It is an honor to announce that our December Global Engagement Champion is Dr. Dawn Duke, associate professor of Spanish and Portuguese. Duke is chair of the Portuguese program, a former administrator of Africana Studies and faculty in the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. Duke also previously served as chair of the Africana Studies Program, which recently became its own department.
Born and raised in Guyana, Duke’s passion for teaching language is influenced by the many languages and flexible communication style of Caribbean, Latin American and Afro-Caribbean cultures. As an undergraduate, Duke studied at both the University of Guyana and the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. She completed her first master’s degree at the University of Campinas, Brazil, in applied linguistics with research on the area of translation. She taught as a professor at the University of Guyana for five years before continuing her graduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh and obtaining a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures.
Duke specializes in Cuba, Brazil and Africa in Latin America. An interdisciplinary scholar, her research incorporates aspects of culture, language and context, with a specific focus on women writers.
Q: What led you to being interested in studying so many different languages and countries?
A: In the Caribbean we communicate in a very kind of flexible way, but we understand each other as a result. It’s interesting. My background is in a multilingual, very fluid linguistics setting in terms of that. … In terms of actual formal schooling and learning, you were also dependent on what was happening politically in the region. So when I started high school there was a lot of French. French was the dominant language for my country in Guyana. so we were doing a lot of French, and then things shifted ideologically in Guyana. There was an opening up and there was a greater relationship to places like Cuba, Nicaragua and so on — China, North Korea — at the time in my country, and as a result of that, the world of Spanish opened up to me. … Brazil was coming out of the dictatorship. … In Guyana they set up a huge embassy, and at the back of the embassy there was this old colonial style building that they renovated and converted into a cultural center and I started to take classes in Portuguese. … (The Federal University of Pará) offered the countries scholarships for the young people to go and study in Brazil, anything they wanted to study, but the catch-22 was you needed to know Portuguese and nobody did. So I was one of five young people who was selected to go to Brazil to study, and the rest is history.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to teach those languages to other college students?
A: I think it was a natural transition in terms of the profession, in terms of what I was doing. I was pretty much a foreign language teacher. I was teaching at the university and teaching students Portuguese and Spanish, teaching about literature, but back then I was also a teacher of linguistics. So I was teaching phonetics, phonology, morphology and syntax, which are pure linguistic areas. I was coming off of a degree in linguistics. I was the only person in the university who could teach that. So I was teaching that both in Portuguese and in Spanish back then, because we had a strong program for languages at the University of Guyana, in French, Spanish and Portuguese. So I spent a lot of time teaching those even though I would also teach courses in Spanish literature, African American literature, doing the famous books.
Q: Is there anything in particular that stands out as a highlight from your career that you want to mention?
A: While I was chair of Africana Studies, I was able to make a trip to Nigeria, to West Africa. … The highlight of the trip was, of course, being in Nigeria because a lot of the culture coming off the African continent that you see in places like Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Colombia, a lot of the African or Afro-descendant culture is actually coming from those regions in West Africa, so for me it was an important trip to make to understand the source of what I was seeing reflected in the culture of Latin America. … So that trip for me was very important to make at that time, and of course helped me to understand a little bit the background behind programs like Black studies programs in the USA. At the time I was chairing the program, and our program here on campus is very good because it has both the African continent as well as the African American continent to it.
Q: In terms of the past couple years, has COVID impacted your ability to engage with those types of experiences or travel?
A: Absolutely. It’s pretty much shut us down. … Things got really really difficult in places like Brazil, so of course that impacted greatly my desire and my ability to connect with people on the ground. … Being on the ground doing the field research, you come back with a wealth of knowledge that is just not possible to have through virtual contact. And so that, of course, is what we missed terribly coming through 2020 into 2021, and so now I think people are coming a little bit out of their shell and starting to travel. … But through virtual contact, Zoom, you sometimes sit and talk for an hour or more. So it’s created its own pluses, even as I deeply miss being able to travel and just have that cultural experience that is so important for us who teach in the humanities and social sciences, teach about culture and issues, political, social, et cetera.
Q: I know you mentioned that in particular you’re focused on women writers, and I know your book was on women writers, so I was wondering if you could just talk a little bit about some of your favorite women writers and also a little bit about how you find the position they occupy to be important and what aspects of their writing you find to be important.
A: When you think of (the) Caribbean you think of those islands, those beautiful sandstone and sea and the beaches. … You have a great experience, but within there, of course, there’s culture and then there’s literature and the writers have always been writing a lot in all the languages. … So in Brazil, the main Black woman writer today, or as you use the term Afro-Brazilian woman writer, her name is Conceição Evaristo. She’s extremely famous. She’s world famous today. There are others — Miriam Alves, Esmeralda Ribeiro, Geni Guimarães. They’re what I call the matriarchs, because they have been writing since perhaps the 60s, 70s. So they are that generation of established, solid. They would be like in the category of your Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison of Brazil. And then in the same category in Cuba you have women like Excilia Saldaña, who has passed, Nancy Morejón, who is still there, Georgina Herrera as well, Caridad Atencio, Soleido Ríos. … They laid the foundations for the many, many young Black women writers that are coming and having merged over the last five to eight years. There are many, many new writers now that are doing amazing work, but if you want to do work and scholarship in this area you will probably have to spend a lot of time reading poetry cause they are experts of writing poetry. … They talk about their lives. They talk about their people, they talk about their specialities, they talk about their food, they talk about their challenges, they talk about their politics, they talk about issues of race and racism, and it’s a very, very dynamic literary production.”
Q: Was there anything you wanted to add?
A: I just got a book contract with Bucknell University Press. I’m working on getting my next single-authored book out, and it is about Black heroines in Latin America. So the book is questioning where are Black heroines, because when you go to Latin America you see a lot of statues, but they’re about Christopher Columbus, or they’re about Simón de Bolívar. So you don’t see as many statues or representations or iconic images about the famous indigenous women leaders, warriors, or the same thing what goes for Afro-descendants or African women who contributed so much to the nations as they are today. So that’s my question, where are they. … My book has three case studies — Nicaragua, Columbia and Cuba. They talk about famous women in those three places and provide a kind of methodology: if you were to propose some kind of project highlighting Black female achievement, how would you go about it, what would be some of the challenges and so on.