At the Democratic National Convention, the first lady had big shoes to fill — A-list megastar and noted political scholar Scott Baio had filled her corresponding timeslot a week earlier at the Republican convention — and she delivered. But there’s one line in particular in Michelle Obama’s speech that will stick with me for a while.
“I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn,” the first lady said in a stirring line that seemed to finally unify a fractious crowd of delegates.
The point she made was simple. Her standing on that stage — her husband’s presidency — is a testament to this country’s progress. It was a reminder that, as Dr. King said, the “arc of the moral universe bends towards justice” — slowly, sometimes, but relentlessly.
When I heard the line, I couldn’t help but think of Yale. Last year, as I applied and was accepted to the college, I closely followed the campus conversations around renaming Calhoun College. A survey in the News showed that, among those Yalies who chose to reply, 55 percent favored renaming the college and 45 percent did not. Since it’s likely that those who chose the active “change” position had greater proportional voter turnout, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to argue that Yale College is split pretty evenly on the issue.
When Yale announced that Calhoun’s name wouldn’t be changed this past spring, the resulting protests and formation of a renaming committee assured me that the debate would spill over into my freshman year.
At first, I found it difficult to take a firm stance on the issue. I went to a public high school where these kinds of controversies didn’t really exist. I wasn’t sure it was my place to take a strong position one way or the other. But that symbolic line from Obama’s convention speech brought light and clarity to the issue for me.
The rawest, most profound forms of progress are often found in contradictions.
For more than 200 years, the White House was occupied only by white families. Today, it’s occupied by a black family. That’s a contradiction.
We’ve never had a female president. If Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 is elected in November, the most important job on earth will be filled by a woman. That’s a contradiction.
John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, actively supported slavery and the notion of people as property. Today, our black friends and classmates live and study in a residential college named after him. That’s a tremendous contradiction.
Those contradictions are the ultimate forms of progress. They’re jarring, inharmonious, unapologetic juxtapositions of the status quo and the work of moral courage. They’re exquisite.
As time passes, contradictions like these are difficult to reconcile. We can choose to pretend the context behind the contradictions simply doesn’t exist. We can disregard the blood, sweat and tears progress takes, the little wins tempered by devastating losses. We can forget the compromises and chosen battles the people before us navigated. We can ignore the literal — not figurative — pain that civil rights leaders felt when their fights for equality were met by violent mass arrests, jail beatings, lynching and church bombings.
Or, we can call them what they are: compelling, moving, realistic articulations of the progress we’ve made to make this union a little more perfect.
I’m proud to live in a country filled with these kinds of contradictions. That we’ve got a black family in the White House, that a society of friends of all races, colors and creeds live and study side by side here at Yale -— this is the kind of immense progress that makes America different, unique and exceptional. Instead of hiding it, let’s celebrate it.
Emil Friedman is a freshman in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .