With his back to a portrait of John C. Calhoun adorning the living room of the Calhoun College Master’s House, history professor David Blight addressed the issue of renaming the college on Wednesday afternoon amid a flurry of renewed scrutiny for the title.
The June shooting in Charleston that killed nine African-Americans embroiled the nation in debates over Confederate symbols and reignited a debate over Calhoun College, named for the 1804 graduate of Yale College who was one of slavery’s fiercest advocates. While Blight took no definitive stance on whether or not to rename the college, he invited the crowd of roughly 50 students and faculty to delve deeper into the story of the person behind the college’s 82-year-old name. According to Blight, in the wake of the recent Charleston tragedy, it is important for students to define their positions and question the purpose of memorialization.
“Memorialization, representing the past, needs to cause pain,” Blight said during the talk. “The past really should trouble us — I don’t want the past to ever make us feel good.”
Blight added that any decision should be informed by the knowledge of the complete history behind the Calhoun name. It would be a mistake to simply view Calhoun as a slave owner and a defender of slavery, Blight said — he was an accomplished statesman who wrote extensively on political economy, and given the particular world in which Calhoun grew up, it would be astonishing for him to not defend slavery, he added.
Still, Blight declined to take an explicit position and noted that the ultimate decision-makers lie in the University administration.
“As a faculty member, I don’t think I necessarily need to take a stance,” Blight told the News after the tea, highlighting that the matter is a decision of University President Peter Salovey and the Yale Corporation. It should be made, he added, in consultation with the community of masters, deans and Calhoun residents.
Blight informed the audience that renowned abolitionist Frederick Douglass often cited Calhoun in his speeches as a symbol of what he vehemently opposed. For this reason, Blight worried about the prospect of any kind of erasure, instead inviting all attendees to develop their own criteria regarding memorialization while keeping the power of historical symbols in mind.
For many in the audience, especially current and past Calhoun residents, their college’s name is a highly personal issue beyond the historical narrative that Blight offered.
“I do not think Calhoun College should be renamed,” Calhoun student Taylor Buscemi ’18 said after the tea. “At this point in time, right after the Charleston incident, people are too aroused by the situation, and I believe we need more time to evaluate the pros and cons of changing the name.”
However, others argued that the name had to be changed to ensure that Yale’s building names project the same values it tries to instill in its students.
Calhoun Associate Master Hans van Dijk said that altering the college’s name was the only way to “fix a mistake.” Erasure is the best option in the discussion, van Dijk added.
Julia Adams, professor of sociology and international and area studies and Master of Calhoun College, said she is delighted that the Yale community is embracing this discussion but declined to take a specific position.
“I am trying to be agnostic right now to further the conversation. I think that’s my role,” Adams said. “While the debate is happening, I think it’s important that we make the debate as broad and serious as possible. We need to have all the positions out and then consider what should be done.”
Joking that both the salutation and signature of her position as master have become problematic, she said she encourages the ongoing discussions and hopes that invested individuals will reach out to her to voice their opinions.
At the very conclusion of the tea, Blight moved beyond the immediate controversy surrounding Calhoun and asked attendees to think more broadly about historical symbolism.
“Why ought humanity remember moral nightmares rather than moments of human triumph — moments in which human beings behaved nobly?” Blight said, quoting the Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit from his book, “The Ethics of Memory.” “But the issue for us to sort out is what humanity ought to remember rather than what is good for humanity to remember.”