The world seems to be shifting. Waking up. Suppressed resentment comes to the fore as more people discuss systemic oppression. Racism surfaces. Sexism surfaces.
This could not have been more obvious on Saturday when Beyoncé released her new album “Lemonade,” a tour de force of black feminism, cultural criticism and innovation. A poignant scene in her visual album shows black mothers of slaughtered children — including Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Gartner — holding pictures of their sons. Beyoncé isn’t the only celebrity voicing her opinions on racial justice. Janelle Monae, who is set to preform at Spring Fling this weekend, criticizes police brutality and racism throughout America through songs like “Hell You Talmbout.” Ta- Nehisi Coates, who is known for discussing the role of race in American identity, received the National Book Award for his work “Between the World and Me.” Meanwhile, politicians such as Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 have been forced to reckon with their previous actions — calling black youth “super predators” being a particularly egregious example — which have resulted in the perpetuation of racist attitudes. Racism is no longer an issue on the periphery of mainstream consciousness; it has become central to the American psyche.
Then why isn’t Yale changing with the times? If so many of us are disturbed by institutions that reify imperialist and white supremacist values, then shouldn’t a college that professes to develop our “moral and creative capacities” challenge systems of oppression?
According to a recent survey conducted by the News, the majority of students enrolled at Yale believe that the University should change the name of Calhoun College.
John C. Calhoun was a notorious proponent of slavery in the United States. After serving as our vice president, Calhoun led pro-slavery factions in the 1830s and 1840s. Coming from South Carolina, he did not question the morality of slavery because he thought that its spread would remove poor whites from the countryside. In 1837, he gave a speech entitled “Slavery a Positive Good,” in which he offered several paternalistic justifications for the physical and intellectual superiority of whites.
In light of this context, it is extremely disturbing that one of the world’s leading educational institutions has a significant building named after such a man. While some may argue that a name merely signifies a specific object, names do have serious implications. For example, we wouldn’t say that the word “whore” has the same connotation as the term “sexually active woman.” So why would we say that a building named after a proponent of slavery would connote the same thing as a building named after an influential woman of color? Many feminist theorists say that negative representations of black and brown people in the world, and positive representations of white supremacist figures, result in “symbolic annihilation.” This means that harmful representations make it difficult to imagine a world in which we can reject racist values; in other words, they kill black political imagination. Keeping the Calhoun name lauds values of white supremacy by placing a symbol of oppression in a position of prominence. Although some may argue that removing his image will result in an “erasure of history,” I would argue that we could still remember his harmful legacy by creating an art exhibition or residential college seminar explaining why he was such a problematic figure.
Yale has the opportunity to set a precedent for higher education. With all of its resources and qualified faculty, it can create a pedagogical model that is critical of the power structures that oppress black and brown bodies in America. The mission statement of Yale College claims that “the aim of this education is the cultivation of citizens with a rich awareness of our heritage to lead and serve in every sphere of human activity.” Perhaps, as the academic year comes to a close, Yale will begin to practice what it preaches.
Isis Davis-Marks is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .