March 5, 2008: Features
At home in two worlds
The first African-American to join the permanent faculty of the Institute for Advanced Study, Danielle Allen ’93 works in both a scholar’s paradise and the real world outside
By Merrell Noden ’78
Two vivid memories frame the four years Danielle Allen ’93 spent at Princeton in the early ’90s. One is somewhat sweet and innocent; the other, ugly and racist. Together they pushed her to think deeply about friendship and trust and community-building, subjects she continues to explore in both her academic work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and the community work she does when she flies back to her other home, in Chicago, on weekends.
In the first memory, she is a happy freshman, recently arrived from southern California and eager to spread a little sunshine around the Princeton campus. Everyone she passes gets a big smile and a heartfelt “Hi,” which few bother to acknowledge. This puzzles Allen.
“I didn’t understand what was going on and was really taken aback by it,” she recalls. “At the end of the day it was really just an East Coast/West Coast difference. But it made me more self-conscious about the question of how strangers interact with each other and what difference that makes in the long term to the possibility of their building a community together.”
The second memory elicits no smiles. Late one night in her senior year, as Allen was walking home past Brown Hall, someone leaned out of an upper-story window and hurled a racial epithet down at her. Her first reaction was disbelief: She’d experienced racism before, but always in more subtle forms. The more she thought about it — and wrote about it, in an op-ed for The Daily Princetonian — the more she came to realize that what was most interesting about the incident was her own reaction to it.
“It didn’t bother me deeply,” she explains. “That was one of the things the op-ed was about: Why didn’t it bother me deeply? And the basic answer was that I trusted the Princeton community and I felt safe in it. That [op-ed] was probably the first thing I wrote about why democratic communities need trust within them and what difference that makes.”
Fifteen years, two Ph.D.s, and a slew of academic honors later, Allen continues to ask important questions about democracy, citizenship, and justice: What role do trust and sacrifice play in building communities, especially in a democracy, where every vote creates a minority of “losers”? And how, she asks, do we spread around the experience of “losing,” so that all segments of a given community feel they have a stake in its future? These are not dry, theoretical questions, but matters of life and death in many troubled corners of the world, from Gaza and Darfur to the University of Chicago’s surrounding Hyde Park neighborhood, where town and gown have a long history of what Allen calls “interracial distrust.”
Indeed, that’s the subject of Allen’s most recent book, Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. The book takes as its starting point the iconic photo of Elizabeth Eckford, one of the Little Rock Nine, as she bravely walks a gauntlet of schoolmates screaming for her lynching on that momentous first day of school in 1957. Allen argues that the widespread publication of that photo marked a turning point in the American public’s understanding of the way African-Americans were being excluded from the political forum, and made possible a “new constitution” that began to fulfill the promises of the original. While Allen’s erudite book moves effortlessly from Ralph Ellison and Hannah Arendt to Hobbes and Aristotle, it is very much a work of practical philosophy. As writer Leo Casey put it in a glowing review in the political journal Dissent, “Allen is distinctive among contemporary political philosophers in her focus on the actual practice of the democratic politics she advocates.”
There’s the thing that makes Allen so unusual: It’s not only her scholarship that’s impressive, it’s the other things she has done to improve the lives of real flesh-and-blood people. Unlike many other young academics, whose pursuit of tenure can be all-consuming, Allen always has made time to work in the world beyond the academy walls. “She is a political theorist with a genuine interest in politics,” says political philosopher Michael Walzer, Allen’s predecessor as UPS Foundation Professor at the Institute. “A lot of political theorists are interested in political theory, but they’re not much interested in politics. They are interested in what other academics are doing. But she’s interested in the real world and that’s, I think, an important quality.”
In the 10 years she spent at the University of Chicago, Allen was a whirlwind of creative energy — writing, teaching as many as four courses in a single year, and serving the last three years as dean of the Humanities Division. Hank Webber, the University of Chicago’s vice president for community and government affairs, who has worked closely with Allen on numerous projects, says that “in a world of overachievers,” his colleagues have been “stunned by the number of things Danielle does and also by the care with which she does them.”
The many projects Allen works on and, in some cases, started from scratch include the four charter schools operated by the University of Chicago; “Poem Present,” a poetry-reading series; and the Black Metropolis Research Consortium, which hopes to catalog and link the invaluable African-American archives currently scattered around Chicago, ranging from oral histories of gospel and jazz to the papers of important black Chicagoans like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks. For years, Allen and her husband, Robert von Hallberg, a University of Chicago professor specializing in modern poetry, have been teaching humanities in a program called the Odyssey Project, which gives low-income adults a chance to resume their formal education.
Those are just a few of the reasons it was so tough for Allen to leave Chicago last year. Not only had she been working and living and putting down roots in Hyde Park since 1997, but von Hallberg, whom she met at a poetry reading and married seven years ago, will remain in Chicago as his son finishes high school. He believes Allen found a calling in the vexing problems of race and class that divide Chicago’s South Side.
