I am grateful for the role human rights culture played in forming me
What research are you currently working on?
I am finishing a book called Cemetery Citizens: Reclaiming Buried Pasts to Revise the Present. It is about grassroots efforts to preserve and honor cemeteries where marginalized people were buried—spaces that have been neglected and undervalued by the cities and institutions around them, sometimes even vandalized or paved over. The book is just one piece of a much larger constellation of activism, teaching, and research that are at the center of my life right now, partly with a network I co-founded called the Durham Black Burial Grounds Collaboratory.
Once this book is complete, I plan to align my lifelong love of comics with my scholarly research. I will be a student in the Sequential Artists Workshop’s one-year comics certificate program next year. I have started work on a comics project about my grandfather’s Holocaust experiences as an engraver who was forced to work in a concentration camp counterfeiting money for the Nazis. It turns out, not surprisingly, that many of his fellow prisoners were also visual artists. As I try to reimagine my own scholarship via drawing and comics, I am taking inspiration from this lineage of my grandfather and his fellow artists.
What classes do you teach this semester?
I’m teaching “Death, Burial, and Justice in the Americas,” a service-learning course. In terms of its academic scope, the class looks at attacks on the dignity, integrity, and memory of the dead in connection with case studies from the U.S., Latin America, and Canada. It highlights these forms of harm to both living and dead people, but also many forms of repair, from the repatriation of indigenous people’s remains and belongings to the activism of families of the missing and disappeared. The second half of the semester is an intense partnership with people working to reclaim African American cemeteries. This semester my students are doing oral history work with the Hamilton Hood Foundation in Georgia, and mounting an exhibit about Durham’s Geer Cemetery at the Ruby. Look for that in late April!
How do your current or past involvements intersect with human rights?
I was educated and had my first professional experiences in what I now think of as the “human rights culture” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, first in college and then at organizations such as Physicians for Human Rights. The challenge for me now is that, while all of the issues I cared about then are still of urgent importance, I don’t necessarily think the vocabulary of human rights or human rights framework have the same influence—or, frankly, the same positive connotations—with grassroots activists or students that they did at that time. Climate change has exposed just how limited our toolkit is if we frame issues too exclusively around human needs. More and more people are talking about care, interdependence, and other values for which human rights might at best serve as a kind of ground, with much more ambitious projects built atop them. This doesn’t mean human rights don’t matter, or that they don’t still influence my work. But my collaborators working in African American cemeteries, for example, are making very specific, place-based arguments about whose stories count, and what it means to care for spaces where plants, animals, and the dead have stakes in what happens—not only living humans. In a lot of ways, while I am grateful for the role human rights culture played in forming me, I have moved beyond it to incorporate many other lenses.
What made you want to be a part of the Duke Human Rights Center's Faculty Advisory Board?
Overall, I think that often faculty research, and even our teaching, shares a lot of concerns with student activism but tends to remain siloed from it in separate spheres.
The DHRC is the place I’ve found where these spheres really connect, where faculty can enrich students’ engagement with human rights and social justice issues, but are also willing to listen to students and ask: how can we support the work that you’re already doing?
I’m not a big hierarchy person, and I like the way the DHRC fosters real dialogue and partnerships between faculty and students, and of course crucially with folks outside of Duke and outside of academia entirely.
What is something you are looking forward to for human rights work at Duke this year?
I am impressed with the student leadership in many areas on campus and beyond, but am particularly following the work of the Duke Disability Alliance and the shared efforts on campus to create a minor in Health Humanities and Disability Studies. I am relatively new to these fields, but nothing has transformed my research, worldview, or sense of what is possible more than thinking about disability, and I think Duke has a long way to go on access, inclusion, visibility, and creating a permanent home for disability studies in the curriculum.
What advice would you give to current Duke undergraduate students looking to get more involved with human rights on campus?
There are just so many ways to engage… from the new Amnesty International chapter that has formed on campus to the Duke Disability Alliance and so many other groups. But if I can pull back a bit,
I would say: find a community where you can work hard on issues you care about while also finding real joy in community.
My cemetery work is with people who confront terrible erasure and grief every day, and uphill battles in precarious spaces. But they also come together to support each other, learn together, and even (dare I say it) have fun working outdoors together. The only work that’s sustainable over the long-term is work that brings you closer to others and brings you joy.