Geer Cemetary in Durham is one of many burial grounds in America that hold the remains of thousands of Black Americans from the 19th century. There are no records of the people buried there. The process of researching grounds like these as a form of reparations to descendent communities was pioneered by Michael Blakey in the African Burial Ground Project in Lower Manhattan, New York. He is currently the Director of the Institute for Historical Biology at the College of William and Mary.
On April 4, Blakey visited Duke as a guest of the Franklin Institute of Humanities, the Department of Classical Studies, the Department of International Comparative Studies, and Trinity College. In attendance to his lecture were students of Classical Studies 144: Principles of Archaeology with Alicia Jimenez, International Comparative Studies 283: Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas with Adam Rosenblatt, and several graduate students by invitation (and me). His presence was clearly highly anticipated.
I initially approached Dr. Jimenez with my interest in bioarchaeology in January as I was planning my Program II application. She invited me to this seminar, and to lunch with Blakey and the graduate students beforehand. I came prepped with questions on osteopenia and hypertrophy, as well as a map of Brightleaf Square so I wouldn’t get lost (I still got lost) and a few dollars cash for parking (they only took card).
For those of you who have ever loved the detective fiction heroine Temperance Brennan, Blakey’s work is for you. He is co-chair of the Commission for the Ethical Treatment of Human Remains through the American Anthropological Association. He was claiming the title of bioanthropologist before it was cool. He wrote a guide for the profession called Engaging Descendant Communities, or, more lovingly, The Rubric. Blakey encourages allowing those descendant communities to guide scientists’ research on human remains. He calls us Homo reminiscens, because what makes us “human” may be our affinity for memorializing our dead as much as it may be our large brains (á la Homo sapiens). “Burial is human dignity,” Blakey announced during the seminar, “Dignity is what we do.”
“Ethical code is not law. It is our greatest responsibility.”
After all, science has historically been used to justify the unjust. Bioarchaeology is a famous contributor to the field; the pseudoscience of phrenology was upheld until well into the 20th century, and was originally used as “scientific proof” that people of African descent were lesser than Europeans. It was also cited as a justification for displacing Native Americans from their lands.
During lunch, I was struck by Blakey’s cadence. He had a deep, slow voice and spoke with intention. He ordered the giant pretzel. I never asked my questions; instead, I was swept away by the group’s discussion on ethics–a topic I had no open Safari tabs on. I asked instead why a scientist would choose to guide themselves entirely by a non-expert opinion rather than scientific inquiry; would that not hinder discovery?
The scientific method, as you may recall, starts with asking a question. Rather than gracefully including descendent communities after the paper has been written, Blakey urges scientists to only pursue questions about remains that the descendants wish to answer. The science of death should never be self-serving, he noted. There is no purpose to publishing a paper if it is not in the service of the community that provided the subject. A critical reader may notice that The Rubric is not called The Gospel or The Constitution. Rather than a rule of law, it is a guideline. That’s because ethics is based on the respect of self, of craft, and of others. “Ethical code is not law,” Blakey reminds scientists. “It is our greatest responsibility.”
Geer Cemetary has been the subject of Duke research for years now, from a Story+ program to class field trips. Members of ICS, CLST, and FHHI have been in cooperation with Friends of Geer Cemetary to answer such questions about burial conditions–the attempt at dignity granted to Black residents of Durham by their descendants.
Edit: a previous version of this article had incorrectly stated that the Department of African and African American Studies sponsored Michael Blakey’s lecture.
We live in a country where 80% of both Democrats and Republicans believe that the other political party “poses a threat that if not stopped will destroy America as we know it.” Lovely.
A 2020 study found that only 3.5% of voters would avoid voting for their preferred candidate if that candidate engaged in undemocratic behavior. In 2022, 72% of surveyed Republicans said that Democrats are more immoral than other Americans, and 83% of Democrats said that Republicans are more close-minded than other Americans. Political polarization is apparently increasing faster in the U.S. than in other democracies, but Americans aren’t just divided along political lines. Other aspects of identity, like religious beliefs, can spawn discord as well. In the U.S., 70% of atheists think religious organizations “do more harm than good,” but 44% of Americans still think that you must believe in God “in order to be moral and have good values.”
Most Americans agree that polarization is a problem. But what can be done about it? The Trent Center for Bioethics, Humanities, and History of Medicine recently hosted a conversation between two people who have spent much of their careers engaging with many different beliefs and perspectives. A recording of the talk can be found here.
Molly Worthen, Ph.D., Associate Professor of History at UNC and a freelance journalist, grew up in a “secular, totally nonreligious home,” but courses she took in college made her realize that “for a huge swath of humanity, over the course of our history,” religion has helped people find meaning and community. She has explored religion extensively through her work as a historian, author, and journalist. Worthen says she has “way too risk-averse a temperament to be a full-time journalist,” but one advantage of journalism is that it provides “an excuse to ask people questions.”
Emma Green, a journalist at The New Yorker, has also covered religion in her writing and spent time engaging with people and communities who hold a wide variety of beliefs. Green believes that “the most interesting stories are often about the debates communities are having within themselves.” These debates aren’t just about religion. In communities of all kinds, people with different and often opposing beliefs navigate disagreements with their best friends, neighbors, and family members as they engage with polarizing issues and try to find ways to coexist.
The process of interviewing people with differing worldviews and beliefs can bring challenges, but both Worthen and Green have found that those challenges are not insurmountable. “If you do your homework and you really make a good-faith effort to learn where a person is coming from,” Worthen says, “they will tell you their story. They will not shut down.”
Worthen has spent time with a community of Russian Orthodox Old Believers in Alberta. It was an opportunity to make a “concerted effort to really get inside the worldview of someone very different from myself.”
