In the middle of the night last Tuesday someone hung a piece of rope in a tree on the Duke campus. A cheap, yellow, synthetic rope, the kind you might use to hold up a tarp on a camping trip. The rope was taken down before dawn. Few saw it in person, but there was a cellphone photo.
In any other form, a photo of a rope in a tree would have had no meaning. But this rope was tied into a noose, and that made all the difference. A single knot in a piece of rope, a single knot with the power to evoke the specter of night riders and burning crosses and lynching, and the whole sordid American history of slavery and Jim Crow seemingly came to life again.
At five the next afternoon, several hundred students, faculty and staff gathered on the steps of Duke Chapel to hear speeches from the president, the provost, and several deans and student leaders. Their collective message, emphatically and authentically delivered: This is not Duke! At one level the gathering was heartening, that so many in the community would come together to repudiate the meaning of the noose and to embrace values of diversity, tolerance, and community. These are important statements to make, and they were said well.
That the noose was so evocative, however, was not just because it triggered old stories, but also because it resonated with stories of today. From Ferguson to New York to Cleveland and beyond, there is a seeming epidemic of young black men killed by police officers. A white fraternity at Oklahoma chants a racist song, apparently learned at a national meeting. The wealth gap between white and black shows no signs of narrowing. Our schools are re-segregating. Fifty years after Selma, voting restrictions throughout the South conjure up memories of the old voter suppression of blacks. And at Duke, the story of the noose comes after an accumulation of lesser incidents, including a bit of that racist song overheard on campus, and the subtle but daily reminders of the implicit bias that is all our legacy.
During the proceedings in front of the chapel, protesters at the fringes of the gathering began shouting something. The speakers plowed ahead, while we craned our necks to see who was shouting and what. Then, as the protesters came closer, we could see it was a small group of black students whose message was “Duke is guilty!”
My first, reflexive, reaction was defensive. I found myself irritated that the protesters would interrupt such well-meaning speakers and resented being the target of a protest. After all, I’m here in solidarity, I thought. Only afterwards, when I had the chance to talk with some black colleagues, did I reflect that maybe there is a truth here. That perhaps we are too quick to say, “This is not Duke,” too willing to congratulate ourselves on the progress we have made and too unwilling to acknowledge that we still have work to do.
The Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Adichie, has a wonderful TED Talk on “The Danger of a Single Story.” In it, she tells of how as a young girl studying in England she was stereotyped by others’ stories of “Africa,” but also how humbling it was for her later to discover that she too had single stories of the poor in Nigeria, and of Mexicans when she travelled there. We humans are all prone to the danger of the single story, to the peril of lazy type-casting.
Professors are largely removed from the social life of our students, but I know that many at Duke feel marginalized, somehow not fully a part of the social fabric of the community, prevented by stereotype from real connection to Duke. I hear this most strongly from my African American students, but also from many Asian-American, LGBTQ, and international students. This, too, is a reality at Duke.
The antidote to the single story is the individual story. A single story reduces each of us to a type, whether it is a story about blacks, or Asians, or gays, or (for that matter) fraternity brothers and varsity athletes. But if we are willing to listen to each others’ individual stories, they can enable of us to see the world through the eyes of another, to feel something of what others feel, to appreciate the amazing richness and complexity of our community, and to discover, for all our diversity, our common humanity.