Windows to the past

Until the mid 1990s, the image of a black man eating watermelon — a common derogatory caricature from the early 20th century — was part of the design of the stained-glass windows overlooking Sterling Memorial Library’s staff lounge for more than six decades.

But the way the man was depicted drew complaints from multiple employees roughly 15 years ago, prompting the University’s human resources department to demand that the library remove the glass, said John Vincenti, the manager of library building operations and security.

Sterling Memorial Library’s East Asian Library contains a pane of stained glass with this depiction from Bret Harte’s poem “Heathen Chinee.”
Jane Long
Sterling Memorial Library’s East Asian Library contains a pane of stained glass with this depiction from Bret Harte’s poem “Heathen Chinee.”
A stained glass pane in Calhoun College depicts a black man and woman picking cotton.
Jane Long
A stained glass pane in Calhoun College depicts a black man and woman picking cotton.
A portion of this pane once depicted slaves (beneath the figure of John C. Calhoun) but has since been replaced with the colored glass in the bottom left corner.
Jane Long
A portion of this pane once depicted slaves (beneath the figure of John C. Calhoun) but has since been replaced with the colored glass in the bottom left corner.
After library employees in the early 1990s complained about a stained glass pane originally titled “Negro with a watermelon,” the pane was removed and replaced with the pane on the far right.
Jane Long
After library employees in the early 1990s complained about a stained glass pane originally titled “Negro with a watermelon,” the pane was removed and replaced with the pane on the far right.
After some employees complained about the stained glass pane entitled “Negro with a watermelon”  in the early 1990s, the pane was removed and replaced by this pane of a different style than the adjacent images.
Jane Long
After some employees complained about the stained glass pane entitled “Negro with a watermelon” in the early 1990s, the pane was removed and replaced by this pane of a different style than the adjacent images.

“Once somebody knew that some one found it offensive, it was removed,” said Judy Schiff, chief research archivist of the University Library.

The image of the black man, which Schiff said is derived from the 1916 book “Penrod and Sam” by Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington, has since been replaced by a new pane depicting a book, a scale, a pediment and columns, and the original pane is now stored in the University Objects Collection, Vincenti said.

The stained-glass window in Sterling is one of several racially themed windows still scattered around campus whose designs are remnants of the early 20th century and were incorporated into the Yale’s architecture when many University buildings were built.

In the Branford College master’s house, for example, a window shows a black man with wide lips and servant’s clothing, balancing a turkey on his head. Another window in the Calhoun College dining hall shows two black women picking cotton.

The continued presence of these images underscores Yale’s ongoing tension between historical preservation and racial sensitivity, and different administrators have responded in different ways, with some deciding to remove the potentially offensive glass and others deciding to leave it.

Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95, who decided to leave the questionable pane in his college’s dining hall, said he is uneasy with the idea of simply erasing history.

“The historian in me says we whitewash too many things in our society,” said Holloway, a professor of history, African American studies and American studies.

When the East Asian Library was renovated in 2006, the staff uncovered a stained glass window depicting a Chinese man caricatured with a queue ponytail reminiscent of the era of Manchu control in China. The image, based on an illustration in the late 19th century narrative poem “Heathen Chinee,” had previously been concealed behind a bookcase, said Gay Walker, a former Yale librarian who has written multiple books on the history of Yale’s stained glass.

“They didn’t want to destroy art, but they wanted to place it in a less conspicuous location,” Walker said.

Ironically, though the room containing the “Heathen Chinee” image originally housed Yale’s collection of American literature, it became the East Asian Library during the library’s reorganization toward the end of the 20th century. Ellen Hammond, the library’s curator, said staff members have met multiple times with faculty members to discuss whether or not to remove the image entirely. Their consensus has been to keep the image as a record of American attitudes toward Asians earlier in the 20th century, she said.

“The image of ‘Chineseness’ presented in the stained glass is uncomfortable for us,” Hammond said in an e-mail. But, she added, “it seems fitting somehow that the image is now in a part of the library that celebrates East Asian cultures.”

G. Owen Bonawit, the artist who designed the glass in Sterling Memorial Library, also designed stained glass panels in many of Yale’s residential colleges, Walker said.

While she said she thinks Bonawit also designed Branford’s stained glass, she said she is most knowledgeable about the glass in Sterling and is unaware of the caricature of the black servant carrying a turkey. She said in a later e-mail that the college has several small designs intended at the time to be “humorous.”

Branford College Master Steven Smith declined to comment for this article.

With an even more troubled history related to race, Calhoun College — named after the 1804 Yale College graduate and 19th-century statesman who supported the states’ rights movement and slavery — contains visual reminders of this part of American history in its windows. The themes among the windows, which Walker said were designed by artist Nicola d’Ascenza in the 1930s, long went unnoticed by many.

