How & How Not to Use History & Public Memory at Yale

How & How Not to Use History & Public Memory at Yale

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.

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