The University of Chicago Strikes Out

My alma mater the University of Chicago has managed to get what it’s always wanted: attention from the national press.  Unfortunately, it did so by sending a completely unnecessary letter to incoming students announcing the school’s opposition to trigger warnings and safe spaces, concepts the letter doesn’t seem to understand at all.  So let me wade into this muck in the hope of achieving some clarity.  As the University of Chicago taught me, it’s best to begin by defining one’s terms.

Just as sexual harassment is a form of expression which is nonetheless regulated to make it possible for women to function in the workplace, various kinds of campus behavior are forms of expression which may nonetheless be regulated to make it possible for non-majority students to function in academe. Surely there are ludicrous examples of demands for trigger warnings and safe spaces, just as there are egregious examples of on-campus hostility and discrimination (e.g. men parading outside a women’s dorm yelling “No means yes! Yes means anal!”).  The issue in either case is the boundary between free expression and expression designed to intimidate or silence. No one can deny that a burning cross is an example of expression but as its purpose is to terrorize, it’s considered to be on the wrong side of that boundary. So, in Europe, is Holocaust denial, though it’s tolerated on American college campuses (while assertions that the earth is flat, say, would not be).

Thus people who take seriously the possibility that a person calling black women “water buffaloes” intends to demean and silence them are simply engaging in the type of critical thinking to which universities are supposed to be dedicated as well as the complementary analysis of what is necessary to protect an environment of civil discourse.

I’m a passionate advocate of the educational experience I had at the U of C, and nonetheless I think the letter to incoming students could more succinctly have been rendered as “F**k you if you imagine anything you think will be of interest or concern to us; you must have mistaken us for someplace that cares. And if you don’t like it take your female and black and brown and queer sensibilities elsewhere.” And I am revolted that my alma mater decided its reputation was best spent on that kind of dog-whistle right-wing nonsense.

You don’t want to use trigger warnings? Don’t. But there’s no need to denounce them unless your real purpose is to let people (especially, perhaps, donors) know that you’re indifferent to any concerns about mistreatment based on identity, and that any complaints about such mistreatment will be met with dismissiveness and derision because how dare any of these 21st Century concerns impinge on the 19th Century approach to which we’ve apparently dedicated our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor?

When I spoke up at the law school, I was thanked for expressing “what the women think.” When a classmate objected to the teaching of Plato’s Symposium as though it didn’t refer to gay love, he was told that the University didn’t “cater to special interests.” When students and faculty spoke out for diversifying the curriculum beyond the dead white “mods and greats” beloved of the British university system, the response (from Saul Bellow, no less) was “where is the Proust of the Papuans?” though the whole point of his query was to ridicule the idea of our finding out.

There was nothing “micro” about these aggressions; they were perfectly visible examples of the majority’s desire to humiliate and stifle the minorities.  And the University’s admissions policies in those days (though not now, happily) were carefully designed to make sure that black and brown and even female people were in the tiniest minorities possible.

So the U of C has a long history of behaving as if modernity were a personal insult, and this letter to first-years is as much in keeping with that tradition as any boob’s expressed desire to make America great (meaning white) again.

I’ve heard there are donors to other schools who’ve withdrawn their support when their alma maters have acknowledged their role in slavery or in any way made a reckoning with the imperfections of the past.  So just to balance things out, I’m withdrawing my support of an institution which seems to glory in denying there ever were any such imperfections or that any discrimination or hostility continues to exist today. The U of C exercised its privilege of flipping the bird to its incoming students and I’m exercising my privilege to flip the bird to the U of C.

I hope the faculty and administration don’t experience that as traumatic; but just in case I’m providing this trigger warning.

My dinner with Julian

A few weeks ago, I got to have dinner with Julian Bond.  We have a friend in common, who asked me to recommend a play for when “my friend Julian Bond” came to town. “Did you say ‘your friend Julian Bond?’” I squeaked into the phone; whereupon she invited my boyfriend and me to join her and her husband and Bond and his wife for dinner.

