[Opinion] With Wilson installation, Princeton misses the mark

Written by
Julia Chaffers
Oct. 24, 2019

For the past few years, Princeton has been embroiled in debate about iconography and the representation of history on campus. Chief among these concerns is the presence of Woodrow Wilson in prominent spaces: a residential college and the School of Public and International Affairs. Out of the Black Justice League’s 2015 protests came a committee, and out of the committee came a “marker” called “Double Sights.” 

Situated next to the Woodrow Wilson School building, standing nearly as tall at 39 feet, the marker is composed of two columns, a white one leaning against a black one, inscribed with words and images. On the outside of the columns, quotations from Wilson are inscribed. As you walk through the marker, you see on the white column the pictures of people who objected to Wilson’s racist and sexist views: W.E.B. Du Bois, William Monroe Trotter, Ida B. Wells, Booker T. Washington, members of the women’s suffrage movement, and more. On the other column, inscribed in a mirror-like surface, you see some of their criticisms of Wilson. It is certainly a visually striking structure, and draws the eye in. But what does the marker actually achieve? 

"Double Sights"

<p>"Double Sights" Photo by Julia Chaffers</p>

Last year, I wrote a column in the Daily Princetonian about the negative impact that living in a college named after Wilson entails for me and my fellow students, and described the ways in which using Wilson’s name necessarily associates the university with the full scope of his ideology—including his racism—in a way that marginalizes students of color. From my perspective, the new installation addresses none of these concerns. 

In publicity for the unveiling of the marker, the Woodrow Wilson School said the structure was created to “educate the campus community and others about both the positive and negative dimensions of Wilson’s complex legacy.” But Wilson’s name is on a building fifty feet away and, after the conclusion of the trustee committee, will remain there for the foreseeable future. The “positive dimensions” of Wilson’s legacy need no marker; such representations are all over campus and ingrained in Princeton’s narrative. 

Beyond that, the “positive dimensions” of Wilson that the university touts—his reforms of the university as its president and his diplomatic achievements as president of the United States—are not untainted either. While Wilson was improving the academic rigor of the university, he deliberately excluded black students from the campus’s new identity. In 1909, when a black student inquired about attending, Wilson said “it is altogether inadvisable for a colored man to enter Princeton.” It was not until 1947 that the first black student graduated from Princeton with a bachelor’s degree. As U.S. President, Wilson segregated the federal government and made the white supremacist film Birth of a Nation the first movie to be screened in the White House, a film which included quotes from Wilson’s book calling the “great Ku Klux Klan” a “veritable empire of the South.” All this is to say that whatever progress Wilson brought to the world, it was progress for whites only, to the direct exclusion of black Americans and people of color around the world. This reality makes any celebration of Wilson’s positive side ring hollow. Can they really be positive steps if they are based on an ideology of racism, if white supremacy is baked in?

Moreover, the unveiling event, called “Woodrow Wilson’s Legacy: Wrestling with History” aimed to “engage in conversation about how all communities can honestly address painful parts of their collective past without erasing history—and how Princeton hopes to be a leader in such efforts.” This framing reveals the misunderstanding the university has of the problem with Wilson iconography. Essentially, the sculpture amounts to the university thinking hard about Wilson’s legacy, considering both sides but ultimately coming to no conclusion. The problem with the veneration of Wilson before was that there was no acknowledgement of his flaws, yes, but simply putting his “good side” and “bad side” against each other achieves nothing either. 

"Double Sights" consists of two columns leaning against each other, inscribed with words and images of Wilson and figures like Du Bois, Trotter, and Wells.

<p>"Double Sights" consists of two columns leaning against each other, inscribed with words and images of Wilson and figures like Du Bois, Trotter, and Wells. Photo by Julia Chaffers</p>

The physical layout of the marker, two opposite views of Wilson facing and leaning on one another, evinces the bothsidesism that dominates our national discourse. This perspective operates from the assumption that people on both sides of an issue have something constructive to say, and that carefully considering the arguments on either end of an issue will help us come to a reasonable conclusion somewhere in the middle. It is the mistake the media makes when normalizing Trump’s actions, and we see it here too. The marker tries to be objective, presenting facts on either side, and leaving it up to the viewer to make their own conclusion—in the artist Walter Hood’s words, to “do the work.” But objectivity itself is a stance. Believing that Wilson’s words about other issues have something to bear on the conversation about his racist legacy is taking a side, when critics say that his racism taints his other contributions. By pursuing this pseudo-objectivity, the marker fails to move the conversation forward, instead simply recapitulating this debate about Wilson’ s “good” versus his “bad.” 

