The Soothsayer: Duane Campbell’s ideas for West Louisville are nothing if not confrontational — and right

Duane Campbell: Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee  Duane Campbell is a West Louisville writer and community activist.

Duane Campbell: Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee Duane Campbell is a West Louisville writer and community activist.

“Religions all over the world are killing each other, fighting. There is a problem with religion, as far as I’m concerned. Maybe not religion itself, or maybe not even the concept of religion, but our perception of it — there’s something wrong with it.”

A pea-sized ember begrudgingly makes its way down a stick of Egyptian Musk as a window unit chugs along at speed, making the front room of Duane Campbell’s modest West Louisville bungalow remarkably cooler than the rest of the house. It is June of what will be the hottest summer on record here, and the blinds are drawn on the one window in this room to keep God’s burning sun out, because a guy’s got to —
Wait. God’s sun?

Duane doesn’t buy religion the way most people do, and as a black man living and working in a part of the city where you can find any almost brand of Christian church within a few right turns, that means his place here — in the neighborhood, in the intellectual space that fills the air — is, at this moment in history, undefined. He is a community activist, yes, but you never see him on TV when something bad happens in West Louisville, so is he really a community activist? He eschews the top-down spiritualism of organized religion, and he claims to be of a spiritual makeup that defies the bowed-head reverence of Sunday Mass, but what is his spirituality if not religious? He is the author of a book that he says is not meant to teach or preach, yet its aim is to show you how to transcend pedestrian Godspeak and shake hands with your real, self-actualized self, so what exactly is his intention? His own story is a classic American ghetto tale of ascendancy — guy from the projects has been shot and dealt drugs and done time and really fucked up good and proper — but it’s hard to get this narrative out of him, even though it’s the kind of currency that is indicated if modern black activism is to begin dismantling the ’hood dream, that profoundly empty byproduct of self-interest and greed, where a legitimate buck against authority and a more divisive strand of capitalism collided to upend the otherwise significant social advancement of a cultural minority.

kids: Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee  Duane Campbell talks with a group of kids he ran into strolling through West Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood this summer.

kids: Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee Duane Campbell talks with a group of kids he ran into strolling through West Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood this summer.

Religion has become a form of abuse, an addiction, he will tell me, a way to allay real problems and cast responsibility aside. And he is right. He is absolutely right. The black church, to be broad, is a considerably different tool than it used to be. Its rise to prominence in the age when Civil Rights were openly discussed and ultimately, triumphantly, won has left a political vacuum. We, meaning society, are at a place on the continuum where the back-end economic forces of institutionalized racism and the general ignorance of the masses have left what is arguably a more degenerated and virulent uphill situation of poverty, lack of opportunity and access to education, playing out just a few exits away from your stop on I-64. What’s worse, this condition no longer commands the interest of the mainstream, which means what we all know here but refuse to admit: West Louisville is an island.

Maybe Duane Campbell can help change that. God knows we need it, all of us.

The same living room where we now sit — plain, slightly claustrophobic, cooled — was, back in the day after they came from Buffalo to Louisville, the Campbell family’s arena for debate, argument and discourse. Ralph A. Campbell, Duane’s father, was a poet and sportswriter at the Louisville Defender and The Courier-Journal. He held court here and challenged his three sons on matters historical, political, philosophical and spiritual. It was not “how was your day?” fare, but rather a focused and direct attempt to boil blood, to force swift, robust — and original — reasoning.

“It took my fear away to confront people,” Duane says. “A lot of kids have that fear to speak out. But I think that practice of being in this room erased that fear. It was good for me in that sense and bad for me in another: I always said what was on my mind, but it was very much different from what was going on with the status quo.”

Predictably, Duane had trouble in school, watching his brothers excel while he toiled in his own existential drama. He struggled to balance what he learned from his father — in books like “Black Poets and Prophets” and in this room — with what the public school system was feeding the hopper. He gave class presentations on the lesser-known aspects of African history, like the invention of embalming, and he became confrontational about it, earning a suspension from DuPont Manual and eventually a transfer to Central High, in West Louisville.

In short, his intellectual focus seemed to exist almost entirely outside of school.
Through suspensions and other typical disciplinary actions, Duane’s father stepped up, defending his son for attempting to think differently. The two were close until Ralph died in January, at age 87.

book: This is Campbell’s second book, a collection of poetry aimed at self-empowerment.

book: This is Campbell’s second book, a collection of poetry aimed at self-empowerment.

As often happens in situations that present themselves easily, Duane’s disabuse of the lessons of public school led him to look elsewhere for engagement, and at the time that happened to appear as a familiar incarnation of low-income, minority-population street life: drug dealing, dumb and petty crime and a rejection of authority so profound that the only natural action is to disengage entirely from one’s community and politics.

Of course, the real thugs end up dead or in jail, while the pretenders — however hard they end up — may do a few days here and there but will ultimately turn it around, will wind up getting their shit together in some form or fashion, will emerge as adults like Duane Campbell, 42, who also did almost two years in the United States Army, purely on his own initiative to get out of the aforementioned pattern, which, as much as the Army sucks for a guy who fancies himself instructor and instructed, and it did suck, certainly got the proverbial limp out of his gait. He left the service when his unit was disengaged, and he got to see Europe in the process.

“After a while, you’re the person who’s changing the environment,” he tells me of his jaunt with street life. “I was one of the ones who was making things worse in my environment.”

