The fifth post in the blog series on the role of international collections and their collectors in promoting equity, diversity, and inclusion was contributed by Ernest Zitser, Ph.D, Librarian for Slavic, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies, International & Area Studies (IAS) Department, Duke University Libraries (DUL), Library Liaison to the International Comparative Studies Program, and Adjunct Assistant Professor, Department of Slavic and Eurasian Studies, Duke University.
We are all still processing the outcome of the trial of Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who murdered George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man, in Minneapolis, Minnesota, exactly one year ago. Each of us is looking for ways to deal with the situation as best we can. From the very beginning, my thoughts have latched on to the uncanny coincidence that the 21st-century American police officer shares the same surname as the 19th-century Napoleonic French soldier for whom “chauvinism”—the prejudiced support for one’s own cause, group, or sex—is named.
As one of the editors of the IAS blog series on equity, diversity, and inclusion in international area studies collecting, I have also been thinking about what Duke’s research librarians, in our official capacity as tillers in the grove of academe, can do to help bring about positive social change. That line of thought has led me to focus on the similarities between two individuals who, at first glance, appear to have very little in common, but whose life’s work speaks precisely to the issues that we have been discussing in our blog posts: Raphael Lemkin (1900-1959) and Pauli Murray (1910-1985).
Both the Polish-Jewish international human rights activist and the African-American civil rights leader were trained as lawyers. Both arrived in Durham due to circumstances beyond their control: Lemkin as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe, thanks to his American friend and colleague, Professor Malcolm McDermott, of Duke University’s Law School; Murray as an orphaned child, who was taken in by her maternal grandparents and aunt at the age of three.
Despite their intellectual gifts and academic accomplishments, both Lemkin and Murray had a complicated relationship to North Carolina’s elite educational institutions. Lemkin spent fourteen months at Duke University in 1941-1942, but was never allowed to teach in the Law School of this predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, Methodist establishment, partly because this “white crow” could never successfully pass himself off as a full-blooded “Pole”—the citizen of a freedom-loving “republic” endangered by the forces of “totalitarianism”—rather than as just another refugee Jewish scholar.
Similarly, Murray applied and was denied entry to a Ph.D. program at University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill in 1938, not only because she was African American and, as such, proscribed by Jim Crow legislation from attending any public school that was not segregated by race; but also, if perhaps less obviously, because she lived as a (genderqueer) woman in a heteronormative, patriarchal society governed by the (un)written codes of what she later described as “Jane Crow.”
One of the qualities that makes Lemkin and Murray such extraordinary individuals is that they did not meekly accept the status quo but, rather, successfully used their unique skill sets to push back against the laws and attitudes that sought to marginalize them. They did so in part by authoring books that changed the world. Lemkin’s Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (1944)—available in both print and electronic versions at DUL—coined the term “genocide,” provided some of the legal argumentation for the trials of Nazi war criminals at the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg (1945-1949), and ultimately became the basis for the United Nations’ “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” (1951).
Murray’s States’ Laws on Race and Color and Appendices: Containing International Documents, Federal Laws and Regulations, Local Ordinances and Charts (1950), also available in multiple copies at DUL, documented the injustice of the Jim Crow South, provided the legal reasoning for the team of lawyers that successfully argued the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education (1954), and became, in the words of Thurgood Marshall (one of the members of that team, who went on to serve as the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States), the “Bible” of American civil rights litigators.
Despite their different backgrounds, both lawyers adopted a similar approach to the primary sources that served as the basis of their landmark scholarly publications. During his brief stay at Duke, Lemkin worked on compiling, translating, and contextualizing the racially based legislation imposed on the formerly free citizens of the European countries conquered at the start of World War II by Nazi Germany and its allies.
His analysis of German-language gazettes published by Nazi military governments—an impressive collection of which is available at DUL—demonstrated the existence, and deliberate implementation, of a formally legal, but (Lemkin argued) internationally criminal set of laws meant to expropriate, exploit, and, ultimately, exterminate an entire group of people (Jews) whom the Nazi’s defined as a subhuman “race.”
Similarly, Murray’s groundbreaking research boldly tackled the racially based legislation imposed on the formerly enslaved and only recently enfranchised citizens of the United States—including in her adopted home state of North Carolina—by the democratically elected representatives of the American people.
Her analysis demonstrated that from the very beginning of the post-Civil War “Era of Reconstruction,” the freely elected leaders of the formally democratic and egalitarian republic imposed a set of discriminatory laws explicitly designed to deprive African-American citizens of their constitutional rights, to institutionalize racial segregation, and to terrorize this racialized minority into submission to white supremacy.