Green has also spent time talking to and learning from religious communities. She published an article about Hyattsville Mennonite Church in Pennsylvania, which had been welcoming gay members for over a decade and had originally been “disciplined” by the Allegheny Mennonite Conference for its open acceptance of homosexuality. A decade later, the Conference gathered to determine whether the Hyattsville church should be allowed to rejoin the Conference or be removed from it altogether. (A third option, according to Green’s article, was to dissolve the Conference.) Green was struck by how the Mennonite community approached the dispute. They followed the formal “Robert’s Rules of Order,” but they also sang together in four-part harmony. The central dispute, Green says, was “about whether they could stay in community with one another.” Ultimately, the gay members were allowed to stay, though Green says that some people left the congregation in protest.
Polarization is a word we hear a lot, but why is it that we seem to have such a hard time finding common ground when it comes to important—or even seemingly unimportant—issues? Worthen points out that there seems to be a new survey every few years showing that “humans are generally impervious to evidence” that goes against our existing beliefs.
“Barraging a human with evidence doesn’t really work,” Worthen says. According to her, theologians and philosophers have long said that “we are depraved, irrational creatures, and the social science has finally caught up with that.”
This hesitancy to even consider evidence that conflicts with our existing beliefs has implications on public trust in science. Too often, “believing in science” takes on political implications.
According to Pew Research Center, only 13% of Republicans have “a great deal” of confidence in scientists, compared to 43% of Democrats. “Many people on the left think of the universities as belonging to them,” says Worthen, leading to a greater sense of trust in science. “There is a desire on the left to want science to line up” with their political views, Green agrees, but good science isn’t inherently aligned with a particular political party. Science involves uncertainty and “iterative self-correction,” Worthen says, but even acknowledging uncertainty can spawn controversy. And when science doesn’t perfectly align with someone’s political or ideological beliefs, it can make people uncomfortable. For instance, Worthen believes that “the retreating date of viability” for fetuses and better fetal imaging technology is “provoking… discomfort on the left” in conversations about abortion.
Similarly, evidence from evolutionary biology can be hard to reconcile with deeply held religious beliefs. Worthen describes an interview she did with Dr. Nathaniel Jeanson. He has a Ph.D. from Harvard in cell and developmental biology, but he is also a Young Earth creationist who believes the earth was created by God in six days. There are “plenty of conservative Christians who understand those days as metaphors,” Worthen says, but Jeanson takes the six-day timeframe described in the Bible literally. In Worthen’s article, she says that Jeanson “dutifully studied evolutionary biology during the day and read creationist literature at night.” One thing Worthen admired in Jeanson was his willingness to be “honest about who we are”: not very open to new evidence.
“I think very few humans are anti-science,” Worthen says. “It’s more that humans are selectively pro-science.”
It isn’t just politics that can cause people to distrust science. Green points out that people who have had frustrating experiences with traditional healthcare may look for “other pathways to achieving a sense of control.” When patients know that something is wrong, and mainstream medicine fails them in some way, they may turn to alternative treatments. “That feeling of not being understood by the people who are supposed to know better than you is actually pretty common,” Green says, and it can fuel “selective distrust.”
It can be helpful, Worthen says, for a clinician to present themselves as someone trustworthy within a larger system that some patients view as “suspect.”
Distrust in public health authorities has been a recurring theme during the Covid pandemic. Green recalls interviewing an orthodox Jewish man in New York about his community’s experiences during the pandemic. Many Orthodox Jewish communities were hit hard by Covid, and Green believes it’s important to recognize that there were many factors involved. Even well-meaning health officials often lacked the language skills to speak dialects of Yiddish and other languages, and the absence of strong, pre-existing relationships with Orthodox communities made it harder to build trust in the middle of a crisis.
Worthen spoke about vaccine hesitancy. “For most of the population who has gotten the [Covid] vaccine,” she says, “it’s not because they understand the science but because they’re willing to ‘outsource’” their health decisions to public health authorities. It is “important not to lose sight of… how much this is about trust rather than understanding empirical facts.”
Finally, both speakers discussed the impacts of social media on polarization. According to Green, “information ecosystems can develop in social media and become self-contained.” While “there are a lot of people out there who are quacks who purport to be experts,” social media has also created public health “stars” who offer advice and knowledge to a social media audience. Even that, however, can have downsides. “There isn’t a lot of space for uncertainty, which is a huge part of science,” Green says.
Worthen, meanwhile, believes that “social media is one of the main assets destroying our civilization…. I would encourage everyone to delete your accounts.”
Polarization is pervasive, dangerous, and difficult to change. “As a journalist, I basically never have answers,” Green says, but maybe learning from journalists and their efforts to understand many different perspectives can at least help us begin to ask the right questions. Learning to actually listen to each other could be a good place to start.
DURHAM, N.C. — English professor Charlotte Sussman doesn’t get much time in her role as department chair to work on her latest book project, an edited collection of essays on migration in and out of Europe.
“At least not during daylight hours,” Sussman said.
But a recent workshop brought a welcome change to that. Sussman was one of 22 faculty who gathered Dec. 13 for an end-of-semester writing retreat hosted by the Duke Faculty Write Program.
Most of them know all too well the burnout faculty and students face at the end of the semester. But for a few precious hours, they hit pause on the constant onslaught of emails, meetings, grading and other duties to work alongside fellow writers.
The participants sat elbow-to-elbow around small tables in a sunlit room at the Duke Integrative Medicine Center. Some scribbled on pads of paper; others peered over their laptops.
Each person used the time to focus on a specific writing project. Sussman aimed to tackle an introduction for her 34-essay collection. Others spent the day working on a grant application, a book chapter, a course proposal, a conference presentation.
“We have so many negative associations with writing because there’s always something more to do,” said associate professor of the practice Jennifer Ahern-Dodson, who directs the program. “I want to change the way people experience writing.”
Ahern-Dodson encouraged the group to break their projects into small, specific tasks as they worked toward their goals. It might be reading a journal article, drafting an outline, organizing some notes, even just creating or finding a file.
After a brief workshop, she kicked off a 60-minute writing session. “Now we write!” she said.
