The decision to rename Calhoun College marked a new chapter in a decadeslong debate on the commemoration of racist figures at Yale. Despite protests that Grace Hopper College fails to recognize minorities on campus, this undeniable victory constitutes a precedent that will pave the way for further rigorous reflection on how Yale should remember its past.
What should this reflection look like going forward? For many, the struggle over renaming Calhoun provoked new engagement with Yale’s complicated relationship with inclusion. It demanded that we pay closer attention to the history that surrounds us — enshrined in monuments — and to where we stand within it. But even after all these conversations, much goes unexamined.
For me, this debate heightened my awareness of the way Asian-American figures have been commemorated on Yale’s campus — a subject with no shortage of history to investigate. Yale pioneered the study of East Asian literature and languages in America; it boasts an exceptionally vibrant history of educational relations with China. Numbered among its great forebears is Yung Wing, class of 1854, who was the first Chinese student to graduate from an American university. Devoted all his life to fostering academic and diplomatic ties between the two nations, he opened the floodgates for Chinese students to study at American institutions.
Last year, support to name one of the new colleges after Yung revealed a desire among students to honor his remarkable efforts to introduce intellectual and ethnic diversity to Yale. Unfortunately, this movement failed to take wing. Today he is most conspicuously remembered in the form of a bronze statue, which once stood outside the International Room in Sterling Memorial Library. Surely, the forefather of East Asian studies at Yale deserves substantial visibility and recognition. Instead, he is currently tucked away in the shadowy threshold of the L&B Reading Room, regularly scaring me when I round the corner a little too fast. Given his myriad contributions, this lone sculpture seems to grant him disappointingly little credit.
One floor up, the collection of over 1,200 volumes donated to Yale by Yung resides in the East Asia Library, which it originally helped form. But this is not the only legacy commemorated here. This space actually once housed the Yale Collection of American Literature before most of the works were relocated to the Beinecke. The new vacancy coincided with the push for more resources and recognition for area studies at Yale, and East Asian studies ultimately entrenched itself by claiming the space in the mid-1960s.
But the stained-glass images on the windows remain as a relic of its former inheritance, depicting scenes from American literature ranging from Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick” to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Controversially, one of the panels depicts an unflattering caricature of a Chinese immigrant as a representation of Bret Harte’s narrative poem “The Heathen Chinee.” Some students and faculty members — and even East Asian tourists — have expressed uneasiness about the panel, given its current location.
A Sinophobic image seems an uncomfortable occupant of a room dedicated to the study of East Asia. But to simply denounce the panel and its referent text as racist would reveal that we have not done our homework. Harte actually wrote the poem to satirize anti-Chinese prejudice in northern California, but much to his dismay, it was misinterpreted and manipulated to reinforce racist sentiments among readers. In fact, the title by which it is known — “The Heathen Chinee” — was not the one originally given by Harte; it was propagated by a republication in a Boston newspaper. More than just a racist symbol, the panel is a testament to both the botched transmission of Harte’s message and a historical effort to combat anti-Chinese racism.
One of the final paper topics in history professor Mary Lui’s lecture course, “Asian American History,” focuses on the complicated background behind this image. Ellen Hammond, head of the East Asia Library, plans to take material from these student research papers to create a contextualizing plaque to be installed under the image, so that future visitors may fully understand its history. Similar plaques have been installed elsewhere on campus to offer context or honor historically excluded figures, but having students contribute to the creation of a public footnote offers an inspiring model for a way that Yalies can interact with the University’s history.
By helping to clarify and contextualize public art, students themselves leave their mark on the symbols of Yale’s history. As interpreters, they advance an ongoing project to strike a balance between historical preservation and racial sensitivity. Central to this project of providing context and visibility must inherently lie a respect for history. In Yale’s commitment to inclusion, window dressing will never be enough — we must fill in the lines between the writing on the wall.
Sherry Lee is a junior in Ezra Stiles College. Her column usually runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .