Growing up in the mid-1960s as a white girl in Tuskegee, Alabama, Mab Segrest attended a segregated private school that her parents had helped found in response to a court order years earlier to integrate public high schools. In the shadows of governor George Wallace’s racist violence, history had “come to [her] front door.” Seeking a better understanding of the U.S. South, she found William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury in the local library. Perplexed by the interior monologue of its opening pages, she forged ahead in grappling with the famed Southern writer’s dizzying language. Around page 105, a revelation rewarded her persistence: she had been reading from the point of view of cognitively impaired Benjy, the “idiot.”

Years later, while a graduate student in Duke’s English department, a time during which she eventually came out as a lesbian, she explored the contents of the Intimate Bookshop in the next town over, Chapel Hill. A question in a book called Sappho Was a Right-On Woman transformed her worldview: “What causes heterosexuality?” By shifting the query from homosexuality to heterosexuality, the question was a “revelation” for Segrest.

By continuing to dwell on Faulkner’s novel, Segrest learned the value of perseverance: “Sometimes you just need to keep reading.” In grappling with the queries of a feminist text (“what causes heterosexuality?”), she realized that “how you ask the questions makes a really big difference.” Texts, arguments, and how people struggle with what it means to be human can be “liberatory or revelatory,” whether for a young girl in the midst of an apartheid system or for a lesbian woman in a homophobic society. Together, these humanities moments bookend Segrest’s personal and intellectual formation and her understanding of the intersections of race, class, sexuality, and gender.


This is Mab Segrest and this is my Humanities Moment. When asked to evoke this moment, I’m taken back to 1965, maybe, in Tuskegee, Alabama, where I’m a student at Macon Academy, a segregated private school that my parents had helped to start a couple years before, when the federal court put out an order in Macon County to integrate Tuskegee High School, where I attended, with three other high schools in cities across the state, and George Wallace sent state troopers on horses to close it down. And my parents helped to shape Macon Academy. And a couple years in, history had come to my front door. I would see the troopers two blocks down, and the media were on my doorstep, and then we would watch ourselves at night on TV, and it had really roiled a lot of reflections for me, as a white girl in a very segregated town, and what the South meant, what this all meant.

So, I went to the little library we had accumulated, that was in Harris Hotel next to the school, next to my house, and I decided I should read William Faulkner, because Faulkner supposedly wrote about the South. So, I picked out this book called The Sound And The Fury, which I had kind of heard of, too, and I started reading it. Now, if you’ve read The Sound And The Fury, you’ll know this. If you’ve not, I need to tell you that it’s done in a series of interior monologues with characters, and the first one is a character Benjy Compson, who is cognitively disabled—in the product of the times, an idiot—and the first hundred pages take place in his head.

Well, I would read the first 60 pages, and I would think, “What in the world is going on here? I’ve never—” And I would start again, and I would start again, and I was more perplexed, just about, than I ever have been with a literary text. And so finally I decided, “You just need to read it more.” And so I got to page 105 and realized, “Oh, wow. It’s Benjy! It’s not me!” This is somebody whose mental—you know, this is an idiot. Which is a derogatory term, but that’s what was I given to think of in the day. And I learned that sometimes you just need to keep reading. And certainly with my culture, I needed to do that, too.

I had a kind of equivalent moment later, 20 years later, when I came to Duke to graduate school. I came out as a lesbian. Well, I came to graduate school, and I had a lesbian relationship, but I wasn’t out as a lesbian, and I was really needing to understand it, in some way or another, so I didn’t go to the Gothic Bookshop at Duke, because people might see me. I went to the Intimate Bookstore in Chapel Hill. I got a book called Sappho Was a Right-On Woman, and I read through it, and there’s a list of three questions that you should ask yourself, and I only remember one. “What causes heterosexuality?” And that question was a revelation to me. Like, “Oh, it’s not what causes homosexuality. It’s what causes heterosexuality.”

I can ask the questions, and how you ask the questions makes a really big difference, so both of those are kind of bookends to how texts, arguments, people struggling with what it means to be human in particular cultural contexts, can be liberating and revelatory to either an adolescent in Alabama struggling with the apartheid system or later on, a woman who is a lesbian struggling with this intensely homophobic culture. And the larger literatures that have come out of African American scholars and women scholars, and queer scholars, on these questions of race/gender, have revolutionized, really, our understanding of the human, of what humanities are, and where we are positioned within them. So my humanities moment, then, is my encounter as a girl in Tuskegee with The Sound and The Fury.

Mab Segrest (NHC Fellow, 2017–18)