The retreat is the latest installment in a series that Ahern-Dodson has been leading for over 10 years. In a typical week, most of these scholars wouldn’t find themselves in the same room. There were faculty and administrators from fields as diverse as history, African and African American Studies, law, psychology, classics, biostatistics. New hires sitting alongside senior scholars with decades at Duke.
“I really like the diversity of the group,” said Carolyn Lee, Professor of the Practice of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies. “It’s a supportive environment without any judgement. They all have the same goal: they want to get some writing done.”
Sussman said such Faculty Write program get-togethers have been “indispensable” to bringing some of her writing projects over the finish line.
Participants say the program not only fosters productivity, but also a sense of connection and belonging. Take Cecilia Márquez, assistant professor in the Duke History Department. She joined the Duke faculty in 2019, but within months the world went into COVID-19 lockdown.
“This was my way to meet colleagues,” said Márquez, who has since started a writing group for Latinx scholars as an offshoot.
The writing retreats are free for participants, thanks to funding from the Office of the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Thompson Writing Program. Participants enjoy lunch, coaching and community in what’s normally a solitary activity.
“I appreciate the culture of collaboration,” said David Landes, who came to Duke this year as Assistant Professor of the Practice in Duke’s Thompson Writing Program. “In the humanities our work is intensely individualized.”
Retreats are one of many forms of support offered by the Faculty Write program: there are also writing groups and workshops on topics such as balancing teaching and scholarship or managing large research projects.
“One of the distinguishing features of Faculty Write is the community that extends beyond one event,” Ahern-Dodson said. “Many retreats are reunions.”
After two hours of writing, Ahern-Dodson prompted the group to take a break. Some got up to stretch or grab a snack; others stepped outside to chat or stroll through the center’s labyrinth at the edge of Duke Forest.
It’s more than just dedicated writing time, Ahern-Dodson said. It’s also “learning how to work with the time they have.”
The retreats offer tips from behavioral psychology, writing studies, and other disciplines on time management, motivation, working with reader feedback, and other topics.
As they wrap up the last writing session of the day, Ahern-Dodson talks about how to keep momentum.
“Slow-downs and writing block are normal,” Ahern-Dodson said. Maybe how you wrote before isn’t working anymore, or you’re in a rut. Perhaps you’re not sure how to move forward, or maybe writing simply feels like a slog.
“There are some things you could try to get unstuck,” Ahern-Dodson said. Consider changing up your routine: when and where you write, or how long each writing session lasts.
“Protect your writing time as you would any other meeting,” Ahern-Dodson said.
Sharing weekly goals and accomplishments with other people can help too, she added.
“Celebrate each win.”
Ultimately, Ahern-Dodson says, the focus is not on productivity but on meaning, progress and satisfaction over time.
“It’s all about building a sustainable writing practice,” she said.
How does parenting change when infant and child mortality affects every family in society? Recent history may provide an answer. For the entirety of the 19th Century, child mortality was ubiquitous. In the year 1880, nearly 35% of children born in the United States passed away in their first five years. The medical literature that explores the common diseases and public health inadequacies, though expansive, often fails to address the central humanistic questions surrounding such widespread death. How were these children mourned? How did grieving families move on? And how has this mourning changed in the context of the past hundred years of medical advancement?
Throughout the lecture, Klass guided the audience through famous portraits, poems, and prose produced in the 18th Century that memorialized children who had died at a young age. Perhaps the most famous fictional account of childhood death in the 19th century emerged in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The emotionally wrenching death scene of young Eva, who succumbed to tuberculosis, struck a chord with virtually all those who read the novel. Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin would go on to be reproduced in theaters across the country for several decades, the death scene becoming a ubiquitous anchor that often brought the audience to tears. Klass further described how Beecher Stowe drew from her personal experience, the death of her son Charlie from cholera only a few years prior to the writing of the book, to create this powerful literary scene.
Beecher Stowe was not the only author whose personal experience impacted their art. Charles Dickens, deeply impacted by the death of his children, had created a slew of sentimental yet mortal child characters in his stories. One of the most prominent examples, young Nell from “The Old Curiosity Shop,” was published in installments and developed a strong following. Dickens ended the series with the death of twelve-year old Nell, much to the outrage of international readers.
Perhaps it’s no surprise that parents chose to memorialize their deceased children through literature and art. Wealthy families would often contract famous portrait artists were often contracted to depict their dead children. Some, including the Rockefellers and the Stanfords, channeled the deaths of their children and grandchildren into resourced academic institutions.
For grief to drive philanthropy and art is not a new phenomenon, but the sources of grief that drive such artistic and financial overtures today have changed considerably. Klass sought to bridge this knowledge gap and pull closer the history to which society has the privilege of being oblivious. Maybe, even, it would even inform how we cope with the mortality of young people today.
“How do we situate ourselves in a world where infant and child mortality is so low?” Klass asked at the beginning of her presentation.
The past does not reveal one clear answer, but it does provide a tapestry of options, many lost in our modern collective memory, for mourning, for celebrating, and for memorializing.
March 2020. The subsequent blur of months. Of spring into summer, fall into winter, a year into another and likely into the next. Like millions of humans around the world, 2020 itself feels infected, as if wrapped up with yellow caution tape. Virus dominatesthe current zeitgeist; pandemic won Merriam-Webster’s 2020 word of the year; vaccine in 2021.
We are all proto-virologists, sludging through the constant slew of “viral” media: novel variants, outbreaks, booster shots, mutations (a jargon in which we’re collectively fluent).
In the somewhat-receding wake of COVID-19, like floodwater, viral fear recently surged again when the World Health Organization began reporting monkeypox (MPX) outbreaks in Europe and North America. The stigmatization of MPX patients as “disease-spreaders” (in the media, on the internet, in conversation, etc.) suggests these individuals have a kind of authority over the virulent strands of DNA in their bodies. This belief aligns with the etymology of “virus” from the Latin “poison,” a word that functions as both noun and verb. Passive and active. Culpable.
