Award-winning playwright and author Quiara Alegría Hudes ’99 discussed her career as an artist with University President Peter Salovey at the Marsh Lecture Hall stage on Monday.
As part of the Women of Yale Lecture Series, the presentation focused on Alegría Hudes’s philosophy and a personal hero — Corey Menafee, a Yale Dining worker who made headlines in 2016 when he destroyed a dining hall window depicting a slave. She made a point to meet Menafee, and the presentation was born out of their conversations. Salovey introduced Alegría by discussing the importance of the Women of Yale Lecture Series.
“The Women of Yale Lecture Series showcases the accomplishments of women who graduated from Yale, represents the very best of this University and reflects the remarkable success of coeducation at Yale,” Salovey said. “We must commemorate the legacy of women at this University, their leadership and their contributions to the community and the world.”
Salovey described how Alegría, who is a Puerto Rican, “shows us the importance of arts in our world” with her plays and musicals that are “performed around the world.” He detailed her new movie, “In the Heights,” is scheduled to arrive in theaters in June 2020. He said that it is “filled with Spanish-speaking dreamers” and “city blocks on the cusp of change.”
Alegría began her presentation by asking the audience to walk up and sit closer to her in the lecture hall seats for a presentation she said would resemble a “bedtime story.” She then asked the audience to scream and “give the room our energy as a collective.”
Her presentation was three-fold. She discussed Corey Menafee’s story in New Haven and Yale, her story and the moral of the two. She noted their similarities — the two both came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, one from New Haven and one from Puerto Rico and West Philly.
She described Menafee’s childhood, referring to him amiably as Corey. She detailed how he moved houses, played on New Haven Streets, took to the New York Giants, spent time with both contrasting sides of his family, enjoyed studying history in high school and majored in journalism at Virginia Union University.
During his childhood, Menafee struggled with his mother’s debilitating diabetes, a near-death experience with an armed man, and homelessness and hunger in college. He often relied on the Bible verse Philippians 4:13 — “I can do all things through Christ for it is He who strengthens me” — to get through everyday struggles like walking to his job at Davenport College dining hall with a limp from a previous car accident.
Alegría then spoke about another part of Menafee’s journey: Yale, which she described as having “beautiful buildings, cast iron gates, border walls of stone masonry with curious hearts and souls hungry to learn.”
She described how Menafee, who worked in the dining hall, was one day approached by an alum looking to show his child the dining hall where he used to eat. Menafee overheard the father telling the child that one of the stained glass windows in the dining hall depicted “enslaved people picking cotton.” In disbelief, Menafee asked the father to point out the glass window, and surely the image was there.
“[Menafee] saw African Americans with cotton bails, one of them smiling, looking peaceful,” Alegría said. “After that day [the image] was staring at him.” She described how the image felt like it was staring at his neck, shoulder, and back. A week later, she said, Menafee decided that it was “God’s work” for “that thing to come down.”
Menafee decided to smash the window with a broomstick, to the horror of his manager and the delight of other staff. He accepted responsibility for his actions, resigned from his job, and faced a felony charge in criminal court. Thanks to his bravery, Alegría said, Yale “dropped the name of ‘Master’ for ‘Head of College’ and Calhoun College was renamed to Hopper.”
Outside of the courtroom on July 12, 2016, when charges were dropped, Alegría described how dozens of deans and students showed their support and one poster read: “Menafee equals Rosa Parks.” After a media frenzy following the movement he had ignited on campus, Menafee decided he wanted his job back.
In the third part of her presentation, Alegría told her own life story as a child surrounded by art and disruption in West Philly. Growing up, she loved street art, dancing and sneaking into her aunt’s music gigs. She believed that the purpose of art was “literally to break things” and disrupt the status quo. She described growing up in a “savage time, uncertain time, mayhem epoch” with “bodies breaking, buildings breaking, hearts breaking,” as crack cocaine and the AIDS epidemic “decimated her abuela’s barrio [neighborhood].”
“The art of the time,” she said, “did not romanticize but reflect the era’s rupture.” According to Alegría, the art was a form of transformation in the “igniting, conflicting sense smashing picket-fence fairy tales on television.” She said there was a “consolation in truthfulness even through the discomfort.”
After reading about Corey Menafee, the “little girl within her awoke, the one who knew of broken things.” She wondered if she could have mustered the same bravery to “smash a window from an institution she benefited from.” She attended Menafee’s criminal court hearing because she wanted to speak with him and these conversations transformed into the evening’s presentation.
Alegría went on to discuss the moral of the story: “In institutions that value beauty, pedigree and decorum, your truth may be a beautiful disruption. There will never be a guidebook, checklist or wise leader who will say ‘now is the time for breaking,’” Alegría said. “You are the guidebook, checklist and leader. It is a matter of your gut, integrity and grace.” She reminded students to “exist beyond Yale” and carry the “fraught, wanton name” while existing on their “own terms.”
She asked the crowd: “What was the real stain on the stained glass window? Is the real stain removed?” She concluded that Menafee created an “empty rectangle where more light could flow” and that by “breaking Yale, he bettered Yale.”
Ruqaiyah Damrah ’23 told the News that prior to coming to Yale, she had heard of Hopper College’s name change from Calhoun to Grace Hopper. However, she believed the window had been smashed by students.
“Now that I’m here at Yale and I’m part of an institution, kind of like how [Alegría] said, benefitting from an institution where it’s like a shock sometimes to realize that it’s not perfect, that it’s built on something that’s not morally right,” she said. “It’s built on slavery. It’s built on racism. [It’s important to be] reminded that we shouldn’t necessarily conform or just be ‘okay’ with it because if we are, change won’t happen.”
Nandini Erodula ’23 told the News that she admired the way in which Alegría used her writing talent to tell the story of an “isolated event in our school’s history.”
“It was really powerful for me because Quiara is someone [whose] work I’ve [appreciated] since way back home related to a place that was far from home for me,” Michelle Barsukov ’22 told the News. “Now, being here, she’s talking about something that happened here and now I’m also here and now it’s this really poetic like coming together.”
“I believe Ms. Quiara Hudes put together a very powerful and concise summation of an ordinary man living a very ordinary life that was able to accomplish some extraordinary things,” Corey Manafee told the News.
Marsh Lecture Hall is located in Yale Science Building at 260 Whitney Avenue.
Larissa Jimenez | firstname.lastname@example.org