As I drove our star-struck way downtown, I listened to Michael read from Bond’s biography on Wikipedia, even as I pretended to ignore him: “Honey, they’re not going to give us a test!”  But after he rolled through the familiar list of credits–leader in the American civil rights movement, helped establish the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, first president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, twenty years in the Georgia legislature, University of Virginia history professor, past chair of the NAACP–Michael said, “Oh, listen to this.  His father got one of the first PhDs granted to an African-American by the University of Chicago.”

“Really,” I said.  “I wonder if he was a Rosenwald Fellow.”

You’ve probably never heard of the Rosenwald Fellowships, but you’ve undoubtedly heard of many of the Fellows: W.E.B. DuBois, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, Zora Neale Hurston, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Marian Anderson, Katherine Dunham, James Weldon Johnson, Ralph Ellison and nearly every other African-American artist and scholar active in  mid-Twentieth Century America.  The Rosenwald Fellowships, like the MacArthur genius grants which succeeded them, gave no-strings-attached cash to scholars and artists to continue their work; but unlike the MacArthur grants, the Rosenwalds went almost exclusively to African-Americans.

The fellowship program was part of Julius Rosenwald’s one-man campaign for racial justice, a campaign which led him to build the Rosenwald Apartments in Chicago and YMCAs in other Northern cities to provide housing for African-Americans moving up from the South.  It also led him to construct 5,000 schools for black children who were kept out of public classrooms occupied by white students.  The Rosenwald Schools provided primary education to one-third of the South’s African-American schoolchildren between World War I and Brown v. Board of Education.

So why haven’t you learned about any of this?  Because Julius Rosenwald, who made a fortune as the president of Sears, gave much of that fortune away during his lifetime and directed that the rest be spent within ten years of his death.  So his legacy isn’t a foundation with a big building giving out the occasional grant and the frequent press release; it’s the thousands of people educated and housed by his generosity.  But no good deed goes unpunished: for failing to make perpetuity his highest concern, Rosenwald has largely been forgotten.

Not by all of us, though.  I learned the story several years ago when the Spertus Museum in Chicago put on an exhibit of work by Rosenwald  Fellows.  One item in the exhibit was enough to persuade me of the Fellowships’ significance: a kinescope of Katherine Dunham performing new dances influenced by her Rosenwald-funded trip to the Caribbean.  As I watched the motions and the gestures, I recognized the origins of Alvin Ailey’s classic “Revelations.”  Ailey was Dunham’s student; and so, from Rosenwald to Dunham to Ailey, we have perhaps the premier work of American dance.

Thus, after a pleasant dinner in which we talked about theater and travel and the demographic transformation of Washington–Bond’s wife Pam said, “Yes, Julian calls our neighborhood Upper Caucasia”–I turned to him and said, “So, your father was a Rosenwald Fellow?”

He seemed equal parts surprised and gratified to encounter someone who knew about the Rosenwalds, and what an honor it was to receive one, and told the following story:

During a trip South in the mid-1930s to do research as part of his fellowship, Horace Mann Bond drove his car into a ditch.  Apparently a pair of rural African-Americans made their living digging holes in the road and then charging hapless motorists to tow their cars out of them.  While the two entrepreneurs were hooking up the tow truck, one of them observed Mr. Bond’s elegant city clothes and the new car he was driving, and asked how a black man came to have such luxuries.  Mr. Bond explained that he was a Rosenwald Fellow and that the fellowship had paid for the clothes and the car as well as the research he was about to do.  His interlocutor smiled: “You know Cap’n Julius?”  He hoisted the car back onto the road.  “No charge.”

Later, over coffee, Julian showed me an iPhone photo of himself seated next to an extremely elderly white lady who was holding his hand in both of hers.  “Do you know who this is?” he asked.  “In 1961 her book outsold the Bible!”  It was, of course, Harper Lee, author of To Kill A Mockingbird; and on one of his recent trips South, Bond had gotten to meet her.  “I’m so excited, I’m stopping people on the street to say, ‘Look at this!  I had coffee with Harper Lee!’”

Which is, of course, just how I feel about my dinner with Julian.

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