In the week following the announcement of Hopper College, the only word being used more than “Hopper” or “Calhoun” in the Yale network is “history.” People from all corners of Yale’s community are invoking arguments about history — making it, destroying it, whitewashing it or revealing it — to validate their anger, skepticism or celebration. Much of the debate about renaming has played out in the language of the past: Who was John C. Calhoun, class of 1804? Why did Yale name a residential college for him? What does it mean to remember?
An overemphasis on the historical gravity of people and symbols from the past often served to preempt and undermine arguments centering on the present. A common refrain of many who were against renaming exemplified this pattern: “Renaming is erasing history, period.” The inflexibility of this claim positions anyone who would even consider altering a symbol or tradition as someone with a reckless disregard for history. It also assumes that the only history that counts is the story of times past. I would argue that one of the many lessons the past year and a half had to offer us was that history is constantly taking form. We have a duty to protect the story of the present as well.
As the only undergraduate member of the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, I spent a semester consumed by theory, forums, heated debates, thoughtful conversations and personal reflections on history. The committee, which included some of Yale’s most talented historians, immediately dug into the history of Calhoun and Yale’s college naming process in the 1930s. Of course, there were important details and nuances to be found, but the basic record on the history of the past was unsurprisingly clear: John C. Calhoun was a white supremacist with a knack for climbing political ranks and prolonging the life of slavery.
The committee’s exploration of history did not, however, end there. As we conducted conversations about renaming — conversations which generations of student activists had ignited long before — the history of the present emerged as an important concept that merited consideration alongside the history of the past. Particularly when talking with current students, I could almost see and hear the fabric of our time being woven around us. We were Yale, as diverse as Yale has ever been and as activated as the student body had been in years. The questions of our history remained entirely open-ended and urgent: What does it mean to have a white space filled with an increasingly diverse group of people? What does it mean to be in the fifth generation of students of color and articulate your right to ownership and belonging? What about our traditional landscape that is incongruent with our present community? How do we balance knowing where we came from with looking toward where we are going?
Activism, debate, looking critically at institutions, asking questions of memory and tradition, searching for environments that reflect our values: Those are all exciting elements of the history we are living. And this moment extends far beyond Yale. The committee studied renaming controversies currently playing out around the world, and students who organized last fall’s protests inspired and were inspired by young people across the country who are taking action. Our current moment is filled with history making and remaking, and that story matters.
As Yale formalizes Hopper College and decides how best to represent the winding history of the building on the corner of Elm and College streets, I hope we remain adamant that our current moment is part of the history that must be told, and it must be told fully. If the University’s goal is to avoid silence, it cannot continue to publicize Hopper College without mention of the painful, complicated collective process that brought us to this point. If the Yale community is one that frowns upon historical erasure, it must not erase the powerful actions student activists, Yale staff, New Haven protestors and faculty members took to make the Corporation consider — and reconsider — renaming.
The struggle to preserve the memory of the present and capture it correctly, even as we continue to live and process it, is crucial and in some ways, more difficult than protecting the history of the past. There is no longstanding record to hold up to the light, no books to read or theories to use as starting points, no clear process for writing down what belongs in the history books. We do have some tools at our disposal, however. We have the advantage of being present to tell our own stories, through writing and recording and shouting from the rooftops. We also have the ability to celebrate victories big and small as they come and, in doing so, make our own commemorations. So here’s to Hopper College and to now.
Dasia Moore is a junior in Pierson College. She served as the only undergraduate on the Committee to Establish Renaming Principles. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .