Among the reasons I chose to attend Duke in 1990 was the portrait of diversity it advertised as a strength. Racism in Southwest Arkansas in the ’80s was reminiscent of a ’60s segregation that had lingered with resilience. The complicity of those who still practiced it, as well as the apathy of many victimized by it, left me cold.
I couldn’t imagine a warmer way to be welcomed than to have one of my homegirls speak at the first-year convocation. Maya Angelou was from Stamps, Arkansas (just a zip code away from Taylor, where I grew up), and I had intimate knowledge of where that voice originated: I knew the scent of chicken coops, the feel of dew on bare feet, and the taste of honeysuckle. I also knew the hardness of the seat at the outhouse in 1990, and that many townships were still segregated.
Angelou spoke to us about the value of difference, the power in understanding others, and how much of our educational experience would be about living in harmony with each other. At eighteen, I was too naïve to notice the idealistic humanism of her speech and not savvy enough to be critical of it. Catchwords like “diversity” and “empathy” still held meaning in the commitment to learning at Duke and beyond. Angelou said much of what we’d learn would come from people who look, think, and believe differently than we did. She urged us to find sameness in the differences.
The warmth of her speech would prove to be temporary. Afterward, resident advisers conducted meetings to promote “Duke’s Vision” and discuss the speech. No more than a few minutes after our first meeting began, several white students voiced anger at black students who’d “taken spots in the class” from their friends. It was said: “I came to Duke to become a doctor, not to learn about other cultures,” as if the two are mutually exclusive. These comments from friends-to-be were completely unanticipated, given the idealism broadly espoused. There were additional comments about the “homo house” Epworth and people being grateful queers were quarantined there. For one living cautiously and silently at the intersection of black and queer identities, “Duke’s Vision” was aspirational at best, cosmetic and laughable at worst.
It was immediately safer to revert to default opinions of people who were different from me. I recalled stereotypical ideas about “whitefolk” taught to me by untrusting ancestors: “They all the same...racism runs in they blood,” my grandpa once said. No white students spoke against racial intolerance; no straight students allied themselves with the one or two queer students bold enough to speak up. And I waited for them to speak, knowing there must have been someone at the meeting who was as disappointed and angry as I was, but perhaps stronger and more confident. I waited. Nothing.
So my vision of Duke was instantly transformed from an Angelouian utopia to a world of white vs. black and straight vs. gay. And the stubborn antagonism of such a dichotomy haunted my idealism until I found the courage to create the world I wanted to see at Duke. I had to realize that something stronger and more stable than a university was what I hoped to build. Hope was to be that glass house. And though I sometimes wondered whether Duke was worthy of such hope, I realized that “Duke’s Vision” had to be more of a call to action than an ideological ambition.
I initially retreated to the space defined by race, having been told all my life that the black community at predominantly white institutions served as critical primary support. I even became president of the Black Student Alliance, gaining the trust and admiration of my black peers—among them some of the most brilliant and impressive minds I would come to experience at Duke. I was the first student at race-based protests and the last to leave, and yet, even at the protests, I felt that I wasn’t fully there. There were other parts of me reduced to nothingness in spite of racial solidarity we shared. Homophobia was, ironically, among the few things about which both black and white students seemed to align.
In the middle of my first year, I’d gain a roommate while at Duke who’d challenge the disorientation I felt at Duke. Adam was a Jewish kid from Chicago with a fuzzy blond afro and incredible intellect. As different as our backgrounds were, we discovered our mutual hatred of rapper Vanilla Ice and cafeteria Jell-O early on. We were both serious students and maintained a climate of respect and support as roommates, a condition far more important than how he or I may have identified politically. Adam understood, without my ever needing to articulate it, that being poor, queer, and black created significant challenges at Duke. He provided a space where I didn’t have to deal with fear of difference, and in doing so he opened my eyes to the probability of others like him.
Because of my connection with Adam, I would find some of my most cherished friendships among students in Duke’s supposed mainstream. The isolation I felt forced me to reassess those I’d regarded as enemies or friends at face value. There was Circe: a sassy, visionary Nuyorican whose lasting friendship was rooted in sharing experiences with dating Latino men. There was Dave: a proud conservative by most measures but whose criticisms of affirmative action were quite similar to my own, even though we differed about the solution. There was Christina: an Asian woman who was relentless in her advocacy for social justice and racial harmony beyond the totalizing black/white divide. There were Todd and Jackson: two straight men I loved dearly because their proximity and friendship meant challenging the toxic masculinity that was the default for most guys. Long after “Duke’s Vision” died, there were examples of its pure intent in the relationships I formed at Duke.
These relationships were not easy to form. They required me to face a lot of fears and anticipate that people can surprise you. It’s rigorous work, but it has been critical in my achievement and leadership beyond Duke. Those who take on this “too rigorous” work continue it because we have discovered the indescribable beauty of relationships with people we may have assumed were adversaries. Our search for each other becomes a border-refuge—a welcome space where searching spirits get rejuvenated when culture war burnout sets in. It is like Maya Angelou said in her speech: “You will find poems in the faces of your friends. Look in those faces.” I would only add that poems are also owing from the tongues of many who may appear to be your enemy. And I am happy that my eye for beautiful poetry was not terribly discriminating.
West ’94 is an educator, activist, poet, and hip-hop artist. He received his A.B. from Duke in philosophy, and master’s degrees in philosophy and interdisciplinary studies at The New School in New York and Stanford University, respectively. He resides in Cincinnati, where he leads Teach For America’s LGBTQ+ Community Initiative.