I’m reminded of Jude Law’s fear-mongering character in Contagion, Alan Krumewiede, the conspiracy theorist who conjectured MEV-1, the film’s fictional virus, was“Godzilla, King Kong, Frankenstein, all in one.”
Of course, this sentiment did not bud from MPX or COVID-19 like a novel variant. No, it has existed in the United States for decades, if not longer, and it has not been dormant.
Dr. Stephen Thrasher, a scholar of the criminalization of HIV/AIDS at Northwestern University, stood in Duke’s anthropology lecture hall this month and drew parallels between the recent MPX/COVID-19 epidemics and that of HIV/AIDS in the 1980s-90s and stretching into the new millennium. He asked us to raise our hands if we personally knew someone with HIV/AIDS. A few did. If we knew someone who had died from HIV-related causes. A few less. What about COVID? The entire audience raised hands as if to signal the new era of viral infection.
As Thrasher historicized, the stigma that encapsulated HIV/AIDS significantly delayed life-saving interventions on the local and national scale. Prejudice hindered research funding, drug distribution, and government health agency mobilization. The rising tide of the HIV/AIDS epidemic was concurrent with increased violence towards the LGBTQ community, and gay men in particular, analogous to a king tide flooding the coastline.
Thrasher exemplified this taboo through the “patient zero” misconception, which was propagated by the media during the epidemic and embedded like a splinter in pop culture’s thumb (i.e. the film Patient Zero with Matt Smith, Stanley Tucci, and Natalie Dormer).
Gaëtan Dugas, a Québécois Canadian flight attendant, was inappropriately labeled “patient zero” of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in America. As Thrasher and other researchers have debunked, Dugas was, in fact, not the first person to bring HIV to the United States. Further, Dugas was not even included in the early infection group. And Dugas was Patient O (like oh), not zero, for Out-of-State. Yet, this contextualization of the virus endures despite being disproved. Upon diagnosis, many infected individuals will experience shame.
In the 1980s and 90s, HIV/AIDS was characterized as the “gay plague,” setting ablaze a moral panic in America comparable to that of the Satanic Panic, rock ‘n’ roll, and fear of razor blades stuffed into gooey 3 Musketeers bars at Halloween (and there’s an interesting overlap in the timing of these hysterias in the collective American consciousness). And just two months ago even, many people were characterizing MPX in the same accusatory and morally dubious way.
Like with the AIDS epidemic, Thrasher said the US government failed to mobilize public health initiatives early enough to proactively stifle MPX outbreaks in spite of the disease’s well-documented diffusion across Europe and into neighboring Canada.
“We could’ve tapped the Strategic National Stockpile,” he argued. Thrasher listed multiple public health interventions that could have and should have been implemented with the first faint smoke signals of MPX in the United States (as they were in the past for meningitis and polio outbreaks).
For context, the Strategic National Stockpile (SNS) is a cache of medicines, antibiotics, and vaccines that the government started to accumulate just prior to 9/11 in 2001 and, seemingly, in an exponential manner after — almost like doomsday preppers hoarding freeze-dried beef stroganoff and cans of beans in their underground bunkers. Born from the smoking rubble and smoke of New York City following the terrorist attack, fear of biological warfare, especially the weaponization of smallpox, paralyzed the US (i.e. the Anthrax scare).
The SNS was tapped after 9/11, for 12 major hurricanes, COVID-19, and the swine flu (to name a few), but not for monkeypox.
As historically evidenced, mass vaccination and herd immunity effectively prevent the spread of viral infections, especially for slow-mutating viruses like MPX.
“We should have quickly vaccinated queer men and transmasc people,” Thrasher said, “building on a very historic anomaly which is that adults have been socialized to take vaccines en masse in a way that has not happened in many decades.” And because MPX and smallpox are closely related viruses, a rollout of the stockpile’s smallpox vaccine could have nipped the outbreak in the bud.
A large focus of Thrasher’s research is on who is affected by viruses, and how, and why. Nearing 6.6 million COVID-19 deaths worldwide, many would argue that viruses — these ancient, non-life forms — are Earth’s “great equalizers,” as acknowledged by Thrasher in multiple publications. Evolution has pushed them to infect, replicate, and spread: machine-like and non-discriminatory.
But, he added, viruses are not great equalizers. Infection is inherently unequal. Again, we must ask the question who?
Viral infections disproportionately burden marginalized bodies and communities, a concept Thrasher framed as the viral underclass (coined by activist Sean Strub and reshaped by Thrasher to describe this phenomenon). Writing in his book of the same name, “… the viral underclass can help us think about how and why marginalized populations are subjected to increased harms of viral transmission, exposure, replication, and death.”
Let’s return to the MPX vaccine. The Biden administration did not tap the SNS for mass vaccination. Instead, it rolled out meager health interventions at a snail’s pace (like Sisyphus pushing his stone up the hill). Still, many at-risk individuals, in particular men who have sex with men, opted to receive a two-shot regimen to protect themselves from the virus. Considering the viral underclass, Thrasher posed the following questions:
Who is disproportionately burdened by MPX in the US? He answered, “Black and Latino men who have sex with men.”
And his years of HIV research corroborate this trend.
He spoke (and wrote in The Viral Underclass) about his time reporting the Michael Johnson court case in St. Louis, Missouri. Michael Johnson, a black, gay, former college wrestler, was sentenced to 30 years in prison after failing to disclose his HIV status to his sexual partners — a criminal offense. The prosecution had sought a maximum 60.5 years, practically a life sentence.
For context, in the state of North Carolina, the maximum sentence for voluntary manslaughter is a little under five and a half years. In the courtroom, Thrasher was privy to the prosecution’s smoking gun: Johnson had previously signed a legally-binding acknowledgment of his HIV diagnosis. With the flick of a pen, nondisclosure was a criminal offense.
