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Juneteenth: An open letter to Duke

guest letter

As we honor Juneteenth and the spirit of emancipatory power, we free ourselves by freeing our language to speak back openly to recent communications regarding the loss of Black lives. 

I.

First, we reject the necessity of our death to say that our lives matter. We have always known this and have always fought for this truth. We have liberated ourselves through insurrection, conspiracy and outright defiance, long before President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Black peoples in bondage as free. We celebrate the protests which followed these assaults against Black life as part of a legacy of striving for total emancipation. We consider the public resistance of racism in law enforcement and the criminal (in)justice system as a step toward accountability. This is done in the name of honoring the lives of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Breonna Taylor and Tony McDade. It must be acknowledged that cis-heteronormativity makes some more recognizable than others and suppresses the difficult conversation regarding the vulnerability of Black women (trans and cis) and LGBTQ+ people who have no safe haven even within our own community. The recent  killing of Oluwatoyin Salau and attack on Iyanna Dior are cruel evidence of this. 

As we compose this letter, more names are seared into our memory that you will learn and recite back to us, without even a momentary accounting of the lives we’ve lost. We are not simple observers of the murder of Black people. In them, we see ourselves. How many Black students have you really talked to out of genuine concern for their wellness? What did they say? We suspect that they are tired, that even a cursory engagement with the archive would reveal to you much of what they might say—what has already been told to you; the fact that you have not listened before gives us little hope for any future conversations. But yet we write because it is necessary. We write because we are in crisis. 

II.

During this troubling time, we need you to know that we are not, in fact, doing okay. We are tired. Our professors are tired. As Black scholars, even when we speak in spaces designed to critique and intellectually engage with this nation’s troubled past, we are forced to redact our speech so as not to offend, or trouble or in any way cause discomfort. However, this essential moment in the nation’s history calls us to act, to dredge up painful memories and experiences in order to feel as if you see us. When we talk about being Black at Duke, we mean:

  • It’s like donning an invisibility cloak. Having to re-introduce myself to professors after we’ve met numerous times or being mistaken for the other Black man that works in IT. It's sharing stories with other Black students and faculty to make sure I’m not imagining these harmful experiences, and confiding in others to soften the blows of academia. It’s going to conferences and having scholars ask am I “okay” because of the reputation Duke has with Black scholars.
  • It’s being asked as a TA to remain silent while faculty makes an example of the N-word with no framing context for students. Everyone avoiding eye contact in the hallway. Sitting in classes with Black content watching colleagues zone out or work on other materials, then feign concern about a lack of Black content. Watching colleagues take to social media to vehemently defend the sanctity of the white Western canon, then feign concern about a lack of diversity in their classes. Having colleagues erase my work and weaponize their tears against me. Hearing that my colleagues want to speak “for” me—but never to me—in response to racist aggressions they can’t even name, much less imagine or understand.
  • It’s everyone assuming they know what I do and no one asking me about it. It means my advisor is my advisor because she learned about my region for her qualifying exams as a graduate student, herself a Black person who had to over-compensate. It means my well-meaning white colleagues asking me if I’ve read this Toni Morrison and this Octavia Butler and this Nella Larsen and if I haven’t then they tell me I should. It means that my classes are taught by white professors who are the authority on the subject of Blackness. (Can Blackness be my subject?) They look to me for clarification when there are moments where my perspective may be useful. But they are the authority in the room, not I.
  • It’s being told by peers, scholars and mentors: “Duke does not have a good reputation for maintaining Black faculty and graduate students.” Within a couple of weeks of being on campus, finding myself in the student center having coffee with a wonderful, brilliant, charming and seemingly happy Black woman scholar who I believed would get me through the program. Believing that I had found my partner in crime. Walking into this space, imagining future collaborations with another Black member of the community, wondering how we would plot and plan events together at this institution, and becoming exposed to a completely different reality. Then she tells me that she is leaving Duke. 

These are just a handful of our individual stories, but they are not isolated incidents. These incidents happen across departments, schools and colleges at Duke. We are students who hold different citizenship statuses, we are students who come from across the diaspora, we are students with varying accesses to health care, familial and financial support systems. We are students who are hurting. We are in a crisis, one that finds us fighting for our lives in a society built on white supremacy. This is not just our crisis. As the public outcry for justice and social reform has gained traction within the past few weeks, white allies have made their support for the Black Lives Matter movement known through protests and social media posts. But in our day-to-day lives, we feel unsupported. We are your students, your colleagues, your teachers. We are workers, staff. Listen to us.                     

III.

Duke’s responses to the outpour of racial violence, police brutality and white supremacy these past few months have been and continue to be ineffective. Historically, Duke has approached the fight for racial justice with an inauthentic practice of organizing conferences, dialogues, panels and symposia. However, these efforts fall short, as they do nothing more than assuage feelings of white guilt and build the professional profiles of white faculty and administrators. 

The journey to dismantle behaviors, practices, policies and institutions forged out of white supremacy is long and often takes years, if not decades. The work requires having a discussion with friends and family who are closest to you. While many in the Duke community will be soothed by your language of “trust, respect and inclusion,” we find ourselves restless in the echo chamber of statements in opposition to white supremacist brutality, statements that look outwardly at structures instead of inwardly at practices which allow those structures to manifest. 

Those committed to equality must make that sacrifice, as lives are at stake. Black lives are at stake. Now is not the time to hide behind emails and tweets filled with empty promises of a better future. Now is the time to deal with the revelations exposed by the countless unnecessary deaths of Black women, children, men and non-binary people in this country. Living in a just society requires us to acknowledge our shortcomings and failures. We are only as strong as the weakest among us. And you, Duke, have failed. You have failed to create a safe, inclusive and supportive environment for Black students. You have failed to acknowledge and affirm your Black faculty who have published numerous award-winning essays, articles and books on issues that move our society forward. You have failed to treat Black staff and campus workers with any shred of human decency, not to mention pay them a living wage. 

This must end now.

In Solidarity,

Aaron Colston, Ph.D. Candidate

Kelsey Desir, Ph.D. Student

Tayzhaun Glover, Ph.D. Student 

Reina Henderson, Ph.D. Student

Nicole Higgins, Ph.D. Candidate

Ayanna Legros, Ph.D. Student

Anya Lewis-Meeks, Ph.D. Student

Joshua Strayhorn, Ph.D. Student

Kristina Williams, Ph.D. Candidate 


The Hurston-James Society is a forum of scholarship and fellowship inspired by the work and memories of Zora Neale Hurston and C.L.R. James to celebrate Black graduate students in the humanities and social sciences.

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