Come a long way, long way still to go

Things have improved, but still we’re far from the goal (and there are constant threats to take back the gains). The hymn for this time begins:

Lift ev’ry voice and sing
‘Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
… Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on ’til victory is won

This is “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”, sometimes called the “Negro National Anthem” (of the United States). I happen to think that this is vastly superior as a national anthem to the bombs bursting in the air and the flag that was still there, but I understand that nothing associated with black people could possibly be adopted for all of us — and that’s part of the problem.

[On this blog, in the 12/1/17 posting “Maple Donuts, coffee shops, and unapologetic identities”, see the section on “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing”. Meanwhile, I’ve posted, in yesterday’s “Great progress, grave threat”, about the parallel history of the treatment of lgbt people: great advances, still lots to do, threats to reverse those gains.]

But my real aim is a story from my alma mater, Princeton, about the valedictorian of the class of 2020, Nicholas Johnson. I got the story first on Facebook on 5/10/20, and then immediately a New York Times piece on 5/11, “After 274 Years, Princeton Will Have Its First Black Valedictorian” by Corey Kilgannon, including the comment from Johnson:

Given Princeton’s troubled history with slavery, the valedictorian said he hoped the achievement “serves as inspiration to black students coming up behind me.”

There’s no follow-up in this story on Princeton’s “troubled history” — see my comments below, and note that now, “At Princeton, 419 of the 5,328 undergrads are black, or 7.9 percent of all undergraduates” (which represents a considerable advance over Princeton’s troubled history, though it’s still well under the percentage  of blacks in the US popuation).

My response on 5/10 on Facebook (with some later additions in square brackets):

Point 1: Johnson is Canadian [from Montreal], not American, though it looks like he’s now throwing himself into an American education [the doctoral program in operations research at MIT], if not an entirely American future.

Point 2: a black valedictorian at Princeton is a gigantically big thing. Woodrow Wilson was notoriously, deeply, racist, and as president of the university he systematically reduced the number of black men at Princeton to zero. Later administrations altered this, but only slightly: there was an unspoken quota, which allowed no more than two black students in any class. They, of course, were all the sons of the black upper middle class. I was friends with several of these men, who were great guys, but desperately lonely as 2 out of 700 [in their class], and subject to astonishingly shitty treatment from many of their classmates (Princeton then drew its student body disproportionately from the South), but gritted their teeth in order to get the education Princeton offered. (Many were under great pressure from their families to continue to Rise.) [I just realized that at least one of the Princeton classes when I was an undergraduate had more crown princes of Saudi Arabia in it than black guys.]

Point 3: Americans subscribe deeply to the idea that ability is genetic, despite the massive counterevidence from the history of almost all immigrant peasant groups (the Irish, the Italians, the Poles, the Jews from various countries, the Chinese, etc.), who arrive derided as dumb, dirty, and dangerous (and lazy), but then flourish in a atmosphere of opportunity, and fill out into the full range of sociocultural niches (though typically while preserving some symbolic aspects of their culture, especially their religion and their food). (Latinos of several varieties are now well along on this train.) It is remarkably heartening that in an atmosphere of opportunity, the abilities of immigrant groups *explode*. (I am personally the benefactor, and vehicle, of this explosion.) Along the way, there are stories of heroic successes, people of great ability who push through the crap to lead the way for others like them.

Opportunities for African Americans to get on the train have been largely blocked (they’re forever foreigners, from Africa, and besides that they’re subhuman, more like animals than people), but truly heroic efforts over roughly 200 years have loosened the chains enough that fairly large numbers of highly able African Amercans (especially women as well as men) are now visible all over the place. I prefer to view this fact as deeply heartening, though the amount of ambient hatred is hard to stomach. [Come a long way, still a long way to go — a slogan I picked up from some black politically minded acquaintance so long ago that I can’t recall the context.]

Nicholas Johnson [Princeton Class of 2020] is in this number — alas, consigned to carrying the water for His People, probably for the rest of his life.

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