English professor makes a meandering return to campus

February 7, 2018

Gazing out at the titian leaves of Duke Forest, Professor Taylor Black and his aunt, Jean Black Carden, recline on her back porch and reminisce about their family’s five-decade connection to the university.

Carden began as a secretary at Duke Regional Hospital Auxiliary in 1965 and worked her way up to director over her thirty-five-year career. She gave Black’s father, her little brother, a job running the snack bar at the hospital one summer. Black’s mom occasionally worked temporary jobs in the auxiliary. And Black’s grandmother worked at the hospital gift shop.

At six, his parents moved their family out of the city, but Black returned every summer to visit his grandmother and ride the tram with her to work at the hospital. The stockroom for the gift shop was next to the morgue, so the smell of formaldehyde lingers in his memories of Duke’s campus.

“I’d usually wander off during the day over to West Campus, where I’d go and sit in the chapel,” Black recalls. “Then I’d go to the Bryan Center, which seemed huge and fancy to me then, and down to the Duke Barber Shop, which was run by a family friend, Mr. [David] Fowler, who cut my dad’s and uncle’s hair.”

Now, after more than twenty years away, Black has returned to Durham and to Duke as an assistant professor of English.

“The campus doesn’t feel as big as it did when I was six years old,” he wryly notes.

Black found out he got the job last March, minutes after landing on the tarmac at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. He was back in North Carolina visiting family during spring break at New York University, where he was working. After the phone call from Sarah Beckwith, the chair of the English department, telling him he got the job, he immediately drove to Durham to tell Aunt Jean the good news in person.

“She was the first person to know,” Black says. “Actually, the second. I called my mom first.”

For Black, who was born at Durham General Hospital, it was a meandering return to the Bull City.

After graduating from R.J. Reynolds High School, where he was the president of the theater club, Black started at UNC-Asheville. But Asheville felt too small for him, so, in January 2002, he dropped out and moved to New York with just a duffel bag and a guitar. There he worked for Greenpeace for two years soliciting donations on the street. He enrolled at Hunter College, where he got a bachelor’s degree and focused on black studies, then later earned his Ph.D. in American studies from Rutgers University.

“Growing up in the South, if I wasn’t an academic, I could have very easily been a preacher,” Black says. “Because I can get very evangelical about my figures.”

Black writes on, among other things, stylist Quentin Crisp and authors Edgar Allan Poe and Flannery O’Connor. He is interested in “style,” which Crisp defines as “being yourself, but on purpose.”

“I’m really devoted to the figures I write about,” Black says. “Unkind people might say that I’m a bit fatuous, but I might say that I look at what I love.”

This semester, he is teaching a course about Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.

“I’ve been gone from North Carolina since I was eighteen years old, so it’s great to actually be around my family again,” he says. “And it’s really cool to have that small-town experience of being able to just invite them to come to things on campus.”