The things Duane is up against — rather, the things that most all the people trying to make West Louisville safer, more economically viable, less plagued by violence and poverty are up against — are most obvious, and they are broad. The size and scope of a citywide change is what gets Duane going, keeps his batteries charged, though they do get low.

The flavor of his convictions works against him for traditionalists: Duane is not mainstream. Simply, that is why he’s a one-man operation now, and it could also be his greatest advantage. The mainstream here is about crime and violence, and the more typical response to that is hand-holding and tearful prayer vigils that make great 30-second TV spots delivered by a sympathetic voice who follows with statistics: 48 homicides this year, some 70 percent involving blacks, according to a recent news report, and the overwhelming majority on both sides are men.

“He might probably be one of the best community mobilizers I know, as far as sitting down and really listening to folks and building rapport, things like that,” Eddie Woods tells me. He and Duane worked together from 1999 to 2003, building ground-up anti-gang and anti-violence campaigns and trying to convince their neighbors that an unnatural division was occurring between youth and elders, between the church and the street, and something — at least something — needed doing.

Duane Campbell in West Louisville: Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee

Duane Campbell in West Louisville: Photo by Geoff Oliver Bugbee

“Instinctively, we head towards gunfire,” Woods says. “You can’t have a better cat on the street.” Duane talks with whomever he encounters, and a recent stroll through his section of West Louisville — 38th and Broadway, roughly — proves he’s well known around here. He is casual but direct with people, folksy and at the same time forceful. He embraces a group of young children as one might see his own (Duane has a stepson from an old long-term girlfriend).

But there were problems between he and Woods. The pair couldn’t come up with a way to blend their visions. Woods, who now runs Operation Hope and the Life Institute, trying to intervene for youths before gangs do, says Duane was more interested in the intellectual battles than the chores of raising money and dealing with bureaucracy, as such programs inevitably must.

“At times, his vision can get a lot larger than what he can do as an actuality,” he says.
This does not surprise me, because Duane is a big thinker. Perhaps that is why he’s chosen to write books as opposed to the long, slow climb up the bureaucracy. His first, “Perpetual Domain,” went nowhere, but his second, “Inner Strength Defies the Skeptic,” seems to be taking him somewhere. At its core, “Inner Strength,” a collection of poetry, is a self-help book about overcoming the fear to fully embrace your ideals and work toward them in a take-no-prisoners way. Its thesis, like Duane’s, is that all this poverty, racism, community strife and struggle can be overcome if people achieve a larger measure of self-actualization.

“We’re in a state of transition,” he says. Duane’s “we” is America, not just Black America. “I think new voices, new ideologies, are going to be abundant. People are looking for a different way of thinking, a different avenue.”

Duane the Author did a college tour of the South this summer — his day job, as an instructional assistant for kids with behavioral disorders at Jefferson County Public Schools, affords him summers off. More recently, he has appeared on several radio shows, also in the South, and hopefully he will wind up on some talk shows, he says. It is this stage, a national one, where Duane sees himself and his program. He wants a national conversation, and here he’s having a Louisville conversation, and even if the landscape here is also pretty much Everywhere, he wants —
he needs — bigger.

“Through our arrogance, we have fashioned a battle of good versus evil,” goes the last line of “Prayer (the Hypocrisy of Man),” “which dwells high within the heavens, when in reality it exists only within the seed of our very being.”

“Obviously the black church has historically played a critical role in terms of the political, economic and social empowerment of black communities across the country,” says state Rep. Reginald Meeks, D-42, who represents part of West Louisville. “I’m not so sure that the roles that the churches played in the past are still being played today, because the times have changed.”

The assessment Woods gives is more direct.

“I think the churches for the most part don’t understand their role and they can’t switch agendas or fit their agendas to fill a larger community need,” he says.
Certain economic forces have reshaped the black church, which now must concern itself more with its own development and progress than in the past. Many are also involved in issues such as housing and local economic development.

The Rev. Sandra White, head of the group “No Murders Metro,” says the churches need to be more visible on the streets, and that for some, community outreach is more about self-promotion than anything else. “They’ll start out doing stuff, but they’ll fizzle off,” she says.

Duane’s mother Mary was the one in the family who went to church regularly and bought wholeheartedly into Christian doctrine, which gave Duane a spiritual, if not religious, foundation. Today, he’s unequivocal about the church’s role: In terms of community empowerment, it’s bunk. As for one’s faith, he says, “I can’t see another man taking me to God. I don’t think any man has the ability or the qualifications or is living that type of life to actually channel me to another level of spirituality.”
Take from this what you will.

The kids in the classroom are restless, probably because they’ve just come from outside, where the temperature is in the 90s again. It’s mid-June, and Johnson Traditional Middle School is the host of “Freedom School,” a summer program to get youngsters off the streets and into some kind of positive learning environment. Duane stands before them for the first time, going through introductions, trying to make it seem like he’s one of them.

“Learning is power,” he says. “Knowledge is power. Power is being a leader.”
The 17 middle-schoolers start to perk up. Over the next four weeks, he will talk hip hop and professional sports with the kids. He will challenge them to discuss matters of history — slavery and the reams of rich American black culture that ensued, the Reagan years and the introduction of crack into the ghetto, rage and anger and the culture of violence in some rap, and most importantly, how to learn from it all.
“If you’re a failure, nobody cares,” he will say.

A handful of kids tell me they like this, his fresh approach. This is, in effect, the sort of education Duane Campbell never got from public schools.

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