Circle of Visibility

The familiar shadow of American self-realization

A painting of another painted backdrop with a ladder and half-hidden man in front of the backdrop, which is of a canyon and trees.
Jo Whaley, Stage Still 16. 2018, archival pigment photograph. 40 × 30". Courtesy of the artist and Photo-eye Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.

I had a dream about Michelle Obama a few months ago. In the dream she is still First Lady. A group of students are giving her a tour of an archaeological dig in the South. They explain they have spent the summer working on the plantation but have not found much. They had hoped to impress her, but now, as they show her around the site, they are dragging their feet. She asks if they have thought to look under the foundation stones of the main building. They have not. They rush to do it and find a rusted glass box. There are jewels inside. They are ecstatic. To thank her, they give her a small necklace from the box. If every figure in our dreams is merely acting out our own inner lives, then what am I working out in this dream? I want to be seen. I want to be heard. I want to go home. 

Despite this premonitory dream about Princeton University’s most famous alumna, I was still surprised to find this news in the November 2020 issue of the Princeton alumni magazine: citing the “racist thinking and policies” of Woodrow Wilson, the school has officially removed his name from its first residential college, razed the building, and decided to rebuild and rename the dorm for Mellody Hobson ’91, a businesswoman from Chicago and the wife of George Lucas. Princeton is the place where I got my graduate degree in literature, the place I left wondering whether Western culture was all trompe l’oeil, mere virtue signaling to cover up a zero-sum game. It was in a class there that one of my professors pointed out to me and my classmatesall of us womenthat virtue originally meant manliness: vir is man in Latin. He flashed a grin.

When I read the news that Princeton was going to name one of its buildings after a Black woman, I joked: What is this symbolic reparation meant to hide? The answer came swiftly. A couple of months later, I read in the New York Times:

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