Richard Canedo: Review of Diane Brady’s “Fraternity” (Spiegel and Grau, 2012)

tags: Richard Canedo, Diane Brady, Fraternity, College of the Holy Cross, Clarence Thomas

Richard Canedo teaches history at Lincoln School in Providence, RI, and he graduated from a fine liberal arts college.

Diane Brady, a journalist for BusinessWeek, was having lunch in late 2005 with Stanley Grayson, lawyer and president of one of the country’s few minority-owned investment banks. A prominent trial attorney, Ted Wells, who at the time was defending Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame case, had been profiled in that morning’s New York Times. Grayson told Brady that he had known Wells for years, since they had gone to the College of the Holy Cross, starting in the late ‘60s. Wells had roomed with Eddie Jenkins, who had been a running back with the undefeated Miami Dolphins in 1972, and who had gone on to a legal career of his own. A few doors down the dorm hallway was classmate was Edward P. Jones, who became a writer, and who won both a MacArthur “genius” grant and the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Known World. A year ahead of them, but on the same hallway, was future Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas. Each of them had been recruited in the spring of 1968 and mentored through their college years by the same priest, the Reverend John E. Brooks, S.J. Like any good journalist, Brady smelled a good story, wondering how five such prominent African Americans had emerged at essentially the same time from Holy Cross, a traditionally white, Catholic, liberal arts institution, in Worcester, Massachusetts.

Brady’s title is simply Fraternity, but the cover carries either a short elucidation, or a very long subtitle: “In 1968, a visionary priest recruited 20 black men to the College of the Holy Cross and changed their lives and the course of history.” The story itself is compelling, capturing many of the very real complications of the civil rights movement in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, especially as related to higher education. The book is also timely (or, perhaps, depressing), as more than a few of those complications remain with us still, more than forty years later. Although the telling of the story leaves something to be desired, in terms of both narrative voice and context, the book is well worth reading for the history it reveals.

Full disclosure: I graduated from Holy Cross in 1983, and I still love the college as I did while I was there. I know none of the former students profiled in the book, but the “visionary priest” who is the catalyst for Brady’s tale, Father Brooks, was the college’s president by the time I was there. While I did not know him well personally, I always found him to an impressive figure: he was an intellectually rigorous, philosophically cosmopolitan, and spiritually deep individual.

Brady’s story moves quickly. It begins with an urgent recruiting trip by Brooks down the east coast in the wake of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in the spring of 1968. Brooks had been pushing for some time to increase black presence at the (then) all-male college. He argued that it was more than simply “the right thing to do;” as a new generation of black leaders emerged from the gains of the civil rights movement, he contended that it would allow Holy Cross to remain “relevant” in its connection to the larger society and in helping to educate and shape that group. He realized, however, that the situation would be complicated for even capable black students. Paraphrasing Brooks, Brady writes, “The generation was ripe for producing leaders: they would have more rights and more opportunities than any group of black American men that had come before them. But they would also be tested in ways that that their fathers and grandfathers hadn’t been; they were being handed a chance to fail without necessarily being given all the support they needed to succeed, being shown the door to a room where they might not ultimately be welcome.” (p. 28)

King’s assassination had made the college administration more receptive to supporting black recruitment, and Brooks knew that the window of opportunity might close, so he made his drive down  the coast immediately after getting open-ended commitments of support from college president Father Raymond Swords, S.J. The group of five men noted above dominate the story that follows, but other black students — nineteen came to Holy Cross that fall — enter the narrative as well. The book follows the arc of their activities and reflections: disorientation and “culture shock” in coming into an alien environment; creation of the Black Students Union (BSU) for socializing and advocacy; lobbying for and getting by their second year a separate “black corridor;” academic challenges which, in combination with social alienation, led to several students dropping out; balancing academic and sports team commitments for Jenkins (football) and Grayson (basketball); struggles for some kind of social life on an all-male, mostly white campus (which meant getting off campus through limited transportation options); worries about the Vietnam War and the draft; and the concerns about what would follow college after graduation.

The dramatic centerpiece of the book, and its most compelling chapter, is an episode that occurred in December of the group’s second year at the college. As part of an antiwar protest, a group of 54 students violated the college’s free speech policy by physically blocking the corridors to students who wished to interview with General Electric recruiters. The Dean of Students’ staff then gave the names of sixteen students who participated in the protest to a judicial board for expulsion. Five black students had been among the demonstrators; four of them were among the listed names. To some the case was clear: these sixteen had violated a basic rule, so they all deserved expulsion. Ted Wells (who was not at the protest) was chosen to speak for the four black students; he pointed out that only 20% of the white protesters had been charged, while 80% of the black students were. Dean of Students staffers even admitted that the four had been included on the list because they were “highly identifiable.” The judicial process was, thus, clearly racist. The board suspended all sixteen for the rest of the academic year, and to be readmitted to the college, they would have to reapply. The BSU met and, after rejecting suggestions that they occupy buildings, decided simply to leave the college — to drop out en masse, and have the college lose its entire black student population. The resolution of the crisis was tense and difficult on many levels — Brooks urged the students to “stay close,” so many stayed at other area colleges, sleeping on floors — as the episode pitted different principles of justice against one another. It is compelling reading.