The political significance of the works penned by Lemkin and Murray cannot be overstated, especially during the turbulent times in which we presently find ourselves. In their professional yet impassioned writings, these two legal scholars showed that, regardless of whether it resulted from military conquest or the democratic electoral process, a racist legal system was ultimately based on the threat (and frequent application) of violence against the bodies and psyches of the members of the outcast group, rather than on the principles dictated by ethical conceptions of equity and human rights. Furthermore, by their personal commitment to the cause of social justice, they demonstrated that scholarship was not divorced from real life and that “ivory-tower” academics had as much to contribute to positive change “out there” in the world as full-time political activists. It is for this reason, as much as for their books, that Lemkin and Murray have become revered role models of the international movement for the rights of everyone—regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation—who has ever experienced the toxic effects of chauvinism.
From the perspective of academic librarians, the lives and works of Lemkin and Murray demonstrate the vital importance of our mission to collect, preserve, and curate the research material that serves as the basis of paradigm-changing scholarship. Neither Lemkin nor Murray could have done the research that informed their arguments were it not for the law books—both foreign and domestic—that were purchased and made accessible to these avid users of academic research libraries. At Duke, this type of collecting for diversity continues, not only in the Goodson Law Library, but also in the other repositories that make up the university library system.
One prominent example of this collecting focus is provided by the John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture, which curates SNCC Digital Gateway: Learn From the Past, Organize for the Future, Make Democracy Work, a collaborative project of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Legacy Project, Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, and the Duke University Libraries.
Another example is the work of the library’s Human Rights Archive, which “partners with the human rights community to preserve the history and legacy of human rights around the world.” Even a brief look at the Archive’s online guide, which now includes a link to a guide about Raphael Lemkin at Duke, demonstrates that collecting and curating materials on international movements for political, socio-economic, and racial justice is an important component of how Duke libraries seeks to support the university’s mission of fostering the kind of transformative scholarship that is exemplified by the works of Lemkin and Murray.
Like these other library units, the International and Area Studies department has eagerly taken up the challenge of creating a “supportive environment for research, learning, and academic community” and “strengthening Duke’s capacity to address global challenges for communities across the world” (the third and fourth goals of the University’s academic strategic plan). The international and area studies collections built and curated by IAS staff demonstrate that racialized judicial systems and the violence that they generate are located all over the globe and characterize all kinds of polities. Ascribed definitions of social identity, the legal mechanisms that enforce them, and the civil rights activism that is required to reform systems of institutionalized discrimination and oppression are not the monopoly of any one country or political party. Unfortunately, the contemporary United States is not the only place in the world to demonstrate the ease and rapidity with which conspiracy-minded, populist demagogues and their supporters (both in and out of the halls of power), can stoke the fears of an already-anxious electorate of formally democratic countries and channel these feelings into legalized expressions of xenophobia, discrimination, and violence.
The books on post-Communist Russia and eastern Europe that I collect, for example, offer plenty of evidence for the proposition that it doesn’t take much for the judicial system of a formally democratic country to fall into the clutches of a corrupt, conservative, political party bent on undermining the rule of law and institutionalizing policies that trample on the human rights of racial, religious, and sexual minorities. These contemporary case studies also demonstrate the important role that concerned individuals, domestic civil rights groups, and international organizations play in holding oppressive and illiberal regimes accountable for their actions. In so doing, the materials in Duke’s Russian, Eurasian, and Eastern European Studies collection not only inform students about international developments or provide scholars with the qualitative and quantitative data needed to conduct robust comparative and cross-cultural studies. They also acquaint political activists with potential partners in the global struggle against all forms of oppression and provide strategies for pursuing a viable, international, human rights agenda.
Today, on the first anniversary of the murder of George Floyd, we still do not know whether Chauvin’s conviction is a milestone in the process of dismantling a racially based caste system that undergirds carceral capitalism in the age of surveillance or merely an exception that proves the rule. What we do know is that the outcome depends on what we—all of us—do to ensure that chauvinism never trumps the rule of law.
Like other members of the Duke community, the university’s academic librarians are committed to supporting anti-racist scholarship, leadership, and service. As citizens of both the American republic and the international republic of letters, we also have the opportunity and the means (despite straitened circumstances) to make a difference on both the local and the global levels. That is why I am so confident that the research materials strategically selected by Duke University’s archivists, curators, and international area studies librarians will make it possible for a new generation of Lemkins and Murrays to publish paradigm-shifting books that will help us to imagine, and work towards realizing, a more humane, equitable, and just world.