There is an inscription carved into the stone above Grace Hopper College’s northeast gate: “Calhoun College.” Although the name was officially changed in July, and although the college held a dedication ceremony earlier this month to recognize its new name, the inscription remains. Supposedly, “Calhoun College” is in the past. On paper, it is called “Hopper.” But in its stonework, the college introduces itself as “Calhoun.” Hopper cannot gain more than a superficial hold on the present while the building still belongs to Calhoun.
Once, the college displayed many more references to John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, and more substantial ones than just his name. When I was a first year, I had breakfast in the Calhoun College dining hall most mornings. At the far end, hanging in the center of the wall, was a portrait of the man himself. The painting was unsettling. Imagine trying to eat when someone is glaring menacingly at you from within a shadowy void. But more unsettling by far was the painting’s placement. There were any number of highly visible locations, not obscure corners, it could have been hung in the dining hall and around the college. Yet it hung in the place of utmost prestige.
Context inevitably alters a monument’s function, whether that monument is a painting, a plaque or a statue. When viewed narrowly, framed by, well, its frame, the painting itself had a single innate purpose: to record his image. The painting performs this goal well whether hung in a dining hall, museum or even a garbage dump. But the painting’s placement gave it a second, less admirable purpose: to honor Calhoun himself.
Much of the debate over the removal of monuments has focused on the tension between our responsibility to remember certain parts of our history and our unwillingness to honor them. In this context, the issue of the inscription seems irrelevant. Although the decision to name the college after Calhoun was meant to honor him, the inscription, in a narrow perspective, simply records that fact. I certainly do not claim that there is anything wrong with keeping references to the college’s past identity. For instance, in Hopper’s courtyard, there is a plaque commemorating alum Roger Horchow’s contributions to Calhoun College. Here, within a historical record, “Calhoun College” is situated firmly in the past. The context of these words restricts their function to just their innate purpose. Like the inscription above the gate, they serve to remind us of our history. On the plaque, however, that is the only purpose that they can possibly serve.
The inscription above the gate is no simple historical record. It was placed there to fill a more active role. For generations, it has welcomed students to Calhoun College, and, in its current position, it continues to do exactly that. There are updated signs, small blue plaques with “Grace Hopper” written on them, but they are insubstantial in comparison with their stone counterpart. Situated above the main gate, it actively contradicts the name change. The inscription does not just remind us of our past; it denies that it is not still our present.
On Sept. 10, head of Hopper College Julia Adams announced the establishment of a committee to commemorate the college’s former incarnation in a museum. I applaud this move, as it recognizes the need to remember history while clearly contextualizing it as such. I call on Adams to add the stone inscription to this museum as well.
Halfway through my first year, the portrait of Calhoun was removed. Its placement caused it to serve a purpose that Yale no longer wanted, a purpose that ran counter to its goals of diversity and inclusion. Even after the Yale community had agreed that Calhoun and his views were repugnant, the context in which his portrait was situated necessarily contradicted that. Rightly, the Calhoun College administration retired it from active service, as they should again do with the stone inscription. Until then, the transition from Calhoun to Hopper is incomplete.
Kathan Roberts is a junior in Pauli Murray College. Contact him at email@example.com .