On Jan. 23 and Jan. 31 I received e-mails with the following provocative question in 27 point bold underlined Arial font: “What are your feelings about ‘Blackness’ at Yale University?”
I like it. I like Greenness more. Though the faded rusty copper clock on Harkness gives solace through the winter months, I long for the cacophony of emerald, jade, lime and shamrock greens that adorn our hills and shade our walks through the spring and summer months.
Like all absolutes, Blackness should be used sparingly, as an accent and not a fabric. The black brick corrugation on the new health center looks atrocious. But I want more Blackness. The black mullions on the gothic facade of Davenport are far superior to the dull steely gray that pervades the windows in Branford.
And we could use more accents. We dress black tie for special occasions. Yale used to have students dress black tie for dinner. We do not need to dress up for every dinner, but dress for Saturday dinners would be appropriate. More than a choice of fashion, it is a sign of respect — taking the time to put yourself together demonstrates a respect for the extraordinary efforts of the dining hall workers and commitment to the inherently social occasion that is dinner.
We especially need blackness in font. Except in extreme cases, colorful letters confuse and dilute the meaning of words. Shape defines a typeface, and shape depends on the sharp contrasts that black provides. It was odd that the question in the e-mail was in blue.
But this e-mail probably did not have mullions or typeface in mind. This e-mail came from the Black Students Alliance at Yale. They followed up the main question with a list of topics: the black community, the Afro-American Cultural center, race relations, interracial dating, etc. Neither architecture nor tuxedos came up. Apparently skin can also be black. Or at least sufficiently dark that we call it black.
So how do I feel about it?
Certainly the question has something to do with identity. That is a big question. Who we are informs where we live, what we care for, with whom we associate, and what responsibilities we assume and seek out. It gives meaning to our interactions and creates a ruler and a compass by which we measure our successes and failures.
Many identities are foisted upon us. We do not pick our family or our country. It is rare we choose our religion. But I have yet to receive an e-mail asking me how I feel about “American-ness at Yale,” how do I feel about “Episcopalian-ness” at Yale, or how I feel about “Kemper-ness” at Yale.
Why does our skin color merit such special attention? I visited the website for the Black Student Alliance at Yale. According to the description, they concern themselves primarily with culture, community and advocacy. Those are all healthy concerns. But they also dedicate their efforts specifically to the “lives of Black students at Yale.”
There is something especially inescapable about skin color. We can choose and determine how important our family, country and religion are to us and — more importantly — what meaning each identity carries. But we do not choose our skin color. I can lie about my family, move to another country or convert to a different religion, but my skin is undeniably white (or rather, a reddish tan).
So what do I feel about an organization claiming as its own people who have no choice in the matter?
When an organization claims as its constituents students not of a particular persuasion, but of a particular color, it makes an assumption. It assumes that people whose skin color is black identify with them, and that people whose skin color is not black have less to do with them. Nobody assumes somebody is a Spizzwink — the term means nothing.
The randomness of the name — whether it is Spizzwink, Manuscript or Dwight — leaves the focus on their actual purpose. Identities, and organizations that create them, should bring together a group of people in pursuit of a given project or in the promotion of a set of principles. Tying an organization to something as bereft of content as the color of skin only limits the project and hobbles those principles.
Celebrate a culture, pursue equality and justice, and above all build meaningful relationships with your kin. Let us, as Yalies — or whatever name we should give our group — fight bigotry, hatred and oppression wherever it should reside and in whatever form it should take.
But let us try to leave colors out of it.
Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College.