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Yale: The History We Can’t Erase

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Students protesting at Yale, April 2016

As the present changes, so does the look of the past. We know that’s true with regard to events of decades or centuries back, but if one needed proof that it’s also so for recent happenings, especially now that the American experiment has taken a turn so frightening as to feel epochal, one need only consider the recent controversy surrounding Yale University. In the fall of 2015, amid Black Lives Matter protests across the country, dozens of universities were gripped by a related movement whose makers sought to highlight how our institutions of learning—in everything from their approach to public space to the courses they offer—remain inhospitable to minority students and staff. On many campuses, student demands included a push to rename, or remove, historic buildings or monuments that were symbolically offensive. Yale in particular, with its John C. Calhoun College, named after a notorious antebellum statesman, slave owner, and racist, became a focal point of a heated national debate—among scholars, university officials, activists, and the press.

Now that we have a president whose evident hostility to many citizens and to the Constitution itself has already summoned more protestors to our streets than we’ve seen in generations, this historical debate has come to seem less urgent. Earlier this month, when the president of Yale, Peter Salovey, announced that the university has decided, after all, to remove Calhoun’s name from the residential college, the response was muted. But the Calhoun debate, viewed another way, goes to the heart of what our democracy is contending with. The person occupying our highest office hasn’t yet voiced his views on Yale’s move. One presumes they’d mirror those of Geraldo Rivera, the former talk-show host who on Twitter renounced an old tie to Calhoun College and decried the name-change because, he said, “intolerant insistence on political correctness is lame,” and wondered if Yale’s students would launch a petition to rename Washington, D.C., too. However, a closer look at Yale’s decision reveals the extent to which the university, in responding to student activism on campus, followed principles that would make renaming the capital unthinkable.

Less than a year ago, in fact, Yale had decided against renaming the college. The university changed its position, Salovey said, because a review of Calhoun’s career and “principal legacy” suggested he was more than simply a man of his time. (Calhoun earned his BA from Yale in 1804 and law degree in 1822; the college that bore his name was built in 1932.) He was a slave-owner; but he was also perhaps the Senate’s most zealous advocate of slavery—an avowed white supremacist who proclaimed, in a famous 1837 speech, that “the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between [whites and blacks], is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good.” It was this passionate backing for slavery as “a positive good,” Salovey said, that made Calhoun a figure who “fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s values.”

The university hadn’t thought so, of course, when it named a building for Calhoun. In 1932, he didn’t have the nasty reputation he does now—he was a prominent alum, a former vice-president who would, in 1957, be inducted into the Senatorial Hall of Fame by a committee chaired by a young John F. Kennedy in the same year that Kennedy won a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage. Since then, at least at Yale, Calhoun’s reputation has fared less well: on a campus which in 1932 accepted nary a student who wasn’t white and male and that offered no courses on slavery, there’s now a major research center devoted to its study—the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition—and many courses, in many departments, regularly dedicated to the topic. Calhoun’s name will soon be replaced, on his erstwhile college, by that of Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a Yale alumna distinguished as both a pioneering computer scientist and an admiral in the Navy—a woman “who achieved eminence in fields historically dominated by men,” as President Salovey put it, and whose work pioneering the first “word-based” computer languages was instrumental to creating much of the technology surrounding us today.   

As someone who lived in Calhoun College in the early 2000s—even as someone sympathetic to the demands that saw this change made—I couldn’t help feeling ambivalent about the news. And not simply because I have warm memories of the courtyard’s tire-swing, and of bonding with friends of all backgrounds over OutKast records—though there’s that. My more substantial worry accorded with the reasons voiced by Yale’s administration last spring, backed by learned and liberal observers like David Cole, when Salovey initially announced that Calhoun’s name would remain. I worry about the dangers of condescending to the past—about the ways that removing history’s visible traces, in a putative effort to fight its legacies, can more harm that cause than help it.

Last April, Salovey explained the administration’s decision to retain Calhoun’s name by expressing what he later described as the university’s commitment “to confronting, not erasing, our history.” Those words affirmed a principle—that we can’t judge the past by standards of the present—sacred to historians. But more than that, they seemed to capture my own experience as a Calhoun undergraduate whose course of study, in a program called “Ethnicity, Race, and Migration,” was centrally engaged with precisely the kind of problem that John Calhoun represented.   

When prominent African-Americans visited campus, Calhoun College seemed to play host more often than not. In the dorm’s dining hall, I saw Henry Louis Gates Jr. (a Calhoun alum himself) launch his Encyclopedia of Africana, and I attended readings by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Edwidge Danticat. I got to meet Bobby Seale and hear him talk of founding the Black Panther Party; my lefty friends and I joked that it was a good thing we were in the old racist’s college, or else we’d have missed out on seeing such speakers, presenting lives or work opposed to American racism, make inevitable mention of the inhumane past evoked by Calhoun’s name. When I received a prize from Yale’s Department of African-American Studies for a thesis I’d written on race and culture in the Caribbean, the department’s awards dinner was held—where else?—at Calhoun. One of my study’s subjects was the Trinidadian writer C.L.R. James: a scholar notable for insisting that it was impossible to understand the history of capitalism and of the New World, the very existence of the United States or the wealth of a place like Yale, without understanding the history of the Triangle Trade. Affirming that truth while dancing on an old bigot’s grave, in company of the eminent black scholars with whom I’d been privileged to study, felt like part of the point. 

