I spent last summer traveling across the southwestern United
States and Canada, interviewing Native American authors. I spoke
with members of the Anishnaabe, Cherokee, Acoma Pueblo and Dogrib
tribes. I asked questions, all kinds, and then I listened.
I wanted to understand what it meant to tie oneself to a particular
tribe, to a specific heritage, to a singular way of living. Most
of all, I wanted to understand what it meant to belong to a community.
I belong to this community, to the Emory community. When I left
my home, almost four years ago, I noticed so much absence. My mother’s
coffee, my dog, the way I could see the stars at night, and all
the daily routines to which, over a period of 18 years, I had become
I left a house I shared with my mother and father and sister and
moved to a dorm that I shared with hundreds of strangers. I found
myself surrounded by unfamiliar people, a participant in unfamiliar
traditions—Songfest, the vaguely scary skeleton, Dooley, convocation.
I went to class and felt myself swept away by the rhythm of lectures
on themes I hadn’t ever considered—new wave cinema,
Third Wave feminism.
I have tried to identify the exact moment that Emory became the
place I wanted to return to, instead of leave. I’ve found
that I can’t. But perhaps my inability to pinpoint this moment
makes an odd sort of sense. Enveloping oneself within a community
is a process, not an instant. I’m finding it difficult to
articulate all the million subtleties and complexities this process
Honestly, I didn’t pay attention to any of them. I just noticed
one day, somewhere in the middle of my first semester, that I felt
as if I belonged: You’re running to a Student Programming
Council meeting in the Dobbs Center, and you’ve stopped to
check your e-mail for the 700th time that day. You’re sitting
across from your professor in his office, discussing why your paper
about Middlemarch isn’t nearly clear enough. You’re
walking across the Quad, and you remember that your freshman seminar
was right there, on the basement floor of Bowden Hall. And you know,
in these moments, that you have occupied this place long enough
to call it home.
But maybe it isn’t simply a question of length, or of time.
How exactly do we fold ourselves into a community? Though we might
be compelled by instinct to integrate ourselves into a group, how
do we choose which one? How do we know the one we have chosen is
the right one?
These must seem like rhetorical questions. Of course, we have all
incorporated ourselves into Emory—what other choice did we
have? Emory’s community was the only community available to
us when we first came, whether as freshmen or faculty, staff or
graduate students. But then we stayed, and therein lies the choice.
Every one of us could have gone elsewhere. But instead we chose
I know the answer to only one of the questions I posed. How can
we ever be sure that the community we have chosen will be the right
one? The answer is that we can’t. Committing oneself to a
group, to any group, is an enormous risk. We can never know the
terms of our acceptance; instead, we hedge our bets and leap in.
I image all of us here tonight have cashed in in multiple ways on
our original bets.
At this point, you might be wondering how I am going to unite my
introduction, regarding Native American authors, to the body of
this essay. It is a reasonable question. What could I, a person
who until this summer had never met a Native Ameri-can, have to
say about Native American literature that could be relevant? Every
community—the Emory community, the Atlanta community, the
literary community within Emory—locates itself within the
framework of a story. We know where we stand by the stories we tell.
Our collective identities are both secured and developed within
the medium of a story. So, naturally, my answer lies within a story.
I interviewed Gordon Henry, an Anishnaabe author, under the cover
of an old sweat lodge, during a reprieve from his preparation for
the annual Thirsty Dance. As we spoke, we watched dozens of people
construct the frame of this year’s lodge.
In that moment, community became tangible. I observed the solidarity
among the Native and non-Native people who convened in order to
participate in a ceremony that engenders individual cleansing in
the presence of relatives and friends. The same basic precept—that
communal interaction begets individual growth and stimulation—motivates
me to gather the Emory community every spring for Arts Week. I’m
convinced this principle motivates every person in this room. We
participate—in the Black Student Alliance, in Residence Life,
in iMovie Fest, in Theater Emory, in Emory Read—because we
know of no other way to express ourselves as individuals. But let
me rephrase that: We know of no better way to express ourselves
as individuals than through the harmony that results from a common
A community is a delicate interaction of one voice, then another,
and another, until the ensuing chorus becomes more satisfying and
fulfilling than the single voice. I found a way to understand this
unity through Native American literature. It seems strange, doesn’t
it? That a minority literature could compel me to think about my
own community. But it isn’t a question of suspending belief;
it’s a question of listening. I learned about another culture,
a culture I had previously disregarded, by listening to its stories.
And I understand more now of Emory’s stories, because I know
how to listen to them.
And what do we hear when we listen? Any number of things. Our personal
stories, first. How the strangers in my dorm became my closest friends;
how spending weekly office hours with my favorite professor has
turned into a lifelong friendship; how I, once a tiny bit afraid
of Dooley, have become one of his protectors, a Dooley’s Guard.
And then there are other stories, Emory’s stories, that were
here when we came and will remain after we have left. Eighty-eight
years have passed since DeKalb county granted a charter for the
establishment of Emory University. Could the people who signed that
charter ever have imagined that, 88 years later, we would gather
here, in this room, to celebrate that day? I would like to think
that yes, they could have foreseen that people would celebrate this
day far beyond their own lives, for years to come.
Whenever I am on the third floor of the Dobbs Center, I take an
extra minute or two and stand before the black and white photos
that line the wall next to Harland Cinema. There are dancing couples
at Dooley’s frolics, boys in a science lab, the Quad. I don’t
know any of the people in those pictures. I don’t even know
their names. But I feel a certain kinship toward them, because I
know they have loved this place as I have. And that’s just
it—we belong to the same community. We have heard the same
stories. And we have woven ourselves into the same narrative.
essay was adapted from an address DiSclafani delivered at the Jan.
27, 2003 Charter Day banquet.