In a panel introducing the marker during the Thrive conference, an event “celebrating Princeton's black alumni and the impact they have had on the university and in their communities,” Walter Hood explained that the white column leaning on the black column represents how the ugliness of the country rests on a metaphorical strong black column. But this construction reveals the problem with the marker itself—it places the burden on black students to do the “wrestling” in their own lives, every time they pass this forty-foot colossus. An alumnus in the audience of the panel, Brandon Holt ’15—a former member of the Black Justice League, which ignited the debate over Wilson and broader concerns of inclusion on campus—expressed this frustration with the project. He noted that student protest is exhausting, and that it should not be required of students to constantly be fighting for the respect of the university. Hood’s conception of the marker as a “space of protest,” as he stated at the panel, fails to acknowledge this difficulty, and in fact reinforces this burden. 

Hood and the university’s speakers repeatedly emphasized that the marker was not the solution to the issues the BJL raised, but a step along the way. But on the way to what destination, and how many more steps lay before us? Student and alumni speakers at the protest following the dedication of the marker expressed their exasperation and frustration at the unwillingness of the university to take a stand, continuing to kick the can down the road when it comes to confronting the experiences of black students on campus and the lack of inclusion and value they feel. Hearing students from the past and present speak to this cycle highlights the extent to which this marker fails to address the issues students raised with regard to Princeton’s veneration of Wilson. The protest, numbering more than two hundred people, represents the deep dissatisfaction students of color have not just with the marker, but what it represents. 

Even the word “marker” communicates the university’s refusal to take a stand. The installation  just aims to point out facts, rather than say something substantive. At its core, this marker is just another structure on campus that centers attention on Wilson—was he a good guy or a bad guy, were his critics right or wrong about him?—instead of shifting perspectives, for example centering the voices of those he marginalized and silenced.

By continuing to center Wilson, the installation continues to elevate his presence on campus, acting as another unavoidable reminder of him. Sure, for once it includes criticisms of Wilson, but it doesn’t truly acknowledge their arguments—to do so would require much more of a reckoning than this both-sides marker represents. Instead, it stands as a towering example of the university’s unwillingness to seriously engage with its history and honestly consider the points made by students past and present about the continuing lack of inclusivity on campus. The marker is essentially a forty-foot shrug by the university, frustrating both because it says nothing and because what saying nothing tells us about the university.  

"Double Sights" takes a prominent position in next to the Woodrow Wilson School, standing nearly forty feet tall.

<p>"Double Sights" takes a prominent position in next to the Woodrow Wilson School, standing nearly forty feet tall. Photo by Julia Chaffers</p>

The timing of the marker’s unveiling further underscores the ineffectiveness of the structure. As I mentioned, “Double Sights” was unveiled during the Thrive conference. Here they chose to host an event to present this marker to the Princeton community, this advancement of Wilson’s presence on campus, this account of both sides, this “wrestling with history.” Since many of the alumni in attendance were students at Princeton, a lot has changed. The Third World Center is now the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding. The African American Studies program is now its own department. The university continues to increase the diversity of its student body. These are important examples of systemic progress, but much about Princeton has stayed the same, including the veneration of Woodrow Wilson and the feeling of marginalization experienced by black students. 

The unveiling of this marker during Thrive was probably conceived of as a way to show off this progress to returning alumni, but in reality, for many of the people who spoke at the panel Q&A and the ensuing protest, the installation represents the perpetual hand-wringing of the university rather than commitment to systemic change. While the rest of the weekend was full of celebration, the three hours I spent in events related to this marker had a notably different tone. It was unfortunately fitting, really, that Thrive included the persistent duality of life at Princeton as a person of color: pride in your accomplishments and those of you peers, mixed with unease about the extent to which you really belong to the Princeton community and a nagging feeling that perhaps this is not fully your campus. In the end, the marker is not a representation of the progress the university has made, but instead another example of its entrenchment in misguided values and misunderstood ideals.