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  • Front Porch
  • Harry Watson

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In Kimberly D. Hill's Southern Voices interview, Lemuel J. Delany tells how several renowned people, including Cab Calloway (here), often spent time in his childhood home. From the Carl Van Vechten Photographs at the Library of Congress.

At the end of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's wrenching novel of the African American experience, the nameless narrator has locked himself alone in an all-white basement room, endlessly replaying Louis Armstrong's haunting lament, "What Did I Do to Be So Black and Blue?" Despairing to the point of madness, the narrator has suffered devastating disappointment in one version after another of the black man's "place" in white America, from the regimented uplift preached by Booker T. Washington, to earnest striving in menial employment, to the angry radicalism of the Communist Party. Everywhere he has been unseen, misunderstood, ignored, dismissed, marginalized. Invisible in all the ways that matter, he ends his story as a black drop in a white sea, with nothing left but jazz to sort out his pain.

For many generations in the white South, the notion of invisible black people must surely have seemed odd. Whatever whites thought about them, blacks were always there, variously laborious, rebellious, resistant, fearsome, loving, saintly, demonic, and on and on. The list of adjectives could be endless, but absent or unseen would not be on it. But Ellison was not writing about the exterior visibility of black bodies. Echoing Paul Laurence Dunbar's famous poem, "Masks," he referred to an unrecognized inner self, hidden behind protective layers of evasion, denial, stoicism, laughter, song, and endless equivalents. Seeing that black reality has been rare indeed for whites, and not just southerners—the dual result of willful blindness on one part and painstaking disguises on the other.

Most of the features in this issue of Southern Cultures explore some rarely seen facets of the southern black experience. Invisibility of one kind or another runs through many of them. Invisibility is ruthlessly imposed in one example, defensively adopted in another, unsuccessfully exploited in a third. Even taken together, these stories cannot embody the whole southern black experience, but they do illuminate some overlooked corners.

First-time visitors to Duke University invariably comment on the majesty of its Gothic chapel, the towering centerpiece of an entire campus assemblage of delicately dappled stone cloisters and quadrangles. Every detail is perfect, from [End Page 1] the soaring arches to the gargoyles. For those familiar with many campuses, Duke plainly evokes the foundational spaces of Anglo-American academic culture, Princeton most directly, with ancient Oxford and Cambridge looming behind it.

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Bruce J. West's photo essay, "Take Time to Appreciate," reveals his admiration for people in harmony with their environment. Mr. Fortner, 1994, photographed by Bruce J. West.

How many knew that this reverential quotation from Western Civ, squarely planted in the Jim Crow South for a lily-white university, was designed between 1924 and 1935 by an African American? His name was Julian F. Abele, a classically trained architect who designed Duke's Gothic West Campus and its Georgian East Campus for the Philadelphia firm of Horace Trumbauer. The firm's other commissions included Beaux Arts icons like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Harvard's Widener Library, and countless private mansions, including the New York home of university benefactor James B. Duke. "I lived in the shadows," Abele observed of his professional training at the University of Pennsylvania, and this acknowledgement of invisibility was doubly true at Duke, where knowledge of Abele's identity was largely unknown until recently. Duke University Archivist Emeritus William E. King shares Abele's story with us and recounts the arduous sleuthing that was necessary to bring it to light. There is a story (which may be untrue, King [End Page 2] tells us) that Abele never saw his masterpiece because he refused to submit to the humiliations that segregation imposed on black travelers to the Jim Crow South. Invisibility protected Abele from insult, but it also protected Duke and the white South from the disconcerting reality of his superior talent and achievement...


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