The Yale program in which I wrote that thesis owed its own establishment to a previous generation of activism. “ER&M” was founded in 1997, amidst demands from students and faculty that the university—following the lead of schools in California and elsewhere, and in conjunction with continued efforts to diversify Yale’s student-body—establish new ways to study the historical experience of underrepresented groups. It was hard not to feel that the convictions animating the major—that one can’t understand America without its immigrants; that slavery’s after-effects remain central to American life; that questions of identity, whether we like it or not, sit at the core of our politics and our culture—might soon take their rightful place near the heart of Yale’s curriculum at large. It was to be hoped, too, that the makeup of a student body that has evolved to more closely mirror the diversity of the country might be reflected in a faculty that remained shockingly white and male.

But as the turmoil of recent years on campus has shown, neither of these things has happened. In the decade and a half since I graduated, the percentage of tenured Yale faculty who are African-American has held steady at 3 percent; the figure for Latinos is even lower. In the fall of 2015, a spate of tense episodes surrounding race and inclusivity, on campus and at nearby residences, showed the extent to which Yale remained an unwelcoming place for many students of color. In response to these tensions, Salovey announced a series of initiatives to support cultural centers and new research institutes, improve financial aid, and establish a fifty-million-dollar fund to improve faculty diversity.

On campus, these steps were welcomed, but many students and some faculty objected strongly to what seemed a blithe refusal to rename Calhoun. Protests against the university’s defense of the college’s name continued. And last August, Salovey asked John Witt, a professor of law and history, to chair a Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming; he also appointed a further advisory group charged with considering the Witt committee’s report in relation to the Calhoun issue.  

It was these committees’ findings that informed the email that Salovey sent to the Yale community on Saturday, February 11—as it happened, just hours after The New York Times published an Op-Ed by Tobias Holden, a Yale undergrad protesting that Calhoun’s name still remained. A senior from South Carolina who recently discovered that one of his enslaved forebears was fathered by none other than John Calhoun, Holden wrote that to students of color, “the idea that this history could be erased was laughable,” because “Calhoun’s ideologies are not inert elements of the past” and “White supremacy is very much a part of our present.” It is precisely those facts, and their acknowledgement, that many on the other side may cite in urging that the name stay at a university where free inquiry and free speech are sacrosanct.

But sincere and deeply held views, especially about what causes offense, no doubt informed Salovey’s move to reverse his earlier decision, despite the precedent it seems to establish. “I was concerned about inviting a series of name changes that would obscure Yale’s past,” he wrote, before explaining that though “these concerns remain paramount…we have since established an enduring set of principles that address them.” To avoid suggesting a process existed by which all our public buildings might be renamed every few decades, Yale needed an approach that, as Salovey put it, both established “a strong presumption against renaming buildings” and enabled “thoughtful review of any future requests for change.” Those standards are “(1) whether the namesake’s principal legacy fundamentally conflicts with the university’s mission; (2) whether that principal legacy was contested during the namesake’s lifetime; (3) the reasons the university honored that person; and (4) whether the building so named plays a substantial role in forming community at Yale.” It was in accord with these that Salovey and the Yale Corporation agreed with their committees’ unanimous view “that Calhoun College presents an exceptionally strong case—perhaps uniquely strong—that allows it to overcome the powerful presumption against renaming articulated in the report.”

That the building bearing Calhoun’s name was a residential college for students, a place central to “forming community at Yale,” was crucial to that conclusion. But it was also bolstered by what a contemporary of John Calhoun, the chemist Benjamin Silliman—another prominent Yalie of the early 1800s who later had a residential college named after him—had to say about him in their own day. Salovey, in his email to the Yale community, quoted Silliman’s view that Calhoun “in a great measure changed the state of opinion and the manner of speaking and writing upon this subject in the South, until we have come to present to the world the mortifying and disgraceful spectacle of a great republic—and the only real republic in the world—standing forth in vindication of slavery, without prospect of, or wish for, its extinction.” In other words: it mattered that Calhoun was widely recognized, in his own day, as not merely a defender of slavery but a fierce advocate for it, whose central legacy is as a man whose hateful ideas shaped history. 

One may still feel, as I do, that the goal of bringing such history to light and combating its effects is an end better served, at a top university devoted to free intellectual exchange, by having the old bigot’s name on the wall than not. But there are countless examples of changes like the one Yale is now making—Stalingrad was renamed, though it retains many symbols of people who endured or even shaped that leader’s era. We have long made distinctions, in building monuments or changing them, between history’s chief advocates of cruelty and compliant followers. There’s a reason we don’t cross squares or gaze at monuments named for Goebbels in Berlin. And in this regard, it’s hard not to credit the rigor of the process behind Calhoun’s removal at Yale.  

What’s also inarguable is that our country is now led by a man who received millions fewer votes than his opponent, but won the presidency thanks to an institution—the Electoral College—that was set up to protect the interests and ideas of slave-owning states like John Calhoun’s. In the United States of America of 2017, a country that still sends more college-age black men to prison than to school, the Alabama senator who’s now in charge of the DOJ is a “law and order” man who has supported policies aimed at restricting the franchise and one of whose first official moves, as Attorney General, was to back for-profit prisons.

Barack Obama, in his final White House press conference last month, addressed the issue of voting rights in particular, in his familiar way—by pointing gently to America’s flaws while at the same time flattering our sense of ourselves. “The reason that we are the only country among advanced democracies that makes it harder to vote [rather than easier] traces directly back to Jim Crow and the legacy of slavery,” he said. “And that’s not who we are.” On the contrary: as the first part of his comment implied, that is exactly who we are. Our history may now include Barack Obama, but it also contains John Calhoun. We are, in 2017, still waging the battles of the nineteenth century.