“Danielle loved being at the University of Chicago because it was, I think, her first encounter with these issues,” says von Hallberg. “She grew up in Claremont [Calif.], went to Princeton and Cambridge. She had never really lived in a racially organized society. Most people at Chicago are like people at Princeton: They want to do their research and write their books. Not Danielle: She wanted to find out what was really going on in the adjacent black community and what areas are there for collaboration with the university, where we can build common projects. So that’s a big part of her life and hard to leave behind.”
Then again, it’s hard to imagine a more enticing — not to mention prestigious — place for a scholar than the Institute, which has always had a close relationship with Princeton University, though there is no formal affiliation. From the moment of its founding in 1930, the Institute has been home to many of the world’s great minds, including Einstein, John von Neumann, Kurt Gödel, Robert Oppenheimer, and George Kennan ’25. Still a world center for a number of fields, it is a leafy, quiet, scholar’s paradise.
It would be hard to turn down an offer from the Institute. So last July 1, Allen, 36, became the UPS Foundation Professor in the Institute’s School of Social Sciences, taking over from Walzer, who was retiring after 27 years at the Institute. She is the Institute’s first African-American faculty member, though Walzer, who played a big part in choosing her, says that had nothing to do with her appointment: “That may be a good thing for the Institute,” Walzer says, “but it was not a consideration for us.” More important, he says, was the strength of her work and her age. “She is wonderfully young,” he says. “[That was] another thing in her favor when we went looking for someone to guarantee the future of the School of Social Science.”
That’s a heavy burden of expectation. There was briefly talk of giving Allen a year to adjust before asking her to lead the biweekly seminars that are the only real obligation Institute faculty members have. But that didn’t happen and, says Walzer, Allen has done a great job of leading the dozen or so visiting scholars — known at the Institute as “members” — who meet once every two weeks to discuss their works in progress.
One quality Walzer admires in his colleague is her ideological independence, which he says is rare among political philosophers today. “Academic political theory is beset by sects and cults — Straussians, post-modernists, analytic philosophers, what I used to call the California school of [Princeton emeritus professor and former Berkeley professor] Sheldon Wolin and his disciples,” he says. “Danielle is free of all that. ... She has carved out a place for herself in the world of political theory that is independent of all the cults and sects and that makes her very attractive to me. I think it’s better to have critics than disciples.”
Lately, she has acquired some of the former. Chosen to give last spring’s commencement address at the University of Chicago, Allen decided to speak on the Declaration of Independence and its promise of equality, which she feels has been overshadowed by the concept of liberty. Confident that she’d struck the right balance between congratulating the new graduates and challenging them one last time, Allen was not prepared for the criticism she got. “It was the most hostile response to anything I’ve ever done,” she says. “One [critic] dismissed it as hot air; another misunderstood the address and thought that I was making a very deterministic argument — that we are all limited by our backgrounds — whereas, in fact, my argument was the opposite of that.”
Allen’s own background was anything but limiting. Her mother, Susan, was a research librarian and her father, William, was a professor of political science at Harvey
Mudd College. “He’s a bootstraps kind of guy,” says von Hallberg of his father-in-law, who now teaches at Michigan State. “He started in poverty, got himself an education, and wound up chairman of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission [in 1988–89].”
Allen’s childhood home in Claremont was full of books, and she remembers spending many happy hours in one book-crammed corner of the living room, reading pretty much anything she could get her hands on, from presidential biographies and cultural histories to novels by Hawthorne and Faulkner. Claremont, she says, was a lot like Princeton: small and clean and full of trees, thanks to a farsighted local ordinance protecting them. She and her brother, Bertrand-Marc ’95, who is 18 months her junior, would ride their bikes out into the suburban jungle and then trust their instincts and imaginations to guide them home.
Inspired by Carl Lewis and the four gold medals he won at the 1984 Olympics, held in nearby Los Angeles, she took up track. At Claremont High she was a sprinter and long jumper good enough to get recruited by the Air Force Academy. But she chose Princeton, and when she arrived she realized that she wasn’t fast enough to make the team as a sprinter. So she decided to concentrate on the horizontal jumps. Bad knees soon forced her to give up the sport. But rather than dwell on this disappointment she soon came to see it as an opportunity — to read more.
In her sophomore year Allen began to take Greek and also took the class that really changed her life. It was called “Athenian Democracy” and was taught by Josiah (Josh) Ober, now a professor at Stanford, whom she still calls the best teacher she’s ever had. Ober, then newly arrived at Princeton, quickly discovered that Allen was eager to learn and capable of absorbing a phenomenal amount of material in a short time. “She’d get on to a topic and I’d say, ‘Well, there is some literature on it.’ And she’d ask for some direction and I would say, ‘Start here.’ And she would come in a week later and would know more about the topic than I did!”
It was Ober who focused Allen on what would become the subject of her first book, The World of Prometheus: The Politics of Punishing in Democratic Athens. “We were reading a lot of Athenian oratory, prosecution speeches,” Allen recalls. “They alluded to punishments, but there wasn’t much talk of imprisonment. I asked whether Athenians used imprisonment as a punishment. Josh said it would make a great dissertation topic.”
Allen went to Cambridge University on a Marshall Scholarship and loved it, not only for the academics but also for the bracing conversations she had with the international students with whom she shared a house. Besides earning a D.Phil. in classics, she won a Greek prize and a poetry prize there. Then it was off to Harvard in pursuit of a second doctorate, this one in political theory. But she was not so keen on this other Cambridge, and she left to start teaching at Chicago before completing that degree (she did get it later, while teaching at Chicago).
Allen had never been to Chicago when she flew out for her interview. But the city impressed her immediately, during her cab ride to the South Side: “Partly it was the beauty of the skyline — I have a taste for modernism — and the cab driver I got was the most political person I’d spoken to in ages. I thought it was a fabulous combination: It was aesthetically beautiful and full of political people.”
She started out in the classics department but soon was given a joint appointment in politics. She also met von Hallberg, who describes the two of them as an odd couple. “I’m an old white guy,” he says. “My hair is white, and I’m 61. I don’t look like somebody who should be with her.” They work differently, too. “She believes in the power and value of institutions in a way that I don’t. I’m kind of anarchistic,” muses Von Hallberg. “Danielle really does think that meetings and committees are important.”
As productive as Allen was as a scholar — she won a MacArthur “genius” fellowship in 2002 — it was impossible to ignore the poor and often violent world not far from campus. Hyde Park today is a racially mixed, mostly middle-class neighborhood, but you don’t have to walk far to find real urban blight. In the ’50s and ’60s, as the South Side of Chicago was getting poorer and blacker, the university administration grew increasingly concerned that parents would refuse to send their children to such a place. There were rumors that the university was considering moving its campus out of Hyde Park. Instead, it launched an aggressive policy of urban renewal, relying heavily on draconian eminent domain laws that said that if a private developer owned 60 percent of a block, it could claim the remaining 40 percent through eminent domain. Those losing their houses were mostly black, while the university was mostly white. One consequence of this was a feeling of bitterness and suspicion toward the university that has lingered for decades. All of this was troubling to Allen.
“I felt that even though many of my intellectual faculties were being mightily developed and encouraged by the campus environment, others were atrophying,” she says. “I was being encouraged not to see the world immediately around me, and I thought that this was not good for my own intellectual development. And I thought the university could do a better job of living up to its responsibility as an architect of the intellectual community.”
She decided to put her lofty ideas about trust and sacrifice to the test. In 2003 she founded the Civic Knowledge Project, a university-sponsored program to promote better relations between town and gown. Not only would the university begin to share its vast academic resources through tutoring and arts initiatives, but it also would learn from the surrounding community. Says Webber, “She’s taught us that community engagement is not a one-way street, where the university should be engaged in the community — though she believes that — but also that there’s great value for us as an institution in learning from our neighbors.”
The Civic Knowledge Project is going strong. Indeed, for her first three years at the Institute, Allen plans to commute back to Chicago on weekends, trading the Institute’s quiet for the bustle of Chicago’s South Side. “This is a quiet, peaceful, calm place,” she says, gesturing around at her spacious second-floor office, with a great view of the Institute woods. “So it’s fabulous for getting reading and writing done. And then Chicago is frenetic. So I go to Chicago and run around for a while, then come back here and get work done.”
She is currently at work on two projects. One is a long book on individual agency and sociopolitical change. It’s a response to those readers of Talking to Strangers who thought she was being too optimistic, even naïve, about the power of individuals to change things. She’s also working on a shorter book on the Declaration of Independence and equality. “People have a very clear narrative about liberty, and they’re very confused about equality,” says Allen. “You need both to have a successful democracy. It seems to me it’s time to go to work on rebuilding our understanding of what the concept of equality means, why it’s important, and what it takes in order to secure its value through democratic politics.”
That’s a lot, even for someone like Allen, who agrees she’s got some workaholic tendencies. Her busy schedule might mean she won’t be able to start any community projects in Princeton. But those who know her well say: Don’t be so sure.
“Obviously, you can’t remake a great institution like the Institute,” says Ober. “But I hope they have appointed her with the expectation that she won’t become just a quiet library scholar — a public intellectual only in what she writes, who otherwise takes walks around the woods there. My guess is that Danielle will bring the Institute much more into the public realm.”
Merrell Noden ’78 is a frequent PAW contributor.