In his interviews, however, Thrasher found that Michael Johnson was semi-illiterate and had not been properly informed of the legal implications of the document he had signed. Nor had he been informed of the consequences of breaking the legal contract. Nor had he been counseled or given any legal advice prior to being charged.
Michael Johnson was released from prison 25 years early after his ruling was overturned. His is a body in the viral underclass.
Concluding his lecture, Thrasher quoted AIDS activist Vito Russo’s Why We Fight speech from the 1988 ACT UP Demonstration at the Department of Health and Human Services. In reading the entire transcript, I found that Russo was aware of the viral underclass, as Thrasher theorized, despite the term not yet existing in the academic ethos. He said in his address:
“If I’m dying from anything — I’m dying from the fact that not enough rich, white, heterosexual men have gotten AIDS…. Living with AIDS in this country is like living in the twilight zone. Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you’ve lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn’t happening to them.”
Is it possible to ever resolve the viral underclass in the US? As long as systemic inequities continue to exist, no. This may seem pessimistic or even cynical, but Thrasher concluded his lecture (and his book) with reserved optimism. “Let’s get to work,” he implored.
If we can identify and actively dismantle the systems that disproportionately burden certain populations with viruses and diseases, like a spool of yarn, we can begin to unravel the viral underclass in America.
Yes, infections should be treated with accessible and affordable medicine. Yes, healthcare should be expanded. Yes, we should continue to improve the efficacy of drugs and diagnostics. But, health interventions alone do not cure communities of disease.
Thrasher found that marginalized bodies will continue to be infected, in spite of medicinal intervention, if the inequities from which the viral underclass emerge are not concurrently cured. Let’s get to work.
This is part one of a two-part series; next week we will dive into the nitty-gritty of biblical research, but for now, we’re focusing on what biblical research is and why it matters.
To the uninitiated, “biblical research” might not conjure up images of dancing, or analyzing films, or studying engineering. But meet Maximillion Whelan. A third-year M.Div. student at Duke, Whelan runs a website for film aficionados focusing on analyzing movie scenes and was recently published in Quarterly Review of Film and Video for an article on theology and film. He notes: “Biblical research sheds light on how everyday activities effectively shape history and are also shaped by history. By “zooming in,” delving into the details and contexts, biblical research enables us to simultaneously “zoom out” – to see what things we are taking for granted, where our readings have led us, and how we take our readings into other spheres of life.”
Or take Divinity School student Nicole Kallson. She is pursuing a Master’s of Theological Studies with a Certificate in Theology and the Arts.
“As a theologian and dancer, I use my background in dance to assist my understanding of the Bible.” Kallson explains. “I tend to focus on ideas of embodiment, beauty, and inter- and intra- personal relationships.”
Both students—along with countless other Blue Devils and other mascot identities—use their studies as a lens through which to examine themselves and their passions. And isn’t that what we emphasize so clearly at Duke—the interdisciplinary, interpersonal, interfaith, international, interwoven identities of people, places, and things? Is that not what research is all about in the end? Perhaps the purpose of biblical research is not as foreign to us as we may think at first.
Degree-seekers may come from expertise in literature, classical studies, practical faith, or other backgrounds that may easily come to mind. But they also come from natural sciences, physical sciences, political science, art and media studies, creative writing, engineering, medicine, sociology, public policy, economics, and so much more. And each of these students is applying their research and understanding of the Bible to their understanding of the world at large, seeking to become better, more intentional academics in the process.
The new Dean of Duke Divinity School was born and raised in Puerto Rico; he has prayed with Pope Francis and presented him with writings on interfaith dialogues. He also has Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.
“It might seem odd to have a series focused on the Bible as a banned book, given that it’s the most polished book in history,” he opened. He gave an example further; for a time in recent Guatemalan history, possession of the Bible was persecuted as a means of targeting perceived Communist empathizers. Even within Christain communities, he explains, there has been discourse among devotees of certain translations and versions—not all of them amenable.
The event also featured Brent Strawn of the Duke Divinity School and Jennifer Knust from Trinity College of Arts & Sciences Department of Religious Studies.
“The survival of the New Testament as a text and a collection is a theological and practical achievement,” noted Knust. “It is repeatedly refreshed in response to new circumstances, even as remains of past approaches continue to shape what can happen next.”
It is because of the differing opinions of so many people over such a long time that we have different faiths, and biblical research uses the lens of Christianity to evaluate that phenomenon.
Knust continues: “Today we know that there are over 5,000 manuscript copies of the New Testament, none of which are identical in every particular.”
She herself was a member of the board of the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition—the most recent scholarly translation of the Bible, published in 2021. She elaborated on her feelings on the dynamics and fluidity of the text, describing a constant push and pull of desire and tradition. Perhaps researchers, in the present, past, or future, may desire to change words, meanings, or uses of the Bible, but they are contradicted by a tradition dictated by the populous.
Biblical research seeks to answer questions about the Bible— and by extension, the fruitfulness of humanity. The sustainability of religious texts of all kinds is a testament (pun intended) to the success of human minds compounded over thousands of years.
On this PeopleMover-style tour of biblical research, I hope we’ve taken away some key points:
Firstly, the work of many biblical researchers is deeply personal. We’ve discovered through this that the work of any researcher in any field has the potential to be deeply personal.
Additionally, we learned that the interdisciplinary reach of biblical studies works inversely; students may turn to biblical research from other subjects to enhance their work, or they may even turn to other subjects to enhance their work in biblical research.
And finally, we arrive at our destination; next week we’ll talk more in-depth about what biblical research entails and meet some key players in those conversations.
With the never-ending news of schools banning books, one has to ask about the history and effectiveness of banned books. Fortunately, the Duke Forever Learning Institute hosted a seminar on the history of banned books in late September and provided examples that showed the ineffectiveness of banned books throughout time.
There was one particular story, however, that caught my eye, and that was the retelling of the history behind a banned book written by a man named Gottschalk. Clare Woods, an associate professor of Classical Studies at Duke, delineated the narrative of Gottschalk’s life from birth to prisoner.
