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Black History Month: Preserving Black Culture at Duke

Duke celebrates faculty members who preserve black culture through movement, sounds and words

In the decade that Chandra Guinn, director of the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, has worked at Duke, the university has celebrated firsts when it comes to black culture on campus.Among them, Duke – one of the last major universities to desegregate in 1963 – held a yearlong commemoration in 2013 of the 50th anniversary of the first black undergraduate students to matriculate at the university. “What Duke does for me daily is provide the opportunity for me to affirm my love of self and affirm my love of black people and black culture,” Guinn said. In celebration of Black History Month in February, here’s how Duke faculty members preserve black culture through words, movement and sound.


Mark Anthony Neal, pictured above, a Duke African and African American Studies professor, says he is a product of the black independent media movement of the late 1960s. He grew up in the Bronx watching Gil Noble, a TV host who examined the black experience in America, and listening to WBLS-FM, a black-owned radio station in New York.Since then, Neal started his own tradition at Duke. He interviews writers and artists for his weekly webcast series, “Left of Black,” which receives an average of 5,000 views a month. He focuses on books in African and African American studies, Caribbean studies, and others “you might not hear on an NPR interview,” he said. “There’s a way in which we kind of get caught in complaining about mainstream media and what they don’t do,” Neal said. “I’ve always come from the adage of, ‘If they’re not doing it, you can do it yourself.’”

MovementWhen Thomas DeFrantz wants to figure out what’s trending in dance moves, he looks to his 6-year-old nephew, TJ. Easy-to-learn, communal dances take hold in younger generations first, said DeFrantz, a Duke Dance Program professor who studies black social dances. The Dougie and Nae Nae, where dancers put one hand up and rock their body, are recent dances that have gone viral on the Internet. “Dance movements are almost never created in the board room or in the music studio,” DeFrantz said. “People are dancing and making music together.”


Sharing legendary music and musicians is one of John Brown’s missions as director of the Duke Jazz Program. He considers jazz to be one of the greatest gifts to the world by the black community. Jazz is heard on campus at orientation when the Duke Jazz Ensemble, directed by Brown, performs for freshmen at the Durham Performing Arts Center. During the academic year on Wednesday evenings, Brown, a Grammy-nominated bassist, and other musicians play at the Mary Lou Williams Center. “My objective is to make it so no one can pass through Duke University without being touched by jazz in some way,” Brown said. “The more we make the music accessible and visible, the more we will have the opportunity to exercise the inherent power in it.”