Something more fundamental must happen if we latecomers are to avoid this fate. We must encounter the fullness of our history, and that requires a more intense encounter with who we take ourselves to be. James Baldwin makes this point about America in general — that the myth of its innocence shields the nation from the brutal facts of its own tortuous past — and his relentless attention to the blind spots constitutes, at least for him, a constraint on American hubris and enables a qualified embrace of a nation that resolutely rejects him. History, and how we invoke it, then matters a great deal (even when we are engaged in the rather trite task of choosing our most noted alumni). As Baldwin writes in his 1965 essay, “The White Man’s Guilt”:
History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.
To recognize history’s presence in us, then, is to understand the absolute necessity of fingering its jagged edges in order, if just for a moment, to prick our frames of reference and to unsettle our established identities.
For Baldwin — and I agree — the past orients us appropriately to the tasks of self-creation and of reconstructing American society. He wrote in “The White Man’s Guilt”:
In great pain and terror one begins to assess the history which has placed one where one is and formed one’s point of view. In great pain and terror because, therefore, one enters into battle with that historical creation, Oneself, and attempts to re-create oneself according to a principle more humane and more liberating; one begins the attempt to achieve a level of personal maturity and freedom which robs history of its tyrannical power, and also changes history. ... But, obviously, I am speaking as an historical creation which has had bitterly to contest its history, to wrestle with it, and finally accept it in order to bring myself out of it.
These words provide a blueprint for addressing the challenge of “Old Nassau.” Princeton’s latecomers ought not to discard the past. It is what it is. And we must understand all too well its charm and magic. Like Baldwin, we must confront this institution’s history in all of its complexity and see how its imprint informs and shapes our choices. Confronting it allows us, at least for a moment, to break loose from “its tyrannical power” so that we may imagine ourselves and the University anew.The choosing of the most influential Princeton alumni and my participation in the process occasioned a moment to reflect on the difficulty of belonging. How I manage that difficulty involves how I orient myself to the problem. Baldwin placed much faith in shifting the object of our concern: We turn to the past, he suggests, only to better equip ourselves to invade the future intelligently and with love. In the end, I accept Princeton’s past, not out of reverence for “Old Nassau,” but because of an unyielding faith in future possibilities made possible by our presence here today. It is a wager. I am anxious to see what this list will look like 50 years from now.