Gottschalk was born to an aristocratic family around 803 AD and started his academic career when he moved into Fulder, a monastery, to become a monk. However, in 829 AD, Gottschalk left Fulder for reasons based either on the loss of his older brother or the enlightenment he received from the monastery he attended while studying abroad.
Upon leaving Fulder, Gottschalk studied at the monasteries of Corby and then moved to northern Italy after he received his orientation as a priest. Gottschalk was unusual because monks tended not to move around that much, and monks also tended not to speak about their studies on heretical doctrine. Unfortunately for Gottschalk, he ignored the criticisms from other monks and instead grew confident in his studies to the point where he wrote a book about them.
While receiving hate for his ideas from multiple people, one man from Gottschalk’s past was truly adamant about having Gottschalk punished. This man was named Rabbanis, and he was accused by Gottschalk of coercing Gottschalk’s earlier career as a monk. From that, and with Gottschalk leaving the Fulder, Rabbanis developed a personal vendetta against Gottschalk.
Gottschalk, the confident man he was, decided to defend himself at a Synod in Mainz, but it proved unsuccessful because he was condemned by the Synod and banned from the Kingdom of Louis. From there on, things did not improve for Gottschalk because, in the following year, he was brought to a second Synod that was attended by King Charles, who was the brother of King Louis the German. By the end of this Synod, Gottschalk was stripped of his priesthood, sentenced to silence, and imprisoned.
However, even with the punishments Gottschalk personally received and his books being burned, his books were still preserved and influential on others.
This influence seen with Gottschalk’s books after being banned was not an anomaly because that was seen with all banned books throughout history.
Another example was given by Lauren Ginsberg, an associate professor of classical studies, who presented Permussius Cordis, an author who lived under the Roman emperor Tiberius in the 1st century AD.
His story ended in tragedy since his books were included in a mass book burning and he was sentenced to death. However, his book still was able to influence the Roman population due to his daughter Marsha’s vigilance in keeping her father’s book alive.
While I only provided two examples, this pattern of books withstanding their ban is throughout time, and it is being repeated in the present. Across this country, book banning is back in style. In 2018, there were only 347 books that schools formally challenged, but in 2021 it became 1,500.
While this does put light on our current education system in this country, this is simply a gesture. It does make us think about what children will be learning in schools, but because the books are banned in schools does not mean the information within those books will not reach their target demographic. As seen in history, knowledge always finds a way of spreading, but of course, that is dependent on those who want to expand that knowledge.
At the end of this article, I hope you are reassured that seeing a banned book does not mean it is forever silenced. Instead, I hope that by reading this, you understand that you have all the power to ensure that the words within a book can withstand anything, including time.
Post by Jakaiyah Franklin, Class of 2025
Citation: Freedman, Samuel G. “A Display of Banned or Censored Books at a Bookstore Last October. Over a Recent 9 Month Period More than 1,500 Books Have Been Banned in Schools, Most Featuring Nonwhite Protagonists, Dealing with Racism, or Addressing the LGBTQ Experience.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 27 June 2022, https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-06-27/book-bans-critical-race-theory-wisconsin. Accessed 10 Oct. 2022.
An effortlessly simple research platform where Duke students and Duke research projects can connect? Yes, please!
If you are anything like me, Duke University’s incredible research opportunities were extremely enticing when considering this school. One of the top 10 research institutions in the United States, Duke University’s research community spends over 1 billion dollars annually to fund its projects, which includes notable research facilities like the Duke Center for Human Genetics, the Duke Cancer Institute, the Duke Center for AIDS Research, and the Duke Human Vaccine Institute.
However, the amount of opportunity in this area can be overwhelming to approach, and as a student you often have no clue where to start.
That’s where Muser comes in.
Muser is a website created by Sheila Patek, a Duke biology professor who used grant money from the National Science Foundation to create a more equitable and straightforward way to connect undergraduates with professors with research opportunities. The resource allows researchers to post ongoing research positions with a direct application through the website.
Muser can sort research projects by compensation, hours, year, and project category, simplifying Duke’s incredibly complex research community by a lot.
“Muser posts research projects in 4 rounds throughout the year, a Fall round (August), a late Fall round for Spring projects (October/November), a Spring round for Summer projects (February/March), and a Spring round for Fall projects (March/April),” according to its website. Muser makes it easy to accommodate research positions into the part of your semester that works with your busy schedule.
I connected with some Duke students who have found success with the growing research platform, and though their interests were diverse, the success was all-encompassing.
“My experience with my Muser Project for the summer of 2021 was great overall,” said Elaijah Lapay, class of 2025. “It was essentially a history research assistantship helping a professor in the history department conduct research on elderly and eldercare in North Carolina. I was able to go to the NC State archives as well as archives across eastern North Carolina to really dive into the question of treatment of the elderly during the 20th century.”
Lapay’s research is so fruitful that the professor, James Chappel, the Gilhuly Family Associate Professor of History, is continuing to pursue this project for the rest of the school year. “I truly felt one-of-a-kind… I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot and it’s sparked a passion in me for geriatrics and eldercare.”
“I got the chance to work in the Sanders lab under principal investigator Dr. Laurie Sanders and post-doctorate Dr.Claudia Gonzalez-Hunt!” said Shreya Goel, class of 2025. This lab was the first to link a genetic mutation to mitochondrial DNA damage which was ultimately discovered to be a marker for sporadic Parkinson’s disease.
“I get to work with human cells to induce and track mitochondrial and nuclear DNA mutations to determine their effect on the progression of the cell cycle,” Goel said. Her research position is making a difference and it allows her to gain tangible experience in a field she is passionate about.
The success stories are copious, and the opportunity that this platform has brought to prodigious students like these is without question.
At a billion-dollar research school, understanding where to begin can be intimidating. Muser alleviates these worries by connecting researchers and students through an accessible platform.
