We finally finished our assigned task, and on the chalkboard in front of us, alongside poorly erased names, were our selections for the 25 most influential alumni of Princeton University. The selection process was relatively painless. Over a decent meal and with a few glasses of good wine, we debated the merits of each nominee. The arguments were cordial. Every now and again someone would hold the room hostage in defense of a particular person. We were willing captives, however. The good company, food, and especially the wine gave the evening a somewhat festive atmosphere. And, in the end, we compiled a list of 26 Princetonians — two were tied for the final position — that included James Madison 1771 and Donald Rumsfeld ’54.
As we gathered our things and congratulated one another, I glanced at the board and wondered aloud about the Princeton represented there. It was a self-reflective moment. The names on the board reflected a Princeton all too familiar to me and nonetheless wholly unlike my experiences here as a graduate student. I helped assemble the names, and yet I immediately felt alienated from a good evening’s work.
The question arises: How does one affiliate with an institution whose history necessarily excludes you? Or, does one ever feel a sense of belonging in a place whose blanched past reminds you, every now and again, of your “latecomer” status? I do not mean to engage in idle “PC chitchat” here. Mine is not a worry about the lack of color or the relative absence of women on this list. It could not be otherwise; history declares it so. Instead, the list of names occasions some reflection, at least a moment’s pause, on the difficulty of belonging to or being in a place that must acknowledge, however unwillingly and implicitly, its sordid past. So the issue at hand is not about the list as such, or about the fact that I was the only faculty member of color in the room, or about Princeton’s perceived failure to question its unabashed whiteness and maleness. The issue was and remains about me and those who look like me and our relation to this place, and how that relation complicates, if not undermines, any easy embrace of “Old Nassau” and its alumni of distinction (even as I helped choose the top 26 among them).
To be sure, for most of Princeton’s history people who looked like me were not allowed to walk its hallowed halls, and that fact has resulted in an incredibly difficult relationship between this extraordinary institution and its African-American alumni. Of course, African-American alumni forged lifelong bonds while here; they fell in love and experienced heartbreak; they enjoyed some classes and hated others. In this sense, Princeton always will have a special place in the hearts of its black graduates. But one would be hard-pressed to say that these experiences, ones that ordinarily would generate loyalty and fidelity to the place that made them possible, resulted in a sense of belonging and possession among most of Princeton’s African-American alumni. In some ways, so the story is told, these wonderful experiences occurred in spite of Princeton and reflect, in some significant way, a wager: that the stark reality of Princeton’s past and the undeniable pain of its lived present can be transformed by the possibilities of a not-so-distant future represented in our very presence here. The only question, and it is a daunting question at that, is: Can we survive the sense of being in but not of Princeton until then? Princeton now has a significant body of alumni of color, and we contribute to the overall vitality of the University. This might suggest that Princeton’s history ought not to condemn it, especially in the minds and hearts of its graduates, to some irredeemable and shadowy place that houses ugliness. Indeed, the presence of all latecomers loudly proclaims a different Princeton. But this takes me back to the awkward moment of recognition: the moment marked by my inability to reconcile the Princeton represented on the chalkboard and the Princeton of my experiences.
In the moment in which I chose to note the startling disjunction between “Old Nassau” and the Princeton of today, I was neither congratulating the University on a job well done nor roundly condemning a past of significant accomplishment. Instead, I needed to reframe the moment in order to make it possible for me to embrace it and the task assigned to me. Too often when we assess ourselves over and against the past (and here I am talking about us as a Princeton community), we stand in a self-congratulatory mood, patting ourselves on the shoulder for escaping the sins of our mothers and fathers. We tell ourselves stories about our journey to where we are that habitually leave in place the blind spots that exclude and deeply hurt others. Too often, then, institutional acts of piety fill the room with toxins that harm the soul, and latecomers, not all but most, retreat into the safety of their own rooms to find space to breathe — only to change, if they are not careful and attentive, into some ghastly figure, like Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, unhoused in their own homes.
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.