The strengths of Brady’s narrative reveal her roots in journalism: the story is told with great pacing, and with an eye for vivid and telling details: Ed Jones arrived at Holy Cross from Washington, DC, wearing his first pair of new shoes — that he had stolen in the rioting and looting after King’s murder. Brady sketches quickly and deftly how her subjects’ backgrounds led them to different reactions to their new social and academic environment. Some, like Ted Wells, had lived in all-black urban neighborhoods and gone to almost all-black schools; they were not used to being outsiders, but they had also never had to deal with everyday racism since they had never dealt with many whites, racist or otherwise. Others, like Stanley Grayson and Clarence Thomas, had always had contact with whites and counted some among their friends, but differed in the way they regarded white people, especially authority figures. Grayson and Eddie Jenkins came from stable, nuclear families; the other three were raised by single mothers — Ed Jones’s mother remained illiterate until the day she died — or by other relatives.

Among the five primary figures in the book, Wells and Thomas emerge as the most intriguing, in part because they provide the sharpest parallels and contrasts in personality and outlook. Both were smart, ambitious, and hard working, but Wells was ebulliently self-confident and gregarious, while Thomas was grimly determined and much more of a loner. As Brady notes, their senses of racial identity were particularly at odds: “What bothered Thomas wasn’t being black, it was being noticed for being black” (p. 63), while Wells wanted to be noticed and respected precisely for his race.

The story is absorbing, but its impact is blunted to an extent by the way it is told. Brady has a tendency to “tell” rather than to “show”; she paraphrases where she ought to quote. We are told that Ted Wells gave a moving speech in 2008 celebrating the 40th anniversary of the BSU, that Ed Jones vented his anger in a regular column in the school newspaper, that Clarence Thomas composed a poem for fellow black students on how to treat black women who visited the campus, and that Stanley Grayson thought that Wells and Thomas’s arguments at BSU meetings were often argument simply for the sake of argument. In none of these instances does Brady quote her subjects’ words; only infrequently throughout the book do we hear the men speak for themselves.

The narrative energy of the book is paid for at the price of background and context. With the exception of one course Ed Jones took on the nineteenth century novel, there is little information on what classes, professors, books, or academic experiences shaped the minds or opinions of the five men. Although Father Brooks is the catalyst to the story, we are told almost nothing else of what shaped his life and ideas. Background information on Holy Cross — its history, status, and identity — are left out of the story until halfway through the book, in Chapter 5. The book includes almost no white students or faculty members’ voices at all — how did they react to the effort to bring black students to the college, and how did their attitudes change, if at all, over time? Further, to what extent was the disorientation, academic and social, of the black students in adjusting to life at the college different from white students? Brady ascribes almost all of the black students’ difficulties to race, and no doubt this was significant, but other new students might also have shared in at least some aspects of  the culture shock. (I had never experienced a “C” in my life until my freshman year at Holy Cross, and my white roommate that year did not return the following year for academic reasons.)

Perhaps most frustrating, Brady says nothing about the Society of Jesus (the “S.J.” after Brooks and Swords’s names, or the Jesuits), the religious order of priests that founded and ran Holy Cross and of which Brooks was an exemplary member. A former Spanish soldier named Ignatius Loyola founded the order in the 16th century. In the face of the Protestant Reformation, he emphasized intellectual pursuits and engagement with “the world,” as opposed to devotion to monastic or contemplative life; the Jesuits have been nicknamed “God’s Marines.” The order has historically been mistrusted for this involvement in “the world’: critics have regarded Jesuits’ involvement in society as a disguise for worldliness and ambition for power. Censure of the Jesuits has come both from within Catholicism (the order was officially suppressed in the 18th century) and from non-Catholics alike: John Adams famously wrote of the Jesuits, “If ever there was a body of men who merited damnation on earth and in Hell, it is this society of Loyola’s.” In modern times the order’s engagement  has led to active ecumenism, a concern for social justice, and accusations of excessive liberalism — a more recent nickname has been “the left arm of the Church.” The intellectual drive of the order is evident in their 28 colleges and universities in the United States alone, including Georgetown, Boston College, Fordham, Gonzaga, the University of San Francisco, and four Loyola Universities in various cities.

This background, linking social justice and intellectual seriousness, helps explain some of both Brooks’s motivation to keep Holy Cross “relevant,” and his resistance to framing his recruitment drive in simplistic terms. Brady notes, “Brooks argued [that] the college should work with [the black students] to help them succeed . . . But [he] wanted the students to receive extra consideration, not lower standards.” (p. 115) He thus had turned away more than a few applicants in his recruiting efforts, and several whom he did recruit dropped out well before graduation.

Perhaps the greatest value of Brady’s book, aside from its inspiring story, is the perspective it lends to the debate over affirmative action. As the story outlines the debate, it is striking — and perhaps disheartening — how little the battle lines and arguments have changed in more than forty years. Ted Wells and Clarence Thomas disagree to this day over affirmative action — Wells says that his career and achievements are examples of such policies’ benefits; Thomas says that his achievements were undercut by the assumption that his skin color had given him undeserved benefits. Both men were urged in college, above all, to think for themselves, and the result is a diversity of graduates that has ranged from author Michael Harrington (The Other America) to National Review publisher Jack Fowler. Readers of Brady’s book will be encouraged to consider the complexities of the affirmative action debate for themselves as well.

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