The names of Yale’s new residential colleges should embrace the best of Yale’s history and the promise of Yale’s future; they should celebrate Yale’s best values.
A lot of people have recently latched on to a proposal to rename Calhoun College in honor of the hope and progress evoked by the memory of a universally loved and lauded student who died in a car crash during his senior year. But hope isn’t just the domain of recent history.
In 1839, on a slave ship bound for Cuba, a group of Mende captives rebelled. They tried to direct the ship back to West Africa but wound up in New Haven, where American authorities charged the Mende with murder. The murder charges were soon dropped — American courts had no jurisdiction — but the question remained whether to send the prisoners as property to Spanish authorities in Cuba or as free people home to Africa. Their fate was left to the courts; eventually, John Quincy Adams argued and won their case before the Supreme Court, and the Mende returned home.
Most Yalies probably have some familiarity with the story of The Amistad. But it’s a story about New Haven, Yale and the power of education as much as it is about self-empowerment in the face of oppression.
While the Mende were imprisoned in New Haven, Yale professors and students set to work to help win their freedom. Philology professor Josiah Gibbs went to New York to find someone who could speak the Mende language. Law students and alumni worked to prepare the Mende’s case in court.
The Mende took to educating themselves. With the help of Yale students, they studied English and theology. While Adams worked on their behalf in the courts, the Mende knew that education would bring them another kind of freedom.
The Mende then used that education to argue their case. An 11-year-old named Kali wrote a letter to Adams: “We want to ask the court what we have done wrong. What for Americans keep us in prison. Some people say Mendi dolt, because we no talk American language. Merica people no talk Mendi language. Merica people dolt! … We want you to tell court that Mendi people no want to go back to Havana, we no want to be killed. All we want is make us free.”
As consternation over two or perhaps three upcoming college naming opportunities has proved, the choice of a name is a deeply political decision. But nearly every interest group should embrace Amistad College.
The college would be the first to represent a racial minority, but it wouldn’t honor someone merely on the grounds of his racial status. It would bear close ties to New Haven’s history and Yale’s; it wouldn’t refer to history so recent as to seem trivial. The name honors the work of Yalies but also looks well beyond campus and emphasizes the duty Yale has to its home in New Haven and the world. The Amistad’s story is American as well as international. And it is a story of hope — a story that, even while it looks back to the past, looks forward to progress.
The good guys don’t always win, and too much of American history includes stories where good people don’t even have a chance to try. But Yale history is not so bleak that we have to look to just the last few decades to find an example of hope, goodness and promise of racial justice. Out of too many cases in Yale’s history — and far more in America’s — of freedom corrupted or Yale educations used for ill, there are still lots of stories of freedom won, education used for good and justice delivered.
Yale’s conception of itself, as charted by the names memorialized on its buildings, ought to be built on the faith that Yale is a project that always can and often does do good. Yale can embody optimism. If we cannot believe that Yale can stand for good, we have no business caring about the University at all. But if we do, we ought to find that good in Yale’s history and carry those stories as the mantle that will shape its future. The Amistad is one of the best of those stories, one the University would do well to remember and one members of a new college should be proud to bear as their identity, history and future.
Julia Fisher is a 2013 graduate of Berkeley College and a former Opinion Editor for the News. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .