“I’m not in a very good mood with ‘America’ myself,” William Dean Howells wrote to Henry James in 1888. “It seems to be the most grotesquely illogical thing under the sun; and I suppose I love it less because it won’t let me love it more. I should hardly like to trust pen and ink with all the audacity of my social ideas; but after fifty years of optimistic content with ‘civilization’ and its ability to come out all right in the end, I now abhor it, and feel that it is coming out all wrong in the end, unless it bases itself anew on a real equality. Meantime I wear a fur-lined overcoat, and live in all the luxury my money can buy.”
My America is this university and my fur-lined overcoat is the seclusion of my office, from which I can look out onto the patio between Greenlaw and Bingham and see students hurrying into the buildings during class changes. I think they look so good, wrapped up and grimacing in the cold on their way to their English classes. I like their tall boots, the masses of Carolina sweatshirts, the idle chatter I hear on the other side of the door. “Did you do the reading?” “Have you started the paper?” “My friend just texted me there’s free Merritt’s in the pit!” I imagine where they all come from: Waxhaw, Wilmington, Apex, Fayetteville, Charlotte, the few from New York and Virginia. Could you read it on them? Where they come from and what they think?
I wonder, still young and self-conscious, if they can read it on me: my sorrow over the future of the university. Reaching for hope instead of fear, I try to remember how I felt in December, reading Hope In the Dark, how I told my partner, my sister, my friend, not to be afraid of failure, of paralysis, of diving in. “Activism,” Rebecca Solnit writes, “is not a journey to the corner store; it is a plunge into the dark.” “History,” she continues, “is like weather, not like checkers. A game of checkers ends. The weather never does.” The plunge into the dark of activism, the gospel truth of history. I have trouble reconciling them. If I am being truthful, I prefer a journey to the corner store. I like a game of checkers.
But I like the frankness of the questions my students ask in our family history class more. “Where is Gaston County anyway?” “What is a city directory?” “My grandmother was adopted. What should I do?” The class is made up of fourteen freshman. They’re from Arizona, Charlotte, Winston-Salem, and Hickory. They wear tall boots and sweatshirts. They ask each other about the reading. They are tremendous. They are also so small. Fourteen from 29,135 students.
This past week has been exhausting. The UNC system’s Board of Governors forced resignation of the system’s president, Tom Ross, delivered a blow to this campus already reeling from a series of lawsuits. But this exhaustion is not new. It feels that by small steps backward, our university is retreating from the battle lines I would like it to the first to draw. Carried by the Board of Governors, the university faults again and again. First in August with the decision to freeze-and-cap the amount of need-based aid its universities can provide; in October, with their less-than-adequate response to the Wainstein Report; in November, their unwillingness to listen to student voices; in December, the targeting of the UNC system’s most prestigious and important centers and institutes for budget cuts; now in January, the forced exodus of Ross. What will February bring?
It is difficult not to imagine UNC as the most grotesquely illogical thing under the sun, a lighthouse which throws a beam out to the far horizons of the South, yet is dark at its own base. Later in Hope In the Dark, Solnit quotes Virginia Woolf: “The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be, I think.” The future of UNC is dark, but dark as in enigmatic, not as hopeless. This is what I remind myself of in my fur-lined overcoat, when I prefer a journey to the corner store and a game of checkers to writing, to protest, and to conversation with my students about what is happening in their university, the thing they are only beginning to know.