been excluded—namely, black people, immigrants, women and Native Americans. Recalling the plight of Cherokee people in the 19th century, Sorrell mobilized memory to highlight today’s black and brown victims of police violence, who are similarly “displaced and criminalized in their own communities.” Greatness, in this formulation, is the active undoing of marginalization, even if it means taking a “controversial” stance.

Sorrell’s definition of greatness stands in remarkable contrast to that of the nation’s president, who ran and won on the platform “Make America Great Again”—measuring greatness against the interests of people of color, immigrants and women. It does not escape me that Sorrell, a black man in America and the president of an HBCU, might have been speaking to his own hurt and anger as a Duke alumnus who expects better. In what ways does Duke stand in contrast to and conformity with the greater American society? As racism infects the air in the White House and beyond, can black students breathe at our universities?

While “greatness” in the United States can hopefully be reclaimed as something more aligned with social justice, this nation became the leading world power that it is today through the appropriation of land and the exploitation of labor. So, too, does our university’s greatness stand in direct relation to its history of racism. For example, Duke’s history building is currently named after Julian Carr because of his large donation of land. But students and faculty have protested to change the name, since Carr is also remembered for a racist speech he gave in 1913 at the dedication of the Confederate statue known as Silent Sam.

Today, those who work and live at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill are still feeling the racism surrounding this statue. Now that protesters have removed the statue (after years of appealing to administrators to do just that), they continue to confront white supremacist organizations on their campus and to suffer both general violence and targeted retaliation by police. Like Sorrell argued in his speech, students are unable to trust the institutions supposedly designed to protect them.

Lack of trust and feelings of unwelcome likewise marred the start of the Fall semester here at Duke. Two days before classes, the sign outside the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture was scribbled over with the word “n*****.” What was denounced as a “heinous” act by President Vincent Price was nonetheless an echo of an incident last year, when this same slur was scrawled outside the door of an apartment at 300 Swift Avenue. But Vice President Larry Moneta’s response then was simply: “I don’t have a plan for a major initiative…I think we need to just sit back and think about what is going on that a few people would feel like that was a good way to behave.” The call to “just sit back” fell flat at the time, and it certainly did nothing to discourage the most recent act of anti-black vandalism.

The need for decisive action on the part of university administration is present at Duke, at UNC-Chapel Hill and all across the nation as students (along with faculty and non-administrative employees) battle racism as well as sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia and ableism on their campuses. Political battles are being fought in heightened ways at American universities, and institutional priorities become horrifyingly clear. In Charlottesville, the protection of a Confederate statue meant the death of a young woman. Meanwhile, at Harvard, the defacement of black faculty portraits shows that some aspects of our campus are not so fiercely defended. Which buildings and people are being preserved and celebrated, and which are left vulnerable to violence through administrative inaction? What do our statues say about who it is we care for, and which stories we care to remember?

While many argue that our statues communicate our history, our view of the past is always a reflection of the present. Who, how, and why we remember are questions demanding our attention, because the most pressing debates of today center precisely on the battle over memory. When Duke students hoped to remember their homes, traditions, and living cultures in a mural, the defacement hoped to obliterate that memory—to force us to remember the threat of violence and erasure instead. But memory can serve liberation and resistance as well. When white supremacists insisted on “remembering” Confederate soldiers (and defending their neo-Confederate ideals), students demonstrated that a paint-stained statue or an empty pedestal were a more fitting tribute than an untouched Silent Sam.

In the midst of many contradictions, I was glad to hear Sorrell engage rigorously with institutional memory, even as he was welcomed into its folds. It was a reminder that even as deep-seated hatred continues to speak, many of us have the power to speak back. And what a powerful thing it is—to be part of memory-making, and therefore of world-building. How will we be remembered? And how, through our own remembering, can we imagine a better future for ourselves and for those who come after? I personally am imagining the day when we value human beings over statues, and where greatness in the service of good is the only kind we strive for.

Jessica Covil is a Ph.D. student in English.


Share and discuss “Monuments, murals and memory: The racism of 'greatness' at Duke” on social media.