Have more questions? Visit Muser’s FAQ page to get more information and get into contact with one of Muser’s staff.
As conversations about the energy transition away from fossil fuels become increasingly important (and time-sensitive), some experts in environmental policy aren’t just worried about the conversations themselves. They’re worried about who has a seat at the table — and who doesn’t.
On November 8, at “Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition,” a few of these experts — Sherri White-Williamson, Environmental Justice Policy Director at the NC Conservation Network; Josh McClenney, the North Carolina Field Coordinator at Appalachian Voices; and J. Spenser Darden, the Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy — spoke about this and other issues. Thomas Klug, a Research Associate at the Duke Energy Access Project, moderated the panel, which was put together by the Sanford Energy & Environment Club.
Klug asked the panelists to define what a “just transition” really means in the context of the panelists’ work, and whether it differs from a diverse and inclusive transition.
McClenney answered that a just transition entails recognizing that Black, brown, and indigenous communities, as well as low socio-economic status individuals, have historically faced the worst effects of fossil fuel economies. Living in the “physical and economic traction zones,” they’re the ones that lose jobs — like coal miners, in the case of McClenney’s work with Appalachian Voices.
However, where a diverse and inclusive transition involves “getting people to the table,” just policies will actually reflect the conversations had at the table. An unjust transition, McClenney said, is one where “people clap themselves on the back for doing such a great job having these diverse, inclusive discussions — then make policies that work against their participants.” Ensuring inclusion for communities that have historically been excluded is important, but it’s equally important to make sure the resulting policies are actually inclusive.
White-Williams agreed with McClenney — inclusion should never end at “checking the box.” The goal should be to incorporate the input of marginalized voices into resulting policy. White-Williams also added that fairness, while not necessarily guaranteed by diversity and inclusivity, is a key part of a just energy transition.
Spenser stressed the need to move away from “extractive, colonial” ways of thinking about energy and who makes up society, and to instead incorporate indigenous ways of thinking. He stated that diversity and inclusion is reactive: people realize flaws in the way they’ve built something and try to address it later by incorporating new elements. A just system, on the other hand, is built to be “for and by” communities that have been excluded from the very start.
Klug asked the panelists to recount some of the ways they’ve seen organizations, utilities, and decision makers putting the processes required for a just transition into practice.
McClenney spoke of revelations from the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020. Preventing utility shutoffs became critically important: people were losing jobs or forced to stay at home. They couldn’t come up with the money to pay their utility bills. While fighting utility shutoffs with Appalachian Voices, he saw a group of Knoxville organizations, including Knoxville Water and Energy for All, bringing attention to the fact that the shutoffs were not just a COVID problem. For some Black and brown communities, McClenney said, “keeping the lights on had always been an issue.” These grassroot groups’ advocacy expanded beyond the pandemic: they wanted energy and water recognized as human rights.
White-Williams cited a major concern with Biden’s policies: they don’t give enough attention to rural issues. In Sampson county here in North Carolina, massive hog farms overwhelmingly surround communities of color. North Carolina’s new Farm Act will allow Smithfield Foods to build a system to trap methane from hog waste to be processed and eventually used as renewable electricity. But residents living near hog farms already experience toxic water, unbearable stench, and heightened risk of other diseases, and this system would likely make the problem even worse. It’s a textbook example of an unjust energy transition. That’s why environmental and civil rights organizations have asked the EPA to intervene — to no avail, at least thus far. (White-Williams is featured in this article about the current state of affairs.) “Rural America is suffering,” White-Williams said. She wants to see federal agencies using their power to ensure a just energy transition.
McClenney echoed White-Williams’ concern about hog farms, adding that deaths have resulted from providing workers with limited information about the conditions they would be working in — especially those who don’t speak English and whose undocumented status puts them in a vulnerable position.
On a different note, he thinks Biden’s expansions to Broadband and clean water are a step in the right direction. He stated that with North Carolina’s House Bill 951, which requires the Utilities Commission to cut emissions by 70% by 2030 (even more ambitious than Biden’s executive order, which seeks to cut US emissions in half by 2030), “there are opportunities right now to effect positive change — we just have to do a good job.” It’s about how we get to that carbon reduction goal.
Klug asked how people at universities — faculty, students, and staff alike — can contribute to this work in policy and in advocacy.
White-Williams told the audience to recognize that “having a degree does not make you an expert when you walk into these communities.” Community members have lived experience: they can tell policymakers and activists what they need, not the other way around. Change should be a partnership, and so should research: “Academics have a research question before they’ve even spoken to anyone.” Instead, “listen and learn from the people who have been there all their lives.”
Spenser invited the audience to think about “who the real experts are” in unique and different ways. Institutions like Duke are often separate from the communities they inhabit, serving as a sort of beacon on the hill. “We need to invert this paradigm,” he said.
McClenney added to Spenser’s criticism of schools like Duke, who “throw food out every day and hold dorm rooms empty during the summer while people go hungry and unhoused.” What’s needed is a fundamental reimagination of the university’s relationship to the community it inhabits. He also added to White-Williams’ point about research: it can be merely “another type of extraction” if not carried out in a just manner.
Klug asked the panelists whether we need to assess the impacts of energy policy differently through the lens of research.
McClenney flagged the words “affordability” and “reliability” in energy research, asking the audience to consider who that applies to. Affordability is not just about how rates compare to New York City or California, but whether someone has to forego insulin or go hungry in order to make a payment. By thinking through these words and what they really mean, we can “begin to understand impacts on a deeper level.”
Spenser implored researchers to use an intersectional lens: instead of considering economic impact and efficiency in isolation, to consider the way in which policies “contribute or ameliorate historic disparities.” In order to truly measure impact, efficacy, and outcome, researchers must be “historically aware and community invested.”
White-Williams agreed with McClenney and Spenser, asking researchers to consider whether policies are a “band-aid or a true fix.” She cited North Carolina’s Weatherization Assistance Program, which allocates tens of millions of dollars toward fixing “patched-up” homes that may have serious underlying problems. She wonders whether it may be better to simply spend the money on programs to place people in housing that is “actually livable.”
