Spurred by the students’ protest, Princeton’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, and the school’s board of trustees established a committee to reëxamine the ways in which the university commemorated [Woodrow] Wilson. Scholars, biographers, and members of the school community were invited to contribute to the conversation. Nell Painter, an emerita professor and the author of “The History of White People,” spoke to the heart of the matter. “It’s all about the questions we ask,” she said. “The questions have changed. I mean, the questions always change. That’s why we keep writing history.”
In the end, Princeton chose not to remove Wilson’s name from the buildings, but it did agree to deepen its story of Wilson. Signage around campus and within dormitories now gives a fuller sense of Wilson’s segregationist views, and of Princeton’s exclusionary history. The school also agreed to diversify representation across the campus. One of the administration’s most important decisions was to rename West College, which houses the dean of the college and the undergraduate admissions office, after Toni Morrison, who taught for many years at the university.
The issue is far from resolved. Black students at Princeton aren’t interlopers. They are not guests on campus or beneficiaries of charity who should be grateful to the school. They are, unlike in Wilson’s day, an integral part of the community. And, like all students on campus, they should feel a sense of possession of the university. Much more work needs to be done, but their protest brilliantly forced the university to reassess its past in the full light of its current values.
Their protest might also help us think about Trump’s and Kelly’s view of “what history is.” As a first principle, history cannot be equated with comfort, nostalgia, or a fixed arc of progress. We need to get the facts right; otherwise, we are trading only in what Du Bois called “lies agreed upon.” In particular, we can’t elide the facts that complicate how we might see a historical figure or event. Washington held slaves, and he didn’t treat them very well. Jefferson wrote brilliantly about democracy, and he also owned slaves, exploited Sally Hemings, the enslaved mother of his children, and wondered aloud if black people were biologically inferior. The record shows this to be true.
And yet the facts alone aren’t enough. What we do with them, the kinds of questions we ask about them, and for what ends, matter. For some, the fact that Washington and Jefferson owned slaves disqualifies them as moral exemplars. For others, the men may have been wrong in owning slaves, but that fact stands alongside other, more admirable aspects of their lives. William Dunning’s interpretation of Reconstruction was different from Du Bois’s. Each of these interpretations reveals something about what is valued, and about how the past as told speaks to the present. Our appeals to history can never be entirely objective; they aim, just as often, to clarify our commitments today.
This is why, in moments of revolution or profound cultural shifts, one of the first things that people remove are symbols of old values. Many of Lenin’s and Stalin’s statues, for example, had to fall. Since the murder of George Floyd, in May, by a white police officer, Confederate monuments across the country have been either toppled or removed. But it’s telling that Robert E. Lee continues to stand tall in Charlottesville, where Heyer died. We have the facts straight, and know what values Lee represented, but there remains, no matter the protests, disagreement on what story should be told. As Baldwin put it, in “No Name in the Street,” “One may see that the history, which is now indivisible from oneself, has been full of errors and excesses; but this is not the same thing as seeing that, for millions of people, this history . . . has been nothing but an intolerable yoke, a stinking prison, a shrieking grave.” If white people in America choose to accept the lie, Baldwin argued, others would never be free to reject it. And rejecting the lie was, for him, the precondition to progress.