Hope, history and common ground: The story of two Yale buildings — and America

Yale renamed a college to escape the ghost of slavery — but also renamed its dining Commons for a billionaire

Published September 21, 2019 6:00AM (EDT)

Jonathan Holloway and Stephen Schwarzman (AP Photo/Getty Images/Yale Daily News/Julia Henry)
Jonathan Holloway and Stephen Schwarzman (AP Photo/Getty Images/Yale Daily News/Julia Henry)

This article originally appeared at The Politic. Used by permission.

When the African-American historian Jonathan Holloway, then-master of Yale’s John C. Calhoun College, invited me to become a fellow there in 2009, the university hadn’t yet been convulsed by controversy over the name of Calhoun — the pre-Civil war vice president, senator and constitutional theorist but also ardent and powerful defender of slavery — or over the designation of the university’s residential-college heads as “master,” a title that seemed to many to double down on Calhoun’s legacy.

Holloway’s America and mine was still the country where Joan Baez, a progressive’s progressive, had moved audiences of all persuasions by singing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song that enfolds the Confederacy’s “lost cause” romantics empathetically into a larger American civic culture. If there wasn’t much controversy in 2009 about Calhoun College and the title of “master,” it wasn’t because no one was “woke” to history’s cruelties and ironies; it was because there was more hope for a shared civic and political culture. No one was more “woke” to that culture’s defaults than Holloway, an intellectual historian of black America. But he had wiser ideas and inclinations, honed since his childhood, about how to confront America’s racial cruelties and ironies.

Now that Yale is stirring again, as it was in 2015, with controversies over renaming — a somewhat nasty rehashing of what was accomplished and lost in renaming Calhoun College, this time in order to name a new residential college for the late, pioneering Yale computer scientist Grace Hopper, and in the form of a rising resistance to the university’s renaming of its historic Commons dining hall as the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Center” —  we need to reassess Holloway’s admonition that “The real work for a place at Yale is not about the name on the building. It’s about a deep and substantive commitment to being honest about power, structural systems of privilege and their perpetuation.”

By renaming Calhoun College for Hopper, the university acknowledged but merely finessed Holloway’s call for substantive commitment to interrogate and challenge structures that perpetuate and deepen the country’s inequalities. Renaming Commons for Stephen A. Schwarzman openly flouts any such commitment by giving Yale’s imprimatur to self-celebrating, self-exculpating philanthropy. No donor is pure, but Yale’s acceptance of this donor and donation was unnecessary. Undoubtedly, there are several reasons why Holloway has left Yale to become the provost of Northwestern University, but I can’t imagine him being happy when, as dean of Yale College, he was tasked with co-chairing the committee on reconfiguring Commons to become the Schwarzman Center, in whose redesign Schwarzman himself has been intimately involved.

Born in 1967, Holloway grew up in Montgomery, Alabama, and other places from which his Air Force father — later to become the first black instructor at the Air War College — flew front-line missions in Vietnam and other hot spots. When Jonathan was six years old, the Air Force wanted to improve its public image by making his father a general in the Strategic Air Command. Jonathan’s "Jim Crow Wisdom: Memory and Identity in Black America Since 1940," a gripping memoir-cum-meditation, reports that the higher-ups believed that his father and mother were raising “the right kind of family” to integrate both the Air Force and the all-white Montgomery Academy that some military children attended.

Holloway and his siblings became the first black students to take the school’s admissions test, but news reports of that breakthrough enraged local racists. Soon after, his father nixed the plan: He’d become disillusioned with the military, he wasn’t a civil-rights activist, and he didn’t want to head a “poster family” for integration. “Was his personal silence [about racism and American war-making] something that he felt he needed to pass on to his children?” Jonathan wonders in his book. “Is that [silence] what made us the ‘right kind of family?”

Whatever it was, Holloway’s father resisted being showcased not only because he was “woke” against tokenism but because he was wise about the tactical importance of bending history’s arc toward justice without being so histrionic about it that one becomes counterproductive. (I learned a similar lesson while following black protest politics in Brooklyn in the 1980s, writing "The Closest of Strangers" as Al Sharpton’s and others’ histrionics marginalized wholly legitimate grievances. Holloway learned the lesson far more fatefully and felicitously and mastered the art of winning over presumptive enemies instead of demonizing them.)

In 2015, Holloway resisted the clamor to rename Calhoun College because, as he explained later, he preferred making a “powerful statement about the redemptive power of the American experiment that an African-American — one who specialized in the African-American past, no less — could run a college named for John C. Calhoun…. The very fact that Calhoun could not imagine someone like me teaching at Yale … offered a commentary on how far we had come as a country.”

Small wonder then that, a year before controversy erupted over the “master” title and the Calhoun name, I watched Master Jonathan Holloway, with his trademark mix of immense dignity and friendly accessibility, read from "Jim Crow Wisdom" to a rapt Calhoun College audience as he stood near its mounted oil portrait of none other than John C. Calhoun. Sitting in the audience, ramrod straight, restraining his pride, was Holloway’s father, a witness to the redemptive power of the American experiment as his son trans-valued enough of the values that had surrounded Calhoun to make the latter roll over in his grave. Holloway’s dignity and courage made dropping the title of “master” seem more a dodge than an enlargement of that word’s benign meanings.

