Discovering a World in Books A librarian's journey from detroit to duke

By Emilie Poplett

At eight years old and four feet tall, Karen Jean "KJ" Hunt climbed aboard a city bus to the public library, not for the books, but for the air conditioning—a rare luxury in 1960s Detroit.

Her trips to the library became routine, and as time passed, she made herself at home among the shelves and card catalogs. "I spent most of my childhood in libraries," she said. "And I just knew. It was like, knowledge is here. Your future is here. Your way out of Detroit is here." As a young black woman in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, she found comfort in the smell of old books and in the stories of esteemed African-American authors—Maya Angelou, Richard Wright, James Baldwin—who wrote of adventures, of possibilities, of trips to Paris and Berlin.

"I just knew: Knowledge is here. Your future is here. Your way out of Detroit is here."

KJ saw a future in their stories, a life beyond Detroit in the voyages they took and the worlds they created. "I followed what I read about in books," she said. "Everyone was traveling. I always had in my head that that was a possibility.”

“I’m not sure why I never understood, ‘You are an inner city kid whose mom is on welfare who lives in the projects of Detroit. You don’t get to go [abroad].’ That never computed."

The courage she needed to navigate Detroit as a young child, she would later realize, was what empowered her to take her first trip overseas. With the same spirit of resourcefulness and independence she possessed in grade school, she joined the Air Force at 18 and traveled to Japan. She remembers the homesickness, the longing for a cheeseburger and fries, but also the sense of discovery. “I remember thinking, ‘You've gotta get out more, KJ. There’s a whole world out here!’”

(Left) 1975 U.S. Air Force basic training photo. (Right) 1974 high school graduation photo.

After graduating college with an English degree, she would take $1,000 out of her bank account and backpack through Europe, spend time in England and Spain and sail across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco.

“Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.” —Maya Angelou

Something about Africa stuck. She joined the Peace Corps and returned to the continent for two years, taking up residence in a small brick home in Kenya.

When she came back to the United States, KJ returned to her Midwestern roots and pursued a master’s degree in public history.

The first African-American to complete the program and only the second to try, she decided to focus her studies on African-American history and culture. Delving into black history was a way to build on her interest in Africa, but also to find a scholarly identity in a class of white students.

"I looked around and I said, 'There are a lot of white people in America.' I knew we were minorities, but I didn't understand the vastness of whiteness in America," she said. "I was African-American before I was a librarian, so I just decided, I'm making everything black."

KJ's desk at Duke includes many souvenirs collected during trips to Kenya, Zimbabwe and Haiti, a newspaper article featuring her archival work, and a photo of her posing with Michael Jackson. ("I got that photo by convincing the backstage staff that my father was a record producer!")

After receiving a second master's degree, this time in library studies, she carried her specialization in black studies to the international and area studies department at Duke University Libraries, where she has worked for the past 15 years. Just as she found identity in black scholarship, KJ saw an opportunity to help African students at Duke understand their place in a broader African history, and to teach American students more about the past and present social realities of African-Americans.

“The majority of the students will say, ‘I never learned [black history] in school.’”

Having built up a community of librarians from Africa to the Caribbean, KJ shares with students the knowledge and resource material she has collected from all over the world. To build closer relationships with Duke faculty and staff, she decided to join the introductory African and African-American courses and get to know students throughout the semester, helping them select documents to support their course papers and offering advice and context for students traveling to Africa through Duke Engage, Global Education for Undergraduates and other global programs.

Now, she affectionately refers to Duke students as “her babies”—an apt term of endearment considering her own story began in a library.

KJ will retire in January after 15 years at Duke. Retire is a relative term; she plans to re-join the Peace Corps to serve in Armenia starting in March. Another journey, another stamp on her passport. “I have no idea what life is going to be like this time next year. It’s bizarre," she said. "The adventures of KJ continue.”

For more Duke Global stories, visit our website.


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