A Love Deferred

July 18, 2014

"It was a rough time for us, when they accused our boys of that heinous crime.”

We were in a midtown Manhattan hotel conference room in 2007, attendees at a Duke University Black Alumni Connection meeting, my first. I thought I had misheard the speaker, an impassioned former Duke athlete who by the end of his speech had pledged $60,000 to either DUBAC or the Reggie Howard Scholarship Fund—I no longer recall which.

But his words I never forgot.

“They accused our boys.”

The speaker was African American, and he was addressing a crowd of some thirty or so African Americans. The “boys” he spoke of were several members of Duke’s lacrosse team, who recently had been exonerated of serious charges.

I had never, before or since, heard an African- American Duke alumnus declare his or her love for all things Duke with such intensity. And though part of me wondered what was in the Duke blue Kool-Aid he’d chugged over the years, my incredulity was tinged with more than a little envy.

Such love does not develop unrequited. Duke must have loved him back.

I’ve known African-American graduates from other colleges who loved their alma maters. They make much anticipated yearly returns to campus each homecoming game, where they party with former classmates. They belong to and support alumni organizations in their cities and, clad in various combinations of school colors, think nothing of driving hours to support visiting football or basketball team appearances.

Not so much me and Duke.

This is true despite the fact that my four years there more or less created what is now my life and career. I met my first wife, the late Angela Ducker Richardson (like me, Trinity ’76) when we were freshmen. I am still in touch with a raft of fellow graduates, white and black, and have been colleagues with several during my thirty years as a newspaper reporter, editor, and columnist.

I have fond memories of my Duke years: lively debates with professors Raymond Gavins, Henry Olela, Edwin Cady, and George Eliott Clarke, whose offhand quote, “I don’t know everything about T.S. Eliot, I just know more than anyone else in the world,” is forever etched in my brain.

I loved the African-American cafeteria ladies who watched over my roommate and me like we were their sons. As a senior, I was elected president of the Association of African Students, now the Black Student Alliance. It was the same year Reginald Howard became the first black elected president of the Associated Students of Duke University. We marched on the Allen Building in the fall of 1976 to back a quixotic demand that the school create a black studies department. I wrote a few articles for The Chronicle and founded the Prometheus Black literary magazine.

Yet I have returned to Duke just twice in the thirty-seven years since I graduated: in 1977 for homecoming; and in 1999, when I was attending an aikido seminar in Hillsborough and took a minute to drive through the, for me, now unrecognizable campus.

So where is my love for this amazing institution to which I owe so much? I never risked offering it.

Seven years before my parents left me standing in the fire lane outside Wannamaker Hall to begin my freshman year, my father sat me down at our Formica-and-steel kitchen table in Charleston, South Carolina, to explain that the future was upon us. President Lyndon Johnson had signed a law integrating schools. In Charleston, it was to be implemented piecemeal: Schools would remain segregated, but for four years, individuals could choose which school they wished to attend—which meant blacks could go to previously all-white schools. Schools would be fully integrated in 1970.

“Everyone is going to have to go eventually, you might as well go now,” Dad said, an uncharacteristic fierceness in his eyes. Never having finished high school, he was among the legions of Negro parents who wanted better for their children and saw education as the way to get there.

So I and maybe ten other neighborhood kids walked to the main highway that ran alongside our neighborhood to catch a school bus full of white kids—several rear seats were left vacant for us—to St. Andrews Junior High School, where we entered a particular hell. There were maybe forty of us in a student body of more than 600, and though the federal government said we had a right to be there, many of the locals, kids, teachers, and administrator made it clear they were not of like mind.

There were heroes. Keith Polinkus took a beating for sitting with me at recess. Miss Ann Cale, my English teacher, was the first teacher of any race to tell me I might have a future as a writer. But those years were permeated with racial tensions on and off campus that only dissipated when the integrated basketball team started winning, finishing second in the state.

So by the time I strolled into the Cambridge Inn for the first time, I was living with a kind of racial posttraumatic stress disorder. I had spent years going places the white people already in those places wished I would not go. Duke was just another place forced by the federal government to take me in, while also leaving me at the mercy of those who ran it. It would be up to me to find my way out.

If Duke offered racial détente, many of her African-American students did not see it. If our racial senses were hyperattenuated to insults real and imagined, it was because we’d experienced racism in myriad forms before and after we got there. I recall an old white lady throwing a bag of popcorn at a burly black football player who blocked her view as we cheered on the then luckless Blue Devil basketball team in Card Gym. Was that racist, or just a nasty person doing a nasty thing? Would she have hurled the popcorn at anyone who got between her and the game? Was the professor who attributed my grade in her class to my being a notorious cutter of classes being racist, professorially arrogant, or did she really believe I cut her classes, which I had not?

The emotional guesswork became overwhelming. Eventually it became easier to shut down than engage. Duke, for me, was a business arrangement, an exchange of goods for services under an agreement forged by an outside authority and forced on both parties. Duke got integrated. I got an education. Case closed.

I contacted African-American alumni and asked them about their Duke years. “Duke was a beat down for me, and if I did not have internal strength it would have beaten me down more than it did,” said Leidene King ’93. “But if I had to do it over again, I still would go to Duke, because even though it broke me, I am the woman I am today because of Duke, and I am pretty fabulous.”

There was love, too.

“I consider myself a proud Duke graduate, especially after the Duke50 celebration last October,” said Keith Hill ’76. “I’ve gone back to Duke at least a half dozen times since graduation. As I said in the Duke50 video, going back to Duke’s campus for me is like Superman going to his fortress of solitude. The campus is one of the most serene places on Earth.”

As to my feelings, I’ll need another anecdote. A few years ago, I was invited to an appreciation dinner for the late Gerald Boyd, the former New York Times managing editor. Boyd was the first African American to hold that position, making him the highest-ranking African American in the paper’s history. He had been forced to resign because of a plagiarism scandal involving an underling. I was pressed to deliver a toast, even though I barely knew Boyd.

We raised our glasses to these words: “To Gerald. Know that the first soldiers to storm a beach seldom make it to their objective. But they make it easier for those who come behind.”

Maybe it’s not important how I feel about Duke, if those coming behind me can love her in my stead. Maybe it’s enough to have been part of the process of helping black and white Americans learn how to live together in a different way.

The beach has been stormed, the great citadel is now—at least compared to then—peacefully occupied.

Clem Richardson ’76 is a writer, editor, teacher, and lecturer living in New York whose three decades in newspapers included jobs at The Atlanta Journal- Constitution, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Miami Herald, New York Newsday, and the New York Daily News. He is married and has three children.