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Alistair Cooke, Luminosity, Cornelia Phillips Spencer and Heroes’ Sins

By D. G. Martin
Posted Monday, April 12, 2004

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Oh, if Alistair Cooke could be with us in Chapel Hill this spring. Cooke died late last month at age 95. A native of Britain, he spent most of his life in America, and for the last 58 years regularly sent back a letter to his former countrymen about his adopted homeland, looking at America with a loving, critical, ironic eye, helping the British understand the complex heart and soul of their former colony.

If Cooke were alive and writing from Chapel Hill this week, I would love to see how he would bring together two stories that are circling this campus town.

First is a controversy that has gotten statewide attention. It centers on an award given each year to an outstanding woman at the university. This year's award winner is Madeleine Levine, who is honored for 30 years of mentoring scholars in the field of Slavic languages and for her perseverance as a woman professor when there were few other women on the faculty.

The controversy, however, is not about the recipient, but about the name of the award itself--the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award. It is named after the legendary Chapel Hill woman whose tenacious advocacy helped secure legislative support in 1875 to reopen the University after its post Civil War closure. She demonstrated her devotion to the University by her rush to ring the campus bell to announce the reopening news. This event is regularly re-enacted on the campus.

some of her words reflect a belief that whites were superior to blacks.

No one challenges Spencer's tenacity and devotion to the University. What disturbs some students and others is what they call Spencer's “racism.” Spencer was a voracious writer and some of her words reflect a belief that whites were superior to blacks. Critics of the award's name demand that University suspend the making of the award until the matter of Spencer's alleged racism can be studiedstudied and resolved. They ask, “How can the University attach a racist name to such a high award?”

Some of the older campus figures roll their eyes and think, but do not say, “Look at almost every white person in those times and you will find racist views like Spencer's--or much worse.”

Alistair Cooke would ask us, “What standards do we apply to our heroes whose attitudes about race would be anathema today?”

Then he would point out, I am sure, that a new British play, which the Playmakers company is giving its American premier in Chapel Hill this month, is meant to tell us that our question is not limited to the American South.

“Luminosity” is set in England and South Africa in three different centuries. As the play opens, the modern-day members of a wealthy family learn that the founder of their dynasty 200 years ago made his fortune investing in the slave trade. The family's response to this knowledge is complicated by the fact that one of its members--an adopted daughter--is black.

She insists that the family ask itself, “How can we honor the name of anyone who participated in the slave trade? How can we continue to enjoy wealth that originally came from that activity?”

Her brother asserts that history is simply history. What, he asks, can be done to correct 200-year-old mistakes? Their family's wealth, he reminds her, is now doing so much good through charity and progressive business. And, he asks, “If we try to give it back, to whom would we give it?”

Then, in a poignant scene, after the brother tells of his deep love for his sister, he confesses to her his own racism. He tells her how he stood up for her against the teasing of his school classmates because he loved her and was proud of her. But, he says with shame, when his schoolmates suggested that his sister was not adopted, but was the child of his mother and a black man, he felt revulsion at the idea of a black man making love to his mother.

Alistair Cooke would have explained how the British play puts the Cornelia Phillips Spencer Award question in perspective. Like Charlotte Observer editor Jack Betts, Cooke would remind us, “It is quite one thing to take note of a historical figure's beliefs -- but they must be judged in context and not solely by the standards of a different era. To do otherwise is intellectually dishonest and historically fraudulent.”

We should never be afraid to face up to unpleasant truths about people we admire. Sadly, few white Southerners who lived in earlier times were completely free of racism--as we understand the term today. Cooke would certainly reject notions of collective guilt for the shortcomings of people who lived a long time ago. If we insist on racism-free people for the names of our prestigious awards, he would say with a gentile bite, we have to deal not only with Spencer, but also with other names like Rhodes, Washington, Jefferson, and Morehead.

We cannot change the attitudes of our ancestors and forebears or be obligated to assume guilt for their errors, however terrible. But I bet Cooke would somehow quietly remind us that we, like the brother in “Luminosity,” cannot escape a present-day duty to look deep within ourselves for whatever remnants of our racist past there may be hiding there, and, upon finding them, face them down.

*********************************
D.G. Martin hosts North Carolina Bookwatch, which will return to the air later this year.

 
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