The sky was an almost perfectly white canvas. The gothic architecture of the buildings surrounding Cross Campus and the vibrant, decaying fall leaves were more apparent than ever, juxtaposed against the blank background. From afar, an observer could make out the rain-faded letters written in red and blue on stone benches from weeks prior: “You are so loved.”
Near William L. Harkness Hall, a black student stood in front of an unlit lamppost. Shirtless, Branson Rideaux ’20 stared into the distance, with a metallic collar around his neck — too loose to physically restrain him, but it didn’t need to be tight. From the collar, a chain dangled. A cardboard sign hung on his chest: “Property of John C. Calhoun,” and a smaller sign below read, “& 58,682,202+ American Voters.”
Viewers’ reactions varied. A woman passed by, complaining on her phone about the election results. She didn’t notice him. However, her response wasn’t unusual. An elderly man with a head of white hair crossed directly in front of Rideaux, nearly grazing his sign, and dozens of other unaware passersby followed suit. Most people saw him, but, playing the role of the uninterested museumgoer, simply exited the exhibit to return to their real life.
On Wednesday from 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., Rideaux made his stand. Not eating, not sitting, not urinating — only occasionally moving location within the confines of Cross Campus. He was spurred to act after witnessing the aftermath of the election results at the African American Cultural House viewing party, an assembly overflowing with tears.
At 3 a.m., he assembled costume pieces previously bought for a Halloween protest that fell through. Immediately after his 9 a.m. section ended, he bolted out of the door and readied his stance. Early in the morning, he saw three police officers pull up near Beinecke Plaza, evaluate the scene and then leave.
Earlier this semester, Rideaux performed as Man 1 in “The Colored Museum,” a play questioning conceptions of black identity constructed by media and mass culture. His experience with the director and cast helped him come to terms with his black identity. “Coming into Yale, if you would’ve asked me if I was black, I would’ve said ‘eh, kind of,’” Rideaux said.
Rideaux is half-Filipino, half-Creole. His father grew up in the West Side of Chicago, but he went to Roosevelt College, which was outside of his childhood neighborhood. His experience in the West Side was colored with bad memories, so once his parents moved, he never returned. “[My father] raised me … to be intelligent and to be a gentleman, but the fact that I was black never really entered the equation,” Rideaux noted.
He felt that his family, himself included, associated blackness with negative cultural connotations. “I told my mom I was in ‘The Colored Museum,’ and the first thing she said was ‘Well, you’re not black.’ And I almost hung up the phone because I was so mad,” Rideaux recalled.
By coming to Yale and interacting with the University’s black community, he accepted his black identity and redefined his role at Yale. “It is important that you [people of color] are here,” he said. “It is a revolutionary act as [‘Colored Museum’ director] Alexis Payne ’19 would say, that you are here.” He now believes that, as a Yale student, he has a responsibility to his family and other people of color to represent their voices.
Through comparing the messages of Trump and Calhoun, Rideaux illustrated how previous symbols of hatred contribute to contemporary beliefs. “The symbols of hate validate people’s hatred,” he said. He included Calhoun in his discussion because he wanted to make his message more tangible to students insulated by the Yale bubble.
Through Rideaux’s stand, the past permeated the present, calling viewers to reckon with disturbing parallels in both time periods. He exhibited how Calhoun is not a frozen emblem of hatred resigned solely to the Civil War era — rather, vestiges of his name still continue to perpetuate a culture of intolerance today. Rideaux’s dress pants and shoes, juxtaposed against his antebellum-era collar and bare chest, emphasized the irony of clothing. While business casual attire — and the white-collar professions it symbolizes — seem like equalizers, in reality, they’re just Band-Aids, unable to heal the deeper wounds.
How do we even define Rideaux’s demonstration? It seems odd to refer to his stand as performance art. “Performance” implies that he’s depicting a reality different than his own. But it is this very duality that Rideaux deftly challenges. The meta-theatricality of his demonstration blurs the line between reality and art, forcing watchers to evaluate their role. Are they, like Rideaux, performing as well? They have the choice to simply be art patrons, passively spectating, or aware participants, enacting change.
While many onlookers didn’t even register Rideaux’s presence, a reaction metaphorically resonant in its own respect, viewers that saw him were compelled into an uncomfortable state, unsure how to respond. Do you acknowledge him? Do you speak to him? Do you embrace him?