Prior to the college’s renovation in the 2008-’09 academic year, the entire college had its windows replaced in the summers of 2005 and 2006, said Holloway, the college’s master.

Before the renovation, Plexiglas covering the windows obscured the content of the images, including the depiction of two black women picking cotton. Holloway himself said he was not aware of the image until a News reporter approached him in the fall of 2006 for an article about the history of slavery at Yale. He said he does not feel a need to remove the image simply because of his personal objections to it.

“I’m not thrilled by it,” Holloway said of the image. “But there’s a lot of art that I’m not thrilled by.”

Calhoun resident Eleanor Hayes-Larson ’11 echoed Holloway’s sentiment, noting that Yale’s ties to slavery are offensive but historically accurate. To remove the stained glass, she said, would be to “forgive ourselves” unjustly.

In fact, several other works of art in Calhoun have raised questions related to race.

Nearby, in Calhoun’s common room, is a stained glass image of John C. Calhoun, his knee now covered by pieces of colored glass. This position in the stained glass was once occupied by depictions of Calhoun’s slaves, Holloway said.

Holloway said he has heard two versions of what happened to the window but does not know what actually happened. In one story, the depiction of the slaves in the window was smashed during the height of the black power movement and was replaced with colored glass. In the other story, the part of the image containing the slaves was removed by administrators and put in storage, where it was either lost or broken.

During the college’s 2005-’06 window renovations, Holloway opted not to have the image removed in order to preserve the mystery of how the window’s damage occurred, he said.

“I did not want to erase history,” Holloway said.

Comments

  • *Sigh*

    “The historian in me says we whitewash too many things in our society,” said Holloway, a professor of history, African American studies and American studies.

    WHITEWASH????!

    RAAAAAAA-cist!

    BTW: When American soldiers were referred to as Kuwait’s “white slaves,” I hear they just, uh, dealt with it…

    Lastly: isn’t some of this just, you know, “historically accurate?” I mean, didn’t some slaves work in fields or as servants? Didn’t some Chinese sport a single, long braid? Just sayin’.

  • Redbob69

    Well heaven forbid we should have ANY art about that causes anyone any discomfort for any reason whatsoever!

    (For those of you educated in public schools, the above is what we call “sarcasm”)

  • Y’11

    “Another window in the Calhoun College dining hall shows two black women picking cotton.”

    How is this racists? Unless the window pane features a grotesque caricature of the women, it’s an accurate portait of what slaves suffered through. I mean, that’s what slaves did and yes, slaves were black. God forbid we should be reminded of our history and learn from our past mistakes.

  • y11

    “Once somebody knew that some one found it offensive, it was removed.”

    Well, that’s how Yale rolls these days, isn’t it? The indirect phrasing of this sentence is so telling: It’s not that someone in charge found it offensive, or that everyone found it offensive, but that ONE person found it offensive, and therefore someone ELSE made sure it was removed on their behalf.

    Holloway, on the other hand, seems to be the lone voice of reason here. That guy is awesome.

    As for Eleanor… “forgive ourselves unjustly.” Hm. And who do you mean by “ourselves,” exactly? I’ve never owned slaves. My father never owned slaves. His father never owned slaves. His father’s father never owned slaves. His father’s father’s father never owned slaves. His father’s father’s father’s father fought and died to FREE slaves, but he never owned any either. So were YOU ever a slave owner, Eleanor? Because otherwise I’m not sure about whom and from whom you’re talking and demanding guilt, respectively.

  • @#1

    Relax, #1, I don’t think he meant it as a pun or in any other manner than the basic definition. You should take solace in Holloway’s comments… they’re definitely the most nuanced and logical of all those cited in this article. He seems to be the only one who actually gets it.

  • James T. Madison

    Yale removed a stained glass window from its long-appointed place in Sterling Library “once somebody knew that some one found it offensive?” Really? As anyone who has seen a medieval stained glass window removed from its church and placed in a museum should know, removing a site-specific work of art is itself serious destruction of art (although not as bad as destroying the object). This point has been forcefully made by, for example, Greeks demanding the return of the Elgin Marbles to Athens. The controversey surrounding the long-demolished Richard Serra sculpture “Tilted Arc” in the Jacob Javits Plaza in Lower Manhattan centered on this issue.

    Destruction-by-relocation is especially pernicious when it serves a non-artistic (especially political) agenda. Yale people who insist on such removals on racial/political grounds may not be as pernicious as the Talibanis who demolished the Afghan Bamyan Buddhas, but such people are motivated by a weaker version of the same antiartistic, ahistorical impulse.

    Art does not and should not always prevail. Jacob Javits Plaza is now a much nicer place to feed a bird or eat a sandwich. But is freely servicing antiartistic, ahistorical impulses to the point of placing art in storage “once somebody knew that some one found it offensive” what Yale is or wants to be about?

