My friends, I’m Dick Brodhead, and I’m the president of Duke.
This is a beautiful day, and this is a beautiful place. But we are gathered here because something ugly happened on this day and in this place. Duke is a place that is very fun and inspiring in many ways, but something happened today that was dispiriting and depressing in the extreme. You know the news as well as I do. Last night around two o’clock in the morning, a rope noose was found hanging in a tree on the Bryan Center Plaza.
Let me say a few things. One: we don’t know who did that. I hope we will know who did it, and if you have any idea who did it, I hope you will help us find out. There’s been an investigation going on since the middle of the night, and I hope it will come to a clear resolution. Two: we don’t actually know for sure what the person who did this deed had in mind. It might have been the most awful thing one could imagine; maybe somebody thought it was funny; maybe somebody had no idea what this meant to people. In my experience, when you get to the end of the story, things aren’t always exactly as you guessed.
But if there is uncertainty about how this arose, there’s no uncertainty about what that symbol meant to the audience that saw it, or why people had the response they had. A noose hanging in a tree in a Southern state of the United States is a symbol, an allusion to the history of lynching. If you don’t know the history of lynching, let’s take the chance to learn a little bit about it—and please go find out more afterward.
After the end of slavery, other ways were perfected to assure the inferiorization of the Black population in the South, even after this population had won technical legal rights. People were kept from going to equal schools; people had their voting rights repealed. At the extreme, violence was visited on Black bodies. Black people were hung from trees—that’s what a lynching was—through an extrajudicial process. This was not typically a spontaneous community act. Lynchings were often planned and advertised days in advance, and the images of the lynching were circulated widely throughout the community.
Lynching was a way of demonstrating to Black people that violence could be visited on Black bodies at any point—it was visited on some people’s actual bodies—but the circulation of that image was what was really powerful. Seeing this image gives you the message: If you are a person who belongs to a certain category of people, this could happen to you at any time. Black people were made to experience not only the denial of civil rights and of equal standing before the law; they were made to bear the psychic burden of feeling continual vulnerability on grounds of their race.
If anybody didn’t know this history, it would be good to learn it, because otherwise, you can’t explain why this image is so upsetting. This was not simply rope. This was a symbol that evoked the whole legacy of racial oppression in the segregated South. As a person, and as the president of Duke University, I find this symbol and what it symbolizes abhorrent. This university condemns the display of this symbol and repudiates the message that it gave about the kind of place this is. This university repudiates racism in all its forms, as it repudiates every other form of discrimination based on thinking of people as members of abstract categories you can treat as if they are somehow inferior to you.
It wasn’t so long ago that these things were realities in this place. If they are not now, if there’s not a contemporary history of lynching, it’s because people, actual humans, North and South, White and Black, fought and fought, decade after decade, to repudiate the world in which inequality was the law of the land—inequality before the law, inequality of rights and personhood. It was only 52 years ago that Duke accepted its first Black undergraduates. It was only 50 years ago that the Voting Rights Bill was passed in this country. Men and women worked to create a world in which people would not be marked as inferior on the basis of the prejudice and bigotry of the people who felt they had the power to do so.
We fought to make that different world. This university was created in the crucible of that struggle, and we have no intention of going back now. Somebody may think today’s image is a symbol of Duke’s present or future, but that’s not the Duke I know. That’s not the Duke I want. That’s not the Duke I’m here to help build. And as I look at the multitude—what a pleasure for me, to see one thousand faces stretching as far as I can see—you came here for the reason that you want to say, with me: This is no Duke we will accept. This is no Duke we want. This is not the Duke we’re here to experience, and this is not the Duke we’re here to create.
This would be abhorrent if it happened anywhere in the world, but there’s something especially abhorrent about it happening in a university. We who live in universities are inestimably privileged. We get to live a life where our work is to try to improve our understanding of ourselves and the world. And we’re able to do it because we have the greatest of all luxuries: the highest talent brought to us, not from the world we already know, but from every part of the human world—from every country, every race, every community, every origin—brought together so that we can teach each other and learn from each other and open our limited perspectives to benefit from the perspectives of others. But there’s a precondition to having that work successfully. For us to get the benefit of the education that a diverse community embodies, people have to make other people feel safe here. People have to make other people feel welcome here. People have to treat each other as if each other person here has just the right to be here that you do, is here for the same purposes, and is going to be part of a project of education through community.
In the wake of an incident like this, there are things for the administration to do. I do understand that. By chance I met this morning with the leaders of the Black Student Alliance—the appointment had been set up before we ever knew this would happen—and they had suggestions about ways that Orientation programs could be improved. I think those and other suggestions could be very valuable, and we’ll be looking to see how we can implement them. There is a proposal about discussions that could take place in the residential houses on campus; I think that’s a great thing. I would only echo the words of the first speaker here today: learning about our duties to an inclusive community isn’t a vaccine you get once that renders you immune forever. This is an ongoing human challenge, so we all need to keep educating and being educated about its meaning. The Duke administration is committed to work on eliminating all forms of inequality and discrimination at this university.
But I’m also going to call on you, because getting this right can never just be the work of the administration. That isn’t something you can delegate to other people to take care of. It has to be all of our work to make the community all of us want to live in. So as you would be respected, show the respect to others that you would want to receive. As you would have someone understand you, take the trouble to extend yourself to understand where that person is coming from.
Duke may seem like it’s all finished, but we’re making this place every day, and we have a choice about what kind of place we’re going to make. One person put up that noose, but a thousand people came together to say, That’s not the Duke we want, that’s not the Duke we’re here for, and that’s not the Duke we’re here to create. Thank you.