The independent news organization of Duke University

Tearing it down

a spectre is haunting duke

 “You won’t believe where we’re living,” my blockmate tells me, helping me with my luggage as we walk across the humid quad.

As the building comes into view, I’m struck by the iconography of the section’s fraternity sign. Two hands shaking as if sealing a lucrative business deal or making a pact of silence, the vague outline of a suit sleeve and a black and red color scheme. When I describe this picture to friends, I get two reactions: confusion or sympathy. For those who have been harmed by the violent fraternity of patriarchy, and to me, it’s a reminder that the University is not meant to be survivable.

Even in its absence, Greek life hangs like a shadow over campus. Discussions about how long we’ll be able to stay on campus are always punctuated with references to parties happening at luxury apartments off campus (not to mention that Greek sections insistent on living together exacerbate Duke’s gentrification of Durham).

Walking around an empty Duke feels like walking around a decaying Gothic landscape. Campus is eerie and unsettling, as if reminding us that the architecture (the very structure) is not indigenous to North Carolina (quite literally, considering the glaring absence of a single Indigenous professor), as if the emptiness holds the spectres of the past.

***

It may be controversial to say Duke, like most of US academia, is a monument to white supremacy, and may be more acceptable to say that Duke holds (or the even more acceptable answer, used to hold) monuments to white supremacy. The Robert E. Lee statue that used to stand above the threshold of the Chapel. The Carr Building, now named Classroom Building, that I lived adjacent to last year, and then Aycock, now East Residence Hall. Still, what does it mean when James B. Duke’s father stands on West Campus, holding a cigar representing his tobacco fortune, built by Black laborers? When Duke’s wealth roots from and still benefits from the important (and invisible) work of primarily Black workers?

Some may say that our job is to build new statues. We have a plaque for Abele Quad (though it’s not labelled on official maps). Spaces exist within the University where students of color, LGBT+ students and female-identifying students are supposed to feel welcome and imagine their futures. Is the solution to make reforms and change from within?

I’ve been able to learn and grow immensely due to the rich history of archival work in the University. Classes taught in the tradition of ethnic studies (or Third World studies) have facilitated important conversations that allowed me to develop my principles and understanding of structures within the world. I’ve joined many extracurricular reading groups, building consciousness with others who feel a sense that not everything is right and injustice still exists within our world. For those who still believe in these values, inclusion and diversity have garnered more attention now than ever. So can we build an abolitionist University within the University (whatever that means)?

***

Finally reconstructing my shoe stand after excavating some missing pieces in the bottom drawer of my plastic dresser, I turn to my blockmate.

“I feel like I could build a deck right now! We should do some more construction projects, like fun father-son projects,” I joke. “Actually you know what, we should print out and put together something to cover up that frat logo at the entrance of the dorm!”

We’re the only women, women of color nonetheless, living in this section, a fact underscored by the quick sprint we all make from the showers to our dorms. I knew there was probably a limit to what we could put up. Maybe an aesthetic Angela Davis portrait with a quote, or a mural-like compilation of printed paper. We had already started dry-erase marker-ing on top of the stock photos of the Chapel that were used to display our room numbers with happy birthday wishes, daily schedules and fun facts like “Larry Moneta doesn’t get enough flack.”

Even if we paper over the most obvious signs of it (and even then we’re gaslit into thinking they’re not obvious), we can’t actually erase the ways that white supremacy has shaped and continues to shape the physical space of the university. The Center for Multicultural Affairs is in the basement of the Bryan Center, silo-ing off students of color and creating an access issue due to the high dust content. Meanwhile, we have funding for a new alumni center that students have to pay to use, with engaging activities like “planning your day” to go places more interesting than the alumni center, “learning new things” from the sanitized timeline on the wall or (my personal favorite) “going outside” to (once again) literally leave the uninteresting alumni center.

Space politics has even invaded cyberspace, with Greek life and student government taking up a fourth of the digital space of the quad during the Virtual Activities Fair. This is not even to mention the ambiguous status of workers, like housekeepers and contract workers, who aren’t being counted by the COVID tracker or supported by Duke.

As this quandary sits in the back of my mind, I learn during my house course, led by the new Black LLC (which was going to be housed in Craven), the history of our previous President Braxton Craven.

If you were unaware here are a few facts, Craven:

  1. Owned slaves (including children)
  2. Oversaw the Cherokee Industrial School (which forced the assimilation of Indigenous children)
  3. Recruited students to serve as guards at a Confederate military prison

Does this mean we should rename Craven? What about John Franklin Crowell, who wrote that integrating education “will never do; if the colored children go to school...what will become of white supremacy?” Google “Tallman Trask light rail” to learn more about a man whose employment was extended because of the pandemic, thanked for his “extraordinary service” and replaced by a McKinsey consultant. Once again, what is to be done?

***

It may be a bit trite to cite the iconic Audre Lorde quote about the master’s tools, which like much of the language coined by radical Black theorists, has been decontextualized, sanitized and co-opted to the point of near meaninglessness—but it still holds true. I recommend reading “Black Study, Black Struggle” by Robin D. G. Kelley and “The Undercommons” by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney for some more ideas on what to do as a student who wants liberation and is surrounded by the University.

The solution to redress the harm done by Duke to an uncountable and unknowable number of people cannot be as simple as putting up a new statue. We deserve and can fight for more than liberal inclusion and diversity. Christina Sharpe theorizes the concept of “wake work”—a way of mourning and caring in a way that our justice system, media, and healthcare industries cannot—in her book “In the Wake,” which argues we must replace our present systems of violence with new systems of care.

Even if we tell ourselves that we see some sort of linear progress, HBCUs and ethnic studies departments around the country constantly have to fight for funding. Even when Duke hires minority professors, their positions are typically non-tenured, leading to a high turnover rate and lack of enduring presence on campus. This serves to remind us that progress is not inevitable; we have to fight for it. The moral arc of the Universe(ity) bends not towards justice, but rather towards profit at whatever cost. The University was never meant to be survivable.

***

I know deep down that no matter what I put up, it’ll eventually be torn down.

Celine Wei is a Trinity sophomore. Her column, "a spectre is haunting Duke," runs on alternate Fridays. 

Discussion

Share and discuss “Tearing it down” on social media.