A couple of historical analogies are worth pondering there. If medieval Spanish Catholicism were still the only official and permissible religion in Los Angeles, then the city’s thousands of Muslim, Jewish and other non-Catholic residents might well object to the fact that the original name of the city (by some accounts) was El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula — The City of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels of the River Porciuncula. Today, though, those who are even aware of the city’s old name enjoy its harmless antiquity.

The case of Rhode Island’s full name — The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations — is more problematic. A decade ago, some of the state’s black legislators sought but, in a statewide referendum, failed to remove “Providence Plantations” for reasons similar to those given by Yale students who associated the title of “master” with slave masters in the Old South. But when Rhode Island was settled and led by the dissident Puritan Roger Williams, who abhorred slavery and interacted with the area’s Native Americans as their guest and brother, not their conqueror, “plantation” was merely a generic English term for settlements in America. Still, however fine Williams’ example may have been, the brute fact of colonization made the seemingly neutral English term “plantation” a carrier of injustice. Unlike “master,” it hasn’t carried other, more benign meanings into our time. But if that’s true, shouldn’t whites — the descendants and beneficiaries of the colonizers — remove not only the term “plantation” but also themselves from the former colonies? Not if they treat the past as Jonathan Holloway did at Yale — as a prod to bend history’s arc toward justice.

Holloway eventually did accept the renaming of Calhoun College, but even then he wrote that “I am riven” — torn between his own, more powerful statement and his recognition that “we are living in an era when nuance has lost so much value and when withering excoriations play better in a universe of likes and retweets…” When Yale’s convulsions came in 2015, he was confronted one day on campus by distraught black undergraduates who, although middle-class, were finding Yale unbearably cold and demeaning, not because they were “privileged” but because they were burdened with others’ outsized or low expectations, as well as occasional malevolence, and hadn’t grown up with options quite as rich and disciplined as those that had helped Holloway to earn his BA at Stanford and his PhD in history at Yale. The symbolism in a name change couldn’t offset the American experiment’s and Yale’s deepening complicity in perpetuating structural systems of privilege, inequality and illegitimate power. True enough, racist and anti-Semitic attacks are on the rise, but that’s partly because inequality among Americans of all backgrounds is rising, too.

That brings us to the tragedy of Commons, the vast, baronial dining hall in the university’s semi-sacred civic center that was built for Yale’s bicentennial in 1901. Commons is connected to Memorial Hall, a rotunda where the names of hundreds of Yale men who died in the country’s wars are inscribed in icy marble under apothegms such as, “Courage Disdains Fame and Wins It,” and to Woolsey Hall, the university’s grand auditorium, home to one of the world’s largest, most renowned Romantic organs, whose thundering brought Schwarzman, me and a thousand other young, overwhelmingly white men in dark suits to our feet on Sept. 13, 1965, as our induction into Yale began.

Were we being inducted into liberal education’s great conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit? Or were we being inducted into a thundering nationalism and imperialism? Or both? What would Socrates have said? The name “Commons” had taken on democratic as well as aristocratic resonances over the years: Anyone at Yale could eat there, and Socratic dialogues did ensue over some meals. But all those names engraved in the rotunda a few yards away suggested that we were supposed to become Plato’s republican guardians, elite “good shepherds” of society, in competition only with a few other “guardians” similarly endowed and entitled.

In his book "What It Takes," Schwarzman recalls something different: “Commons … seemed like a train station full of hundreds of people eating,” unlike his high school cafeteria, where, he writes, “I had known everyone. At Yale in the fall of 1965 … I didn’t know a single one. … The loneliness was crushing. Everyone and everything intimidated me.”

Others of us felt alone and intimidated too, but some of us also felt challenged to become worthy of something much larger than ourselves. I wasn’t sure just what that something might be, but Schwarzman’s response to feeling small was to make himself so much larger than what Commons represented that he would reconfigure and rename it for himself. New York Times style writer Jacob Bernstein portrayed him recently as “a flash point for income inequality, a man with more money than respect” whose poor reputation “seldom stops him from having the last laugh, or getting the multi-million-dollar tax write-off.” The adjacent Woolsey Hall auditorium, by comparison, is named for Theodore Dwight Woolsey, a political economist who was Yale’s president from 1846 to 1871, including throughout the Civil War.

Schwarzman’s business practices and collaborations with President Trump, which I’ve outlined in The Washington Monthly and Dissent, are a civil war’s distance from Holloway’s call for “a deep and substantive commitment to being honest about power, structural systems of privilege and their perpetuation.” His insatiable drive to name things after himself is even more distant from courage that disdains fame and wins it.

Like Holloway, I’m “riven” about Yale’s decision to drop the name Calhoun and the title of master instead of trans-valuing them, as he did. But I’m certain that swapping the civic and historical resonances of “Commons” for the conceits of “Schwarzman,” giving him the pleasure of turning the tables on an institution that daunted him, is a blunder. So is the silence about it from those who’ve demanded or resisted the defenestration of Calhoun. Yale has been seduced by a $150 million “bells and whistles” student center into traducing the best of what it and Holloway have stood for. More faculty, including the Faculty Senate, should say so. So should more students, some of whom have written trenchant analyses of this folly, as I’ve recounted in the columns linked above.

By Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

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