    Yuck!

  • sy07

    Great article–very interesting stuff. And God love Jonathan Holloway, he really is the best

  • Asian Yalie

    I’m actually offended that people DO want to hide the glass window depicting the Chinese man. His characterization is malicious and offensive, but that’s how Chinese people were seen by Americans and Europeans at that time. The artwork should be prominently displayed as a testimony of the discrimination Asians faced in America. Funny how people try to hide history just because they are embarrassed by it.

  • YALIE WHO READ ARTICLE

    @2 Wow, you really picked up the nuances of the article. Nice.

    (we public school kids understand sarcasm, too)

    @3 I see where you’re coming from, but “learning from our past” and glorifying gross representations of black people on our college’s stained glass windows are ENTIRELY different things.

    wow, its really funny to see how offended people get about people getting offended.

  • FailBoat

    And what’s the deal with the Washington Redskins, folks?

  • Shaman

    Fascinating information. I appreciate a truthful historian like Master Holloway. Thank you Sir.

  • Annie

    Yeah, well, I find the mild porn in some of the library’s stonework offensive and degrading to women. I expect it to be removed by next week. Thanks.

  • James T. Madison

    @9 (YALIE WHO READ ARTICLE)

    “wow, its really funny to see how offended people get about people getting offended”

    Ah, YWRA, I don’t read any comment above as objecting to “people getting offended” about anything at all. Some comments (including mine) do object to people demanding removal of art objects that offend such people. That’s certainly true of #8 (Asian Yalie), for example. I, personally, take no offense (or joy) in the discomfort of people offended by art objects, but I do not see such discomfort as sufficient grounds for what amounts to a kind of low-grade political vandalism.

    Similarly, I do not read any comment here as an example of “how offended people get about people getting offended.” Perhaps you can explain? Or perhaps “YALIE WHO READ ARTICLE” is a nick name, with your full name something like “YALIE WHO READ ARTICLE BUT DID NOT READ THE COMMENTS VERY CLOSELY?”

    Just asking.

  • IvyCrasher

    @RedBob69
    The panel here is one of the most grotesque depictions of Chinese people I’ve ever seen. In fact, I honestly had no idea what it was depicting before I read the article.

    @*Sigh*
    I’m rather amused that this image seems to be in keeping with your perception of Asians.

    (Thanks you two, us poor deprived souls in public schools find solace in knowing that there are undereducated idiots like us in Yale after all)

  • IvyCrasher

    @Mr. James T. Madison

    I’m not YWRA but I figured I should help you out here.

    The Oxford Dictionary
    Offend: Cause offense to, upset; displease, anger; do

  • @jamesmadison

    i think reading and understanding the nuances of the article’s arguments is more important than reading and understanding the very un-nuanced reactions of anonymous posters

  • James T. Madison

    @15 (IvyCrasher):

    I think it’s great that you cracked open that big dictionary. And you got the definition pretty much right, which is also a plus. But there seems to be a problem with your application.

    It is certainly true that the demands of certain Yale people that the University remove art objects that such people dislike did “cause offense to, upset; displease, anger” some commenters.

    But it is NOT true that any comment here indicates that the “offense to, upset; displease, [or] anger” of ANY person “cause[d] offense to, upset; displease[ed], [or] anger[ed]” anyone. THAT’s what YWRA asserts, and he/she still seems to be dead wrong, OED or no OED.

    Does that help?

    I notice YWRA has not responded yet. Perhaps there is a good reason for that.

    @16:

    Yes, it’s at least arguable that “reading and understanding the nuances of the article’s arguments is more important than reading and understanding the very un-nuanced reactions of anonymous posters,” EXCEPT when one is commenting on what an anonymous poster has written. In that case reading the comment is just as important as reading the article.

    At least, that’s my opinion.

  • IvyCrasher

    If by all the comments here you mean just your own, then I would certainly agree that they are reasoned opinions devoid of any emotions I would categorize under “Offended.”

    Otherwise, unless you (a). posted multiple times under various names, (b). posted with the explicit intention to be logical and emotionally detached, and (c). failed miserably at (b), then something that’s not objective observation is at work here.

    “I don’t read any comment above as objecting to “people getting offended” about anything at all.”

    Do you only read your own comments? James T Madison?

    “I notice YWRA has not responded yet. Perhaps there is a good reason for that.”

    I’m going to take a guess here as to what you think the “good reason” is and tell you something that might benefit you for the rest of your life: you’re not nearly as erudite or infallible as you seem to think you are.

    PS: I’m also moving on to other things in my life now, okay? As YWRA most likely has done already.

  • Fact Checker!

    Only plebeians would think the stained art depicting “Heathen Chinee” was racist.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Heathen_Chinee