Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Describing the current era as a “science fiction novel that we’re all living in,” William A. Darity Jr. kicked off–over Zoom–the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke’s annual graduation ceremony for its affiliated students.

This year’s iteration also served as the capstone of the Center’s Duke Immerse program, Global Inequalities: Inequality in the U.S. and China, which had begun sixteen weeks ago, before the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted a planned trip to China, suspended classes, and then shifted academic life online. The program thus concluded in quite different circumstances, but it retained the focus and vigor that defined it throughout the semester.

Darity, the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity’s director and the Samuel DuBois Cook professor of public policy, African and African American studies, then introduced the keynote speaker for the session, Dr. Sandra Barnes. Barnes, a professor of sociology and religion and assistant vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion at Vanderbilt University, spoke about her book The Kings of Mississippi, a socio-ecological study of a rural Black farming family that against all odds rose to the middle class.

“These inequities we learn about in school–the King family was living it,” said Barnes. As she discovered through her research, which included interviews with 28 family members spanning four generations, the King’s upward mobility stemmed from key decisions made at crucial moments that eventually led to outsized gains. For example, a 1945 choice to purchase “bottom [undesirable] land” had both economic and non-economic benefits, as the children no longer had to be pulled out of school (per an employer’s demand) to work the land. Moreover, the homestead built on that acreage would later provide a “safe haven” for family members to return to for a respite after they, propelled by the initial advantages the land had conveyed, had gone on to develop their lives up north or out west.

The family’s success cannot be explained simply. “Stories like the Kings’–we should be really careful not to reduce them to notions of grit,” Barnes said. She attributed their development and eventual migration beyond Mississippi to a complex combination of micro-, macro-, and meso-level factors: Everything from the stabilizing role of matriarch Irma King to the institutional effects of Black churches and Black schools played a role.

In short, Barnes’ presentation detailed “how economic and non-economic resources can be harnessed to move a family into the middle class,” a sentiment that seems optimistic yet fitting in the current context. The coronavirus has laid bare the liberating effects of existing wealth, but it has also underscored the crucial value of support networks. In her closing remarks, faculty affiliate and visiting faculty fellow Marta Sanchez highlighted the “generosity of spirit” from students in the crisis’ wake as everyone worked to navigate the difficult situation.

And as senior research associate Adam Hollowell said, perhaps the Cook Center could serve as a safe haven for these graduating students–much like the Mississippi homestead did for the King family. No matter what great things they move on to after this semester, and no matter what the next months and years of this pandemic bring, the support, and the shared commitment to these important social issues, will remain. “Please do not stay gone,” Hollowell said, “even though you may have left.”

The full video recording and transcript of the ceremony is available here.