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Q&A: Mark Anthony Neal reflects on August K-Ville protest, Duke’s role in promoting racial justice

<p>Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American studies, speaks at a 2015 event</p>

Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American studies, speaks at a 2015 event

Nolan Smith, Duke men’s basketball’s director of operations, organized a Black Lives Matter protest at Krzyzewskiville Aug. 27. There, Mark Anthony Neal, James B. Duke distinguished professor of African and African American Studies, was joined by men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski, women’s basketball head coach Kara Lawson and several student-athletes to address a gathered crowd. 

The Chronicle spoke to Neal, also chair of the department of African and African American studies, about the protest and Duke's—and the nation’s—role in promoting racial justice.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The Chronicle: What was your role in the K-Ville protest and how did you get involved with it? 

Mark Anthony Neal: Nolan Smith, Trinity ‘11, studied African and African American Studies at Duke, and I was his academic advisor. We’ve remained close over the years, especially since he joined the Duke basketball coaching staff. He organized the protest. He reached out to me around 7 o'clock the night before asking if I could be there. An hour before the protest, he sent me another message that said, “And oh by the way, you’re going to be the last speaker after Coach K.” So there was not much planning beforehand, but I thought it was very important to be present, not only as a faculty member but as a Black faculty member. 

TC: Were there any specific moments during the protest that particularly stuck out to you? 

MAN: There were a few things. Women’s basketball coach Kara Lawson’s speech, and the moment where she begins to emotionally break down and all of her players joined her on stage. This was a really powerful moment because Coach Lawson has just gotten here; she doesn’t have a long history with the team, but it showed that they were committed to the moment and that she has begun to really form a relationship with them. The other moment was when Henry Coleman, a first-year student on the men’s basketball team, spoke. He went against every stereotype of what we think of in terms of Black male athletes as not being articulate. He was so clear, concise and to the point. And, everybody felt the power of his convictions and also his emotions. And again, the fact that so many of his teammates joined him up there to provide their support was really powerful. 

TC: Should these protests happen more regularly, or should they act as a response to gross acts of injustice? 

MAN: These things are stages, and there always needs to be a transition from the protest moment to the policy moment. But you can’t have real policy change until you raise voices about what is happening that reflects inequality, racism, homophobia and a range of other things. Protests have historically been one of the best ways in which you raise alarm and bring people’s attention to certain issues. This moment is no different. We know from a larger example in American history that protest has been used to move the needle. Protests will continue to be one of the tools that people use. What’s different now is the access to things like Tik Tok, Instagram, Twitter and other media. There are so many different ways and platforms that people can use to protest. 

TC: What are ways in which Duke and its educators can promote a more multicultural and diverse education? 

MAN: Duke is in a complicated situation. It is an elite institution in the American South. Whatever Duke is now, it still has to live with the history of what it has represented in Durham, a historically Black town. If you could talk to or read any past interviews from the first five Black students who integrated Duke in the 1960’s, they will readily tell you that Duke today is radically different from the Duke that they attended. That being said, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that Duke can do as far as making it more accessible, especially in terms of increasing the diversity of the student body. Duke has made leaps and bounds in terms of diversifying its student base, but that’s not just about attracting students of different races and ethnicities. It also means attracting students from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

Duke is inclusive in terms of the diversity of its faculty. There are a number of Black and brown faculty members who don’t teach in the departments in which you would expect Black and brown faculty members to teach in. We have Dean Valerie Ashby, a Black woman chemist and dean of Trinity College, which happens to be the largest school at Duke. So we see clearly the change occurring over the years. 

TC: What is our role as the overall Duke community in promoting racial justice? 

MAN: Duke has to be at the table with the stakeholders in the larger community. Duke is the largest private employer in the Durham community. When Duke talks about having better relationships with the community, very often it's talking about having a better relationship with the Black and brown community members who work at Duke. So, that’s going to be somewhat of a challenge. Since Steve Schewel, Trinity ‘73, became the mayor of Durham, we have someone at the table who is making the decisions for what’s best for Duke, but, most importantly, what’s best for Durham as well. 

TC: What’s a piece of advice that you could give to the Duke community as we work towards racial justice? 

MAN: The biggest thing for me is listening.There have been a lot of efforts over the years to try to make changes in what’s happening at Duke. Sometimes, it’s hard to hear voices who don’t fit the “party line.” I think that in the past, some people felt that their voices weren’t being heard as efficiently and effectively as others. 

TC: What are some steps that we can take as a nation to work toward equality? 

MAN: We have to start having real conversations about what race indifference looks like in this country. The fact that so many Americans first found out about Juneteenth a few months ago, because that’s not something we teach in schools, speaks to the importance of us having to do a better job in K-12 education. We have to tell the real story of American history, and its relationship to race and Black people. We have to have a real political will to say, “We’re going to take care of the least of us.” We have to remember that we are only as powerful as the persons who are least capable of taking care of themselves. We have to have a real change in values. We have to do real work in educating the masses in the classroom and beyond. 

TC: Do you have any book, podcast or website recommendations that you could give to those eager to learn more? 

MAN: I highly recommend “A People’s History of the United States” by Howard Zinn. The other book I would suggest is Angela Davis’ “Blues Legacy.” 

TC: Any final words?

MAN: Read as much as you can. Read from a wide variety of sources. Read and listen to things that make you feel uncomfortable. Read things that really push you to think critically about the world.

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