“Nostalgia is often the abdication of responsibility.” Prof. Eddie Glaude, Jr.
I’ve been thinking about nostalgia these days. It isn’t as good as it used to be, though. (Insert rimshot).
I started ruminating about nostalgia when my wife and I watched Ken Burns’ Country Music series (which I have also discussed here and here). It’s a monumental work, and was fascinating to me, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that my knowledge of the genre is pretty limited. I came of age listening to music in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the type of music that you listened to was a political statement. If you were a liberal, anti-war type, then you listened to long haired hippy rock and roll. And if you were a conservative hawk, then you favored cowboy hat, Nudie suit wearing country. Which, like most generalizations, is overbroad, of course, but there’s a lot of truth in it, and Burns addressed that in the documentary.
It is hard to argue that rock music didn’t branch off from country, when artists like Elvis Presley melded country with what was called “race” music, or rhythm and blues, creating something that was, predictably, rejected by the country music establishment. Burns also made a big point about the fact that Johnny Cash was politically and socially progressive, even at the height of his popularity, and possibly at the cost of his popularity. It really wasn’t until much later, when I had started listening to more folk/Americana/alt-country music that I began to dip my toes into classic country music.
But what struck me the most about the series was the thread of nostalgia that runs through country music from its very early days. So much of country music was based on looking back toward what was seen as simpler, better times, which, to me, was a reaction to the various upheavals in the South and West (from whence this music mostly comes)–the end of slavery, the Great Depression and Dust Bowl poverty and migrations from rural areas to cities, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement, and so on. When life now is hard, look back to when things were better (or at least seemed so, with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia). And often, the reaction to the perceived commercial and “inauthentic” forms of country music was nostalgic–a return to roots, old-time mountain music, bluegrass, and more stripped down, less glossy music.
Then, I went to Princeton over the weekend. Visiting one’s alma mater makes it almost impossible not to engage in nostalgia, and Princeton is a champion at encouraging it. Walking through the campus where you lived in your youth floods your brain with memories of that older, simpler time. But, of course, it isn’t the same place. New buildings have gone up in the decades since I graduated, and some have been razed. And the campus is filled with young people, living their own college years, and, to the extent they even notice us alumni, thinking about how old we look. Not to mention, if I were to assess my college years objectively, there were things that I certainly would have done differently, a realization that sometimes interrupts the warm orange glow of my memories.
I was on campus to attend the Thrive conference focusing on Princeton’s black alumni. No, I’m not black (although I do have dark skin for a white guy), but Princeton invites back all of its alumni for all of its various affinity group conferences. Actually, one of the great things about being a Princeton alumnus who lives reasonably close is that the university provides us with many opportunities to hear from professors, prominent and interesting alumni, and students throughout the year.
There was, of course, a good deal of nostalgia–people seeing old friends and talking about old times–but there was also a significant amount of discussion about how things had changed over the years, and whether it was enough change. At least two of the sessions that I attended directly addressed the question of nostalgia. The first was led by Professor Glaude, who spent the session mostly reading the first chapter of his forthcoming book, Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own, interspersing observations and comments along the way. It was a tour de force. A key point that Glaude raised was about Baldwin’s position that the nostalgic “American Dream” was, in fact, a lie for black Americans, and that failing to understand that results in a failure to understand the black experience in America.
And certainly, this dark side of nostalgia was the underlying basis of the Trump campaign, whose slogan, “Make America Great Again” was nothing more than an attempt to look backwards. But it begged the question–when was America great, with the clear subtext that its supposed greatness was when white men ruled unquestioned, and the interests of minorities and women were of little or no importance — which is why the white supremacist movement burst back into prominence, when the President is a sympathizer who refused to denounce neo-Nazi violence.
Toward the end of the weekend, I attended a session devoted to a discussion of how Princeton was addressing some of its own less savory history, mostly related to race. Most of the session focused on the legacy of Woodrow Wilson, former University president, whose name is on two significant Princeton institutions. In 2016, the Black Justice League, a student organization, occupied Princeton president Chris Eisgruber’s office for 33 hours, with a wide-ranging set of demands, including the removal of Wilson’s name, due to his racism.
After gathering comments from various constituencies and historians, Princeton decided, in light of its perception that Wilson’s legacy was mixed, both in his transformation of Princeton and in some of his policies as U.S. President, not to remove the Wilson name, but to take a number of steps to confront Wilson’s history and other problematic parts of its past. One of those steps was to commission an installation, “Double Sights,” which is located on the plaza in front of the Wilson School for Public and International Affairs. The designer of the piece, artist Walter Hood, an African-American who recently was awarded a Macarthur Fellowship and the Gish Prize, cogently explained how his project was intended to address Wilson’s legacy. As President Eisgruber said at the dedication, which followed the session, “It is disruptive by design. ‘Double Sights’ exposes the profound contradictions in Wilson’s life and character, and in so doing, it challenges us to confront the fault lines in our society and the tensions within the human soul.” So, if you agreed with the university’s approach toward dealing with Wilson, the installation appears to be a good start.
However, it was clear that not everyone agreed with the way Princeton was acting, and most of the comments from the audience were negative. One black alum who graduated in the 70s was adamant that Wilson’s name needed to be erased from its positions of honor, and he was joined in that sentiment by a recent alum who was one of the founders of the Black Justice League, and a current student, among others, one of whom pointed out that the Wilson School is literally the whitest building on campus. It was a stark reminder of the power of history to affect current attitudes and passions, and the need to reassess the “good old days” when they actually weren’t all that good (for most people).
Our featured song, “Nostalgia,” by Cracker, references Stonewall Jackson’s arm, which had been amputated and buried and never reunited with the rest of the traitor’s body (although it has reportedly been exhumed and reburied). Of course, the “Lost Cause” narrative is one of the most insidious examples of nostalgia in this country’s history, and it has resulted in a remarkable amount of memorializing of the rebelling traitors and as an excuse for continued oppression of black Americans. Cracker, by the way, chose its name, in part, because they were making music “based on country, bluegrass and [a] good dose of ‘White boy blues-rock, southern rock, and soul influenced rock. Things like The Band, Little Feat even Lynyrd Skynyrd,” which someone suggested sounded like “Cracker Soul Music.”
People are always going to look backwards, but it is important to assess the past with a fresh eye, without fear of what that examination might find, and with a desire to improve what needs improvement. As Representative Terri Sewell, an African-American member of Princeton’s Class of 1986, and the speaker at the Thrive closing dinner, stated in a New York Times op-ed, “Patriotism is not looking at our past through rosy glasses and a revisionist history; it is having the courage to examine more closely those areas that are broken, and it is believing in the power of the system to fix them.”