Having remained largely removed from Yale affairs as an alumnus since the early 1960s, except for sending in occasional donations to the Graduate School and regularly perusing copies of the Alumni Magazine, this is my second submission in less than a fortnight, both prompted by the impact of the tragic Annie Le GRD ’13 murder.
The series in the News highlighting the integration of female students at Yale also compelled me to write again and to reflect on the import of both events for me in recalling my own singular experience as a black graduate student with regard to the sense of community, so stirringly evident in the wake of the Le case.
In the early 1960s, that sense of community, for this writer, did not extend beyond my classmates in seminars and in the graduate dormitory, the formidable and sprawling Gothic edifice, the Hall of Graduate Studies, on York Street. I could walk through the corridors (and even the courtyard) and not see another living soul or escape the feeling of semi-isolation. The reason for that might well have been that we graduate students were huddled in the huge Sterling Memorial Library, buried in piles of books in pursuit of our degrees, and had little time for anything else.
As a minority male, I did not encounter racial hostility or willful distancing from my overwhelmingly white counterparts, but, rather, a sense that so much of Yale at that time (prior to the tumult of the late 1960s) was not directly relevant to the concerns and meaning of my racial identity and the historic and contemporary role of African-Americans (then referred to as “Negroes”) in the unfolding of American life and times.
Given the uneasy relations — sometimes fraught with tension — of the “town and gown” links between New Haven and Yale, it is ironic that it was to the Dixwell Avenue black ghetto community that we, the few black grad students, turned for refuge from the mono-racial milieu in which we did not feel entirely welcome. In the black churches, cafés, pubs and homes of the denizens of Dixwell, we found respite from the cultural and ethnic alienation that marked our time behind the gates of Yale.
The Annie Le tragedy offered a different scenario at Yale — now in 2009 — and almost instantly ignited a wave of emotion and concern and, yes, a sense of community that transcended all sectors of present-day Yale — undergrads, grads, professors, administrators, staff and alumni — and brought all of Yale’s disparate groups together in shared mourning and shock. One can say without exaggeration that, in a vicarious way, most of the nation, for a time, also experienced a kind of communion with the events and the people at Yale.
So, in looking back from my very singular vantage point as a long-ago black male grad student at Yale in the early 1960s, when there were few persons around who looked like me, I was reminded that I drew a degree of psychic comfort from a phenomenon that then and now, was and is, the bells of Harkness Tower. This particular recollection was triggered by a report in the News that noted that in the aftermath of the Le murder the famed bells of Harkness Towers — silenced by renovations underway during the current academic year — were heard once again in truncated form as part of the Yale memorial vigils that were taking place on the mournful campus.
This tribute to Le recalled for me the times at Yale when I would be sitting in my room in the Hall of Graduate Studies or at a study table in the Sterling Memorial Library, at dusk, when the bells began to toll, and the chimes could be heard throughout the sprawling Yale campus and beyond, to adjacent neighborhoods of New Haven.
The sound of those bells enveloped me each evening in a sense of community that remains, in my vivid recollections, to this hour. For a fleeting half hour I could be certain that I was sharing a common experience and reaction with everyone else at Yale and its environs. It was said at the time that the sonorous sound of the Harkness Tower chimes remained embedded in the memories of Yale alumni from generation to generation — and this was certainly true for me. After the renovations are over at the Tower, it will be good news when the refurbished bells will toll again for the benefit of all within hearing.
And, yes, the arrival of women and minorities did transform Yale — for the better — as an authentic and more inclusive academic and social community.
Norman Hodges is a 1961 graduate of the Graduate School.