I’ll mark this digression’s beginning in Raleigh 1994–95. I was struggling in graduate school. First I tried economics, and then I dipped into religious and cultural studies. I was undone by advanced calculus and cultural theory—couldn’t really handle the rigor of either, the puzzle of value difficult to solve. I also went through the devastating loss of what might be described as my first real love, a woman who flew to Europe and never came back.
Throughout this period I was working at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, situated next to what was then called Wellspring Grocery (now Whole Foods). The literary and organic food scene opened up a world for me where struggle and confusion were considered OK—mines to explore rather than shut down. I shelved hardbacks and backlist paperbacks by Baldwin, Banks, Berger, (Amy) Bloom, Boland, Gass, Grumbach, Gurganus, Le Guin, L’Engle, Malamud, McCarthy, Mitchell, Munro, Walker, Wideman, (C.D.) Wright, (Charles) Wright, (Richard) Wright, to name just a few; I managed the magazines and literary journals, worked the cash register, and made friends with the customers, learned so much from them.
It would take me more space and time than I have to describe in detail how I went from Quail Ridge Books to Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies (CDS). In short, it went something like this: One night at the store, Doris Betts read from her novel Souls Raised from the Dead. I was impressed. Among other things, she said, “There are ways to measure values in the world other than those that a CPA can count.”
I wrote her a letter. She invited me for coffee, and she eventually recommended that I read The Call of Service by Robert Coles, which I did. Coles was one of the founders of CDS and DoubleTake magazine. The book is something of a manifesto on trying to get outside of your subjective perspective, your narrow world.
I wrote Coles a letter. He called me. I was floored. He assigned me to read Camilla Jose Vergara’s The New American Ghetto and review it for DoubleTake, which I did. A bookstore clerk’s piece was published next to one by Joyce Carol Oates.
I ended up being associated with CDS in one capacity or another for 17 years, working full-time for many of those years, ratcheting up The Jazz Loft Project that took a dozen years to complete, and even teaching.
“There are people teaching at Duke that barely graduated from UNC,” I’d tell my students on the first day of class. The ones who laughed usually proved to be the more engaged and thoughtful documentarians.
These are the thoughts I had when I first read about the three Duke students that refused to read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. During my time at CDS, the outlying students—the ones frustrated by the emphasis of their fellow students on linear, pre-professional tracks—tended to find their way to our building, on the wrong side of the tracks, literally. One year I had a student assistant who had come from Santa Monica High School (“I chose the highest ranked East Coast school I could get into, I wanted to be as far away from home as possible, I knew almost nothing about Duke, it turned out to be about as different from my high school as you could get.”). He nearly transferred before finding his way to CDS.
I’ve been outside of CDS for a few years now, so I don’t know the current environment there or on campus at Duke in general. But these three students who are objecting to Bechdel’s book could use a dose of good documentary engagement. (I doubt they would have thought my introductory class joke was funny). The words document and doctor come from the same Latin root, docere, which means, variously, to teach, to learn, to pay attention, to care, and, ultimately, to heal. The direction of teaching and learning goes both ways, and so does the healing, but only if true engagement takes place, an honest effort to listen to and respect the perspectives of others.
The writer James Agee was a primary inspiration for Coles in founding CDS, which included $20 million in original funding from the Lyndhurst Foundation of Tennessee, Agee’s home state. Agee thought film had a chance to surpass literature as an influence on the culture. However, in his feverish, unmatched film criticism for The Nation, Time, and other magazines, he repeatedly expressed disappointment that the medium wasn’t living up to its promise, at least not by the time he died (1955). Agee used his critique of films to hammer the culture at large for not respecting the dignity of individual human beings, for not even trying. To close a review of an otherwise undistinguished documentary film, published on Oct. 12, 1946, Agee wrote: “I suspect it will some day be possible to deduce out of our nonfiction films alone that the supposedly strongest nation on earth collapsed with such magical speed because so few of its members honored any others, or even themselves, as human beings.”
Agee died at age 45 after his second heart attack, a victim of his own hard drinking and chain smoking. Despite his infectious brilliance, he had trouble respecting himself, too.
Sam Stephenson is a writer and founder of Rock Fish Stew Institute of Literature and Materials, which is currently collaborating with The Paris Review on Big, Bent Ears (www.bigbentears.org), the installation version of which is a collaboration with CAM Raleigh (http://camraleigh.org/big-bent-ears/). He was 2012–13 Lehman-Brady Joint Chair Visiting Professor in Documentary Studies and American Studies at Duke University and UNC-Chapel Hill.