In his first visit to Yale since leaving to become provost of Northwestern University, beloved former Dean of Yale College Jonathan Holloway gave the opening remarks on Thursday at a Yale Political Union debate on whether the U.S. government should pay reparations to the descendants of slaves.

Addressing a packed crowd in William L. Harkness Hall, Holloway, the former chair of Yale’s African American Studies Department argued not for cash transfers — which he called impractical — but for reparations in the form of structured federal programs designed to provide African Americans with greater opportunity in housing, health care and education. His words were met with cheers from many of the roughly 120 students in the audience.

“I’m impressed, as always, at the ability of those of you who speak with passion, even when you are wrong,” Holloway said at the end of debate. “I think it’s a special gift that you have to speak with passion and clear arguments about your opinions on this matter. For that, I thank you for a welcome home.”

Holloway started the speech by solemnly chanting the epitaph on the headstone of an African American slave from the 18th century — “God wills us free. Man wills us slave. I will as God wills, God’s will be done.” Holloway explained that he has kept the headstone with him for much of his life, first at his childhood home, then in his offices in New Haven and now in Evanston, Illinois.

Holloway emphasized the benefits of affirmative action in college admissions and praised Georgetown University for its policy of giving the same preferential treatment to descendants of slaves that it gives to children of alumni. He said he understood why some may find affirmative action unfair. But the world has never been fair, he stressed, and reparations are warranted.

“The real work for a place at Yale is not about the name on the building,” Holloway said. “It’s about a deep and substantive commitment to being honest about power, structural systems of privilege and their perpetuation.”

Following Holloway’s speech, members of the YPU argued for and against reparations. At one point, Holloway raised a question and asked a student to consider adjusting his arguments to be more “historically nuanced.”

In an interview with the News following the event, Holloway said he finds his new job as the provost deeply interesting. Still, he admitted he has been “totally missing it here.”

“I miss these sorts of events,” Holloway said. “The students are, for me, the part that always makes Yale special, so being invited back by students to come and talk to students is — you need to say yes to that sort of thing.”

Aviva Rabin-Court ’19 said Holloway articulated his points well and added that it was smart that he opened the debate by bringing other methods of achieving racial equality, besides cash transfers, into the conversation.

Daniel Zhao ’21 said Holloway’s speech reminded him of how “cool” the former dean was when Zhao saw him speak during Bulldog Days. Mojique Tyler ’19 said Holloway showed his scholarly side at the debate, adding that they respect Holloway’s scholarship more than the work he did as dean.

Before serving as dean of Yale College, Holloway served as master of Calhoun College from 2005–2014.

Jingyi Cui | jingyi.cui@yale.edu

  • Iman Hameen

    Interesting that all other groups receive financial compensation but so-called African Americans are expected to accept a watered down version of reparations. We want what others have received and more… we demand land on the continent of Africa, as well. Land that we can establish as our OWN sovereign country, IF that is what WE choose to do…our HUMANITY was stripped from us… no measure of compensation will undo that. Our demands and what is rightfully due us are a beginning, a start..we were stripped of EVERYTHING and continue to suffer to this day because of this fact. The damage is generational and is embedded in our DNA….all guilty parties must settle this debt, ALL…from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond. FYI – J. Holloway and his ilk have not earned the right to speak for us. “Impractical”? Weak reasoning on his part. Clearly, he knows little to nothing about what reparations means…

    • Ralphiec88

      Two comments total in 7 months, the other could be applied to any post. Bot or troll, you decide.

  • Patricia Kane

    Changing the Name mattered.
    Smashing a racist image from the 1930s mattered.
    It all matters in the end because each is a step forward to an honest encounter with our shameful history.
    Of course reparations are warranted for the ongoing trauma and suffering inflicted by whites on people of color as evidenced by our still segregated schools and even public housing, but certainly too many of our neighborhoods.
    Holloway wants another bureaucracy to dole out benefits.
    Programs plus deferred income due the forced African laborers would be fair.