Klug opened the panel to questions. One audience member asked the panelists what concrete steps they recommend in order to “harness the power of diversity.”
White-Williams reiterated the importance of working with impacted communities, stressing the need for local leaders who can serve as experts on the needs of the community. Elected officials might “sacrifice the needs of these communities for some other interest,” but local advocates can apply pressure where needed.
Spenser pushed back on the question, stating that instead of urgency and speed, “we need to commit to a longer process” — honoring historical legacies and “spending time helping people understand what the conversation is.”
In their battle for survival, they are “realigning their priorities in ways that favor audiences who are willing to pay.” And those who are willing to pay tend to be rich, white, and politically blue.
On November 3, as part of the DeWitt Wallace Center’s Fall 2021 Information Inequalities Speaker Series, author and University of Illinois associate professor Nikki Usher discussed her new bookNews for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism.
Usher began by explaining that as newspapers face “market failure,” only non-geographical news is in a position to survive. As news becomes a private good (The Washington Post, The Atlantic, and The New York Times come to mind), the result is inconsistent and unequal access to news.
According to Usher, 1800 local communities lack any regular access to local news. Usher stated that political consequences result when news organizations pull back from places that don’t exhibit that aforementioned willingness to pay.
She gave an example of one such consequence: many journalists had their “heads in the sand” about the rising tides of populism in rural America. As a result, they were blindsided when Trump won the election. But the win simply revealed what had been the case all along.
The New York Times editor Dean Baquet acknowledged this after the election: “We’ve got to do a much better job of being on the road, out in the country… and remind ourselves that New York is not the real world.”
Usher said that another consequence of the delocalization of news is reduced trust: only 11% of Republicans say they trust the media a great deal or a fair amount. Additionally, when places lose news, they grow more polarized, with reductions in split-ticket voting.
Usher said that she practices a kind of “gestalt scholarship,” employing the tools of ethnography and lived experience as well as quantitative data. She dipped into this side of her research, recounting a few anecdotes which represent the “materiality” of the loss of local news.
In 2018, the LA Times moved from its Downtown home, near Skid Row, to El Segundo. The move was not without controversy. In a 2018 editorial, an anonymous author wrote that “location matters, on both a physical and symbolic level, and… moving the headquarters far away from the local power base and the most important entities and stories the Times covers… is the wrong choice.”
Usher then stated that newsrooms are “places of power” that are becoming “increasingly inhospitable places for those who are non-white and who lack financial resources.”
In June 2020, The Philadelphia Inquirer’s top editor resigned after the publication of an article with the headline “Buildings Matter, Too,” led to a walkout by dozens of staff members. At the LA Times, Latinx journalists penned an open letter drawing attention to the fact that its 13% Latinx newsroom does not reflect its nearly 50% Latinx community. In Detroit, the disparity is even worse: an 80% Black population is served by a newsroom that is only 14% Black.
In 1968, the Kerner Commission put down a series of recommendations to improve diversity, noting that the journalistic profession was “shockingly backward” in its absence of Black journalists. The American Society of News Editors set a target date for newsrooms to be at parity with the populations they represented: 2000. They’ve since pushed the deadline to 2025.
It’s not looking good. That’s because, according to Usher, newsrooms aren’t hiring, and “when newsrooms don’t hire, they don’t hire minority journalists.”
Usher also touched on the “death of the working class reporter.” Increasingly, the only young people who are not deterred by journalism’s instability and lack of lucrativity are those who come from copious amounts of privilege. Add this to the inability of poorer students to pursue resume-building journalism activities alongside work-study jobs, and the preference of news outlets for the oft-wealthy students of elite universities, and one can see why “journalism is becoming a profession for the elite.”
Usher said that when “newsrooms become bastions of privilege, [that’s] bad news.” Losing journalists who come from blue-collar backgrounds means losing the ability to “empathize” with a whole set of experiences.
Usher said that as news revenue goes increasingly digital, reliance on those willing to pay is even more pronounced, with “consequences for equity in access and geographically specific news coverage.” She referenced The New York Times, whose rise “mirrors the rise in inequality” of access to news. “They know they’re leaving people behind,” Usher said. She quoted Dean Baquet, who acknowledged that 98% of Americans “were now excluded from The New York Times’ journalism and might well have to do with substandard information.”
Usher also discussed “Goldilock newspapers” — not too big, not too small, but just right for survival according to the “upside-down logic” of digital advertising. The problem is that, as Mike Wilson of the Dallas Morning News put it, “the pursuit of digital subscriptions has honed our focus on what we’re covering” — sometimes to the detriment of local readers. As a result of this phenomenon, Usher has seen reduced coverage in places considered too low-income to get advertisers. In one instance, she saw a dismissal of concerns about ad- and malware clunking up the computers of those with inferior Internet access because “those people are less likely to subscribe anyway.”
Where does this leave us? Usher identified a few potential solutions. She reiterated calls for more inclusive newsrooms, and added her own call for higher-ed financial aid reform so that lower-income students can have a fighting chance at pursuing journalism. She discussed the need for a “post newspaper consciousness” — to acknowledge that we cannot save the newspaper, but we can identify what journalism does best and save those “special parts.”
She left the audience with a final recommendation: journalism should “embrace the partisan media system.” Usher clarified her position: the news media like The New York Times “hides behind a veil of neutrality,” when this is only an (unconvincing) illusion. “People want to see them advocate for social justice,” she said, and she agrees. Usher doesn’t think polarization is inherently bad “if it’s polarization toward social justice and breaking down systemic inequality.”
“There’s no use assuaging people who have given up and aren’t listening. And then you have lots of people unsubscribing because the phony neutrality was irritating them,” Usher said. For organizations like the Times, the veil of neutrality is looking like a lose-lose.
She advised them to “go for those who are still listening. And just own it.”