During the rush hour of morning classes, a crowd of students hurried by, including an Asian woman holding her laptop and a copy of the News with the headline “Trump Wins Presidency.” After a few minutes, she returned again, set down her belongings, and embraced him, standing on her toes and stretching upward to reach around his shoulders. In response, Rideaux began stroking her back, whispering gently in her ear. Another Asian student joined in, forming an intimate cluster. Meanwhile, a white, male student with a single earbud in stopped and stared from a few feet away, solemnly nodding.
Of the few that acknowledged Rideaux, most either grimaced or briefly nodded in solidarity. Some said, “I’m sorry.” Others said, “thank you,” and he thanked them in return. To him, acknowledgment from passersby felt comforting.
In the beginning of his demonstration, if individuals probed him about his reasons for being there, he stated, “I am the property of hate, and until we change this hate, I can never be free.” Later, he mostly opted for silence. “I don’t think it’s something that needed a lot of words,” he said.
Onlooker Becca Young ’18 admitted “there’s a part of me that wanted to hug him … but the point of this [wasn’t] for me to interject.” Before walking on Cross Campus, she met with a professor, a conference both acknowledged felt arbitrary given the circumstances of the previous night. Upon witnessing Rideaux, Young’s face immediately contorted into an expression of grief, tears falling from her eyes as she glanced around, astonished. “I’m sorry for all the work you have to do,” she said, hesitantly approaching him. “It’s the work we have to do,” he replied.
The night before, Young could only relate to the situation on an intellectual level because she was still processing the election results. Seeing Rideaux the next day was the visceral shock that compelled her to reckon with the emotional gravity of the situation, she said. In that moment, she became acutely aware of her relative privilege: she had little to fear compared to so many others, and that inequality was profoundly sorrowful. Young, a survivor of sexual assault, received multiple apologies after Trump’s win, but she insisted that she had a hard time truly feeling her own danger in this political regime as a straight, white, middle-class cis-woman. “Don’t be sorry for me,” she said. “At least it’s not visible.”
Yesterday, I posted a photo of Rideaux onto the largely viewed “Overheard at Yale” Facebook group, and since then, more than 1,000 people have liked the post. Of the many comments, a reply by Bernard Stanford ’17 received the most attention. He questioned Rideaux’s hyperbolic and mocking rhetoric, stating that “[Rideaux] saying Trump supporters are akin to slave owners is the kind of thing that has alienated so many people and likely contributed to late deciders overwhelmingly breaking for Trump.” Speaking to the News, Stanford echoed his earlier comment, noting that the nonviolent act of voting is entirely different than the brutal institution of slavery.
Young compared Stanford’s comment to Trump’s strategy of shifting blame during the first presidential debate, noted by some feminists as a common abuse tactic. “It’s a problem when pointing out a reality of a situation is divisive,” Young said.
In response to Stanford’s comment, Rideaux said he didn’t think today was about bridging the gap. For his next four years at Yale, he plans to engage in work that unifies people of various demographics, but he acknowledged the current necessity of grieving. Rideaux added in a Facebook comment that he doesn’t think Trump supporters are terrible humans or racists, but he finds that “they have chosen to support a campaign of hate.”
While some Facebook users echoed Stanford’s sentiments, calling Rideaux’s act “a bit extreme,” others empathized with his struggle. Stephen Early ’20 added, “Even to those who may not agree I think it is obvious how incredible and courageous you have to be to do something like this.”
Depending on their locations, viewers on Wednesday would witness two different portraits of Rideaux. Most only observed him from the front, where his expression was solemn and firm. But from behind, you could see the Amazon sticker attached to the underbelly of the cardboard and his hands casually clasped behind his back. Upon closer examination, you might see even his fingers constantly tensing and relaxing, grasping each other, curled into a tight ball.
At one point during his demonstration, Rideaux coincidentally stationed himself next to an American Red Cross sign. It listed times and dates for a blood drive, including that very Wednesday. On the bottom of the sign, the small script read, “The need is constant. The gratification is instant. Give blood.” And perhaps that’s exactly what Rideaux was doing. Donating his lifeblood to support a people that lacked vitality, a society hemorrhaging from its core.