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Class of 2023 Summer Reading Experience Essay Contest Winners!

This past week, the Duke University Honor Council selected several winners for the annual Summer Reading Contest. Three winners, one first-place and two runner-ups, were chosen from over 50 applicants. The contest required each applicant to submit an essay based upon the First Year Experience book, There There by Tommy Orange, which was selected by the University. Each first-year student receives a copy of this book and is encouraged to read and reflect on its messages before arriving to campus.

This year, Honor Council challenged students to answer the following prompt: There There details historical narratives from a variety of perspectives. How do we prioritize certain histories at Duke and how do you approach your own communities’ historical narratives to ensure a deeper understanding of the stories presented to us? Essays may draw upon the book, historical examples, or personal experience, and should be between 500-700 words.

Congratulations to Lily Levin, this year's contest winner, and to Julian Stebbins-Sharpless, our runner up and Quinn Smith, this year's second runner-up! Here are the winning essays:

Lily Levin- Winner


From the moment in which we breathe our first breath to the hour in which we sloppily articulate our first words to the day in which we cease to breathe and articulate, our lives are recorded, replayed, reshuffled through the art of storytelling. We’re inundated with the ever-present humdrum of our mere existence; the only way to distinguish what is from what isn’t lies in our ability to tell the genuine, the lived—the felt. So—at Duke, in our communities, within every interaction—to effectively approach narratives, we must expose the rarely-communicated, emphasize fluidity in our encounters, and paint with nuanced shades of grey.

The rarely-told lies within the cracks of our chiseled walls, the shadows unreached by our light, the drawing-out of our vulnerability. We cannot approach the raw, painful, anti-revisionist past without acknowledging the limitations of our understanding. In There, There, Tommy Orange provides a basic background of Native American genocide, assuming that we do not know, but that we can be taught. He writes, “Thanksgivings like these happened everywhere, whenever there were what we have to call 'successful massacres'" (5). Orange matter-of-factly dismantles glamorized narratives surrounding Thanksgiving, generating a deeper understanding of America’s genocidal history. At Duke, we can follow Orange’s example by advocating for exponentially more Indigenous Studies courses (currently, our only related class is “American Indians until 1815”) and providing comprehensive anti-racism training. In short, Duke must take advantage of opportunities presented within higher education and we, as humans, must break past the confines of our peripheral vision.

Because it is fermented in our souls, in our ever-changing consciousness, fluidity is a vital aspect of approaching stories. Orange approaches fluidity through a character, Dene Oxedene, who attempts to quantify his Indigenous heritage. “Our ancestors fought to stay alive, so some parts of their blood went together with another Nation’s and made children...forget them even as they live on in us” (150)? Oxedene phrases this statement as if it is a question, one of the immutable unknown. One thing is certain: blood fluidity equals racial fluidity equals human fluidity. Orange deconstructs America’s predisposition toward race, toward anti-fluidity, all measured by pints of blood and half-gallons of skin pigmentation. We’ve allowed—no, celebrated—a legal system that once quantified Black people as three-fifths human. We grant those incarcerated who’ve committed felonies humanity in census-taking but not in vote-casting. And so we are hypocritical determined to enumerate the intangible. No body can be constructed with three out of four quarts of needed blood.

The most important aspect of approaching storytelling, however, is correctly analyzing the subtle greys in which the words are illustrated. Orange underscores this perspective: “A Cheyenne word: Veho. It means spider and trickster and white man” (169); “spiders carry miles of web in their bodies, miles of story, miles of potential home and trap” (163). Orange manipulates the word “spider”: spiders are equally story as they are trickster; equally home as they are white man. He asks if white man equals home and therefore poses a premeditated question: what does home mean?

I challenge myself to approach narratives with a similar degree of intention. I am a white Jewish cisgender woman; I must constantly evaluate myself and expand my worldview. My home is comfortable; my friends in Duplin County, North Carolina—one hour driving-distance from this home—are neighbors to the environmentally-racist hog industry. The hog waste runoff following Hurricane Florence prevented their homes from accessing potable water for four months. I fiercely advocated for them to speak at an activism summit I’d helped plan; in that setting, their voices were infinitely more important than mine. I, and we collectively, cannot merely approach new stories differently; we must live them differently. Veho means spider and white man and trickster, and spiders weave webs but they also weave traps. And sometimes they weave both at once.

Approaching storytelling to ensure a deep understanding of narratives is a difficult concept because storytelling, by its own right, is difficult. But when one glances harder at this three-part formula, perhaps everything becomes a little bit easier, because Veho means spider and spiders are made of blood and blood contextualizes history. And history is the story of humankind.

Julian Stebbins-Sharpless- Runner-Up

Knowing Your Place

In pursuit of a more equitable future, Duke University has recently acknowledged past missteps and taken actions to remedy them. The campus’s current ideology is reflected in the recognition of the black architect, Julian F Abele, who designed Duke’s iconic gothic campus three decades before the admittance of people of color. At a 2016 ceremony, Abele was finally immortalized when the central West campus quad was renamed in his honor, in hopes that the celebration “of black excellence [would] propel African-American students forward with a feeling of ownership of the place.” The ceremony encapsulated Duke’s efforts to honor the once ignored history and achievements of minorities within its diverse community. From exhibits at the Nasher museum to student led performances, such as Awaaz, and Jabulani, celebrations of the unique cultures, art, and traditions at Duke are part of a conscious effort to prioritize and protect the gallimaufry of diversity on-campus.

While these values are ubiquitous throughout Duke’s community, off-campus is a different story. Being Durham’s largest employer and landowner, Duke could help integrate their philosophy into the surrounding community, whose unique culture is gravely endangered. A recent wave of gentrification has lead to an astounding eviction rate in Durham: one in twenty-eight residents received eviction notices in 2016, particularly in East Durham surrounding the historically black Hayti community. To some degree, this is driven by the relative affluence of Duke students as the median income for our families is three times higher than that of Durham county’s. If students begin to view Durham as more than Duke’s location, a healthy dialogue could arise regarding how we can help the city remain culturally unique. Of the 3697 courses on the course request list only six focus on Durham, and it is my belief that if a class on Durham’s culture were mandatory, students would start to view Durham, not campus, as home.

Similar to Duke, my hometown still deals with its complicated past. I never observed overtly racist sentiments from my fourth grade teacher and future soccer coach; he valued all students equally, and coached with the same philosophy. However, he used the stories of confederate soldiers John Pelham, a seventeen year old officer renowned for his unflinching bravery, and Richard Rowland Kirkland, the “angel of Marye’s heights,” to “energize” us before soccer games. They never hit home and always felt weirdly out of touch. While their names were drilled into my head, I knew little of the 12,000 plus slaves who lived, died and suffered in Fredericksburg and the surrounding countryside. I believe such a skewed knowledge of history leads at best to well intended yet ignorant actions. At its worst, it exacerbates underlying racist sentiments, like those of the “heritage not hate” group who try to legitimatize the history of the confederate states.

When discussions arose regarding the fate of a former slave auction block marring the heart of our town, I, with my egregious lack of historical knowledge in place, unquestioningly supported its removal. However, while attending a city council meeting, my opinion shifted upon hearing the passionate argument of an African-American woman against its removal. She argued that it would only further destroy memories of the horror of slavery and continue to whitewash my town’s history. After listening to her speak, I realized I had become part of the problem regarding historical narratives. I made a decision on a complex topic I was not a part of based on skewed information and no cultural understanding. I have since adopted a new approach when seeking to understand my community’s stories. I sit and listen. I have no way of understanding the background and desires of others unless I first internalize their words and thoughts. Being in the majority, I should act as a mouthpiece for others, not overshadow their words with my own opinions and judgements; it is not my place to decide what others want and need, only to support them if they ask for it and celebrate alongside them when I can.

Quinn Smith- Second Runner-Up

My Words Define Me

You’re white. Smith. “Smiths” are to “pallor complexions” as “hot air balloons” are to “the state of New Mexico.” And yes, New Mexico is a state. Contrary to the belief of some, there is an expanse of land between Texas and Arizona. There is not a great void of oblivion for where the Rio Grande river dumps into the depths of purgatory. Instead, this great void is found in the academic disparity which has left some students unaware of perhaps the most vibrant cultural center in the nation. Additionally, over sixty percent of New Mexicans belong to at least one ethnic minority group. I’d like to introduce myself now. My name is Quinn Smith, I am a member of the Chickasaw tribe of Oklahoma, born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I am not defined by the words of others. My words define me, I create my own identity.

I leapt for joy when I found out that Duke University was going to introduce me to NASA. I mean, I wasn’t even a freshman and I was going to meet representatives from one of the world leaders in space exploration. I showed my mother the invitation too, and she was taken aback. Upon further exploration into the invitation I discovered that NASA was an acronym for something else at Duke. It stood for Native American Student Alliance. And while the disbelief faded after this revelation, the amazement persisted long after. Why does a school in North Carolina care so deeply about Native students? Especially native students of the pallor-smith variety?

Through my short visit during Blue Devil Days, I was taught that my presence at an institution of higher education in the United States of America went against everything. Professor Myron Dewey and Cherokee Supreme Court Justice Brenda Pipestem—a Duke alum—joined NASA in sharing. Native American culture should be protected, preserved, and celebrated on a college campus were answers to my ancestor’s prayers. Their impassioned speeches moved me greatly. Admissions Dean Stephen McLaughlin sat out, in front of every incoming NASA member, a copy of the book “There, There” by Tommy Orange. I was instructed that even if I did not enjoy reading, I would love the novel. I do love reading, and this novel furthered my love of the written English language. Little did I know what impact this book from Duke would play in the upcoming months.

Dene Oxendene is attempting to create a documentary attempting to give a voice to those who seldom have the chance to hear their perspectives affirmed. He let the content direct his artistic pursuits. This moved me so greatly. See, for months I had been brainstorming ways to use my new Christmas video-camera to showcase a perspective of which much of the United States is unaware: Albuquerque and New Mexico. One day I sat out with my friends to interview people in downtown Albuquerque. In the next few weeks I created a YouTube channel by the name of Watermelon Ridge (named after the Sandia mountains which overlook Albuquerque) and a small internet documentary series by the name of Enchantment 505 (New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment” and 505 is the area code of much of the state). I had no plan in mind, I let my content direct my artistic merits. This plan paid off.

I met a Native American man who lived all over the nation, who carves canes made from wood. I met a man who registered teenagers to vote and a woman who worked at one of the most unique gas stations, Russell’s Travel Center in Springer, New Mexico. Through the words of Tommy Orange, and because of the overwhelming support from Duke University (who gave me those words), I was able to share a perspective seldom showcased. I was not given the gift of storytelling. Perhaps I do not possess it. I was merely given the inspiration and motivation to follow one of my deepest passions. It has changed my life; one story can inspire many.

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