In recent months, campus conversation surrounding race has intensified. Many columns on this page have discussed the two current hot topics: the title of “master” for heads of residential colleges and the possibility of renaming Calhoun College. Many cite the historical, social and cultural contexts of these names. Master comes from the Oxbridge college system, so some people reason that it’s ridiculous to associate it with American slavery. Others suggest that regardless of its academic origins, the word itself is charged with a history of American violence and enslavement. A more direct relationship is that between Calhoun College and John C. Calhoun, notorious racist.
Over the summer, I began working with the Director of Communications for the Yale University Library system. In the air-conditioned offices of Sterling, I spent hours combing through online databases, finding digital content for pamphlets and social media posts. Basically, I got very good at looking up pictures on the Internet. For the record, this is much harder than it sounds.
Through my job, I learned more about Yale’s history. I knew that we were founded in 1701 because those t-shirts make it hard to forget, and I knew that women weren’t admitted to the college until 1969. I knew that we were named after Elihu Yale, and I knew that Yale University was a big deal. But I’d never thought very critically about the University’s relationship to America’s fraught history.
One July afternoon, when the Huffington Post published an article on why Yale should rename Calhoun College, I engaged in an argument on the infamous Facebook group “Overheard at Yale.” My comment added fuel to digital fire as I suggested that we question how we honor important people who did both great and terrible things. Other students argued that renaming Calhoun would necessitate that we radically reconsider the namesakes of most campus buildings.
I understand the inconvenience of renaming things, but I don’t think Yale will suffer if we stop wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the names of men who perpetuated or committed mass violence. I’m also pretty sure we could just carve new letters into the stone facades that have existed for less than a third of this University’s history. But that’s just me.
Back to Overheard. After engaging in a social media scuffle, I realized that at work that afternoon, I had read about an exhibition on Yale’s relationship to the American South. My job was relevant to my life!
I looked up the online page for the exhibition: Elms and Magnolias, a collection about Yale and the American South that was compiled by the University Library’s Manuscripts & Archives. The digitized collection includes slideshows of photographs, paintings and letters from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. Elms and Magnolias establishes that despite Yale’s location, Southerners — and the South by extension — are an intrinsic component of Yale’s legacy.
One segment from the online archive stood out to me:
“Calhoun served as Congressman, Secretary of War, Vice-President, Secretary of State and Senator during his long tenure in U.S. politics. He is credited for having influenced the political history of the United States more than any other graduate in the first two centuries of Yale’s history. His state rights philosophy was central to the formation of the Southern Confederacy.”
On their own, these words don’t imply that Calhoun was the coolest Yale grad ever, but they acknowledge his influence: the breadth and depth of his power and voice. Calhoun’s Yale education empowered him to take on political authority. The site also states that as Secretary of War, Calhoun authorized Jedediah Morse (that name sounds familiar) “to enter the territories occupied by Native Americans and serve as a missionary and observer.” Calhoun was directly involved in the enslavement of one group of people while also furthering the genocide of another. I like to think of him playing whack-a-mole except with racial oppression.
As an institution, Yale has gained influence through its affiliation with men like Calhoun. This is an unchangeable fact. Still, as a poet, I’m enchanted by the concept that time is malleable. Through writing, people can address trauma and violence through personal and political histories.
That said, Yale students, faculty and corporation members need to do a better job of engaging with the history of our institution as a place and educator of world citizens.
Former Dean of Admissions, Jeffrey Brenzel ’75, told us in our admissions packets that Yale would prepare us to become leaders in the world. I suggest that we question what kinds of leaders we wish to become. Renaming colleges or changing titles won’t ever change history, but these changes can mark the University’s newer, more complex relationship with its own legacy.
Adriana Miele is a senior in Jonathan Edwards college. Her column runs on Thursdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.