This summer, the global media focused on Yale as a result of the “Yale, Slavery and Abolition” report. While most of us were on summer vacation, there were numerous articles and editorials in the New York Times, Washington Post and other publications debating the significance and relevance of the report.
Upon returning to campus, I expected to find debate on the question of Yale’s legacy of slavery. The discussion did begin, but was quickly set aside in the wake of the events of Sept. 11. Now is the time for us to return our attention to this important question.
I believe there are two ways for Yale to respond: one, to acknowledge Yale’s history in an honest way. Slavery is part of this institution’s history, and this report provides an excellent opportunity to recognize it.
Second, the administration should actively work to distance Yale from the abhorrent pro-slavery teachings and actions of so many of our “Yale men.”
I believe that involves addressing slavery’s legacy of racism in our University and country. While I have several suggestions of how Yale could do this, I think this is a debate that should include many people other than myself. Discussions that have taken place at Black Student Alliance at Yale, Dwight Hall and among community leaders are essential and can serve as a model to the larger Yale community.
Most importantly, we as a Yale community should be honest about our history, and therefore, I would like to see the administration acknowledge Yale’s history of slavery with plaques, a formal statement or a campuswide event that explains our history in an intellectually honest manner. Events like the Yale administration’s preventing the establishment of a “Negro college” in New Haven in 1831 need to be acknowledged publicly.
Up to now, the response from Yale President Richard Levin and the administration has been a defensive one. Immediately after the report’s release, the administration was quoted as saying, “Few, if any, institutions or individuals from the period before Emancipation remained untainted by slavery.” (The New York Times, 8/13/01)
While this is certainly true, this “presentism defense,” as Henry Wieneck described it, (The New York Times, 8/18/01) does not preclude Yale from taking steps to address the points outlined above: acknowledgement of our history, and positive actions to address racism and discrimination.
Perhaps President Levin believes that acknowledging Yale’s history of slavery would hurt our university’s reputation. On the contrary, I would be proud to go to a school that, instead of responding defensively, took the opportunity to engage directly and honestly with our history and work to change it.
That’s what a strong university would do. And that’s what I would like to tell people back home that my university is doing — publicly acknowledging Yale’s history of pro-slavery teachings and actions and coming to terms with it through concrete changes.
Abigail Levine is a senior in Berkeley College.