J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2015

“For the very purpose of having conversations about this”

At Yale, one of the dormitories for upperclassmen (called “residential colleges”) is named after John C. Calhoun, the U.S. Vice President and Senator who championed nullification and slavery in the early 1800s.

Back when the residential-college system was set up in the 1930s, Yale didn’t have many other nationally influential figures to name colleges after. (William Howard Taft, President and Chief Justice, appears to have been too recent to be non-controversial.)

About ten or fifteen years ago, some people in the Yale community proposed changing the name of Calhoun College so that it honored someone whose views had not become so repugnant, someone who had moved American society forward.

At that time, I wrote to the college alumni magazine suggesting that the name Calhoun should remain, but as a reminder of how having wealth and power can blind people to common justice. We graduates could sometimes use that reminder.

That’s similar to what Jonathan Holloway, once master at Calhoun College and now the Dean of Yale College, argued at a forum last year:
Holloway explained his belief that the Calhoun name should remain “as an open sore, frankly, for the very purpose of having conversations about this.”

“I’ve seen too many instances where Americans have very happily allowed themselves to be amnesiac and changed the name of something and walked away,” Holloway said, according to an audio recording of the panel.

“I want to hold Yale accountable for the decisions it made.”
Which would be more likely to start such conversations, seeing Calhoun’s name or not seeing it? Which course would be more likely to lead to complacency, keeping the troubling name or choosing a new name and letting the old one fade to forgotten? Would a recurrent, almost ritual, grappling with Calhoun’s name and legacy, like the repeated toppling of King George’s statue or the annual dumping of tea into Boston harbor, best serve the issues?

When Janet Halley took the Royall Professorship of Law in 2007, she started a similar conversation by highlighting its financial roots in slavery:
“The fact that the funds that established the Royall Chair derived, directly and/or indirectly, from the sale of human beings and the appropriation of their labor—these are facts,” said Halley. “What does one do about them? Thinking in binarized terms of condemnation and redemption just doesn’t seem to capture the complexity of this question.”

Halley began her remarks with a roll call of the names of the distinguished professors who have held the Royall chair before her. She ended her talk—in a coda that left audience members visibly moved—with a contrasting recitation of the recorded names—most of them first names without surnames—of the slaves of the Royall household. “It is a solemn roll call, as intrinsic as the first one I read to our Isaac Royall legacy.”
But I don’t think that “solemn roll call” was ever institutionalized as a regular event. Those individuals went back to being invisible.

More recently, Halley spoke to the Boston Globe about the trade-off of changing the school’s crest so that it doesn’t honor Isaac Royall: “The upside would be that there would be this cathartic moment of saying no to its origins. But the danger would be that it could facilitate a forgetting of its origins.” That’s because the cathartic moment could occur only once. A reading of names, on the other hand, could be part of a regular reexamination of that history.

TOMORROW: Which Royall?


G. Lovely said...

Our scars should remain visible. That way we are forced to tell the tale of them from times to time, and the lessons can be relearned, or taught, anew, even if we must wince a little in the re telling.

Don Carleton (Jr.) said...

Dear John:

Your coverage of the Calhoun and Royall controversies is timely as ever, but I really have to disagree with your idea that the best way for Yale to deal with the Calhoun question is to have an annual ceremony of some sort repudiating the man and his ideology WHILE keeping his name on one of Yale's core undergraduate colleges.

At Yale, isn't your College affiliation (like Harvard's Houses) something of a key part of your undergraduate identity? So let's imagine you are an African-American student who ends up in Calhoun. How could that student possibly be anything but totally alienated by the notion of being a "proud" Calhoun woman or man?

Even if Yale devised a really effective annual ceremony/ritual/event remembering and then exorcising the malign legacy of Calhoun, you'd still have to spend three years literally living with and under that name...Who would want that?

Anonymous said...

Imagine a Japanese-American having to live in a Franklin D. Roosevelt House or Earl Warren Dormitory....

J. L. Bell said...

I can't speak to anyone else's experiences at Yale. I can say that I was there in the mid-1980s and involved in some political activity (the anti-apartheid divestment campaign), and I don't recall any discussion of the Calhoun name being so offensive it needed to be replaced. The picture on this posting shows a window in Calhoun College that showed John C. Calhoun and a black man in some sort of subservient position. That wasn't altered as shown until the 1990s.

It's true that Yale college assignments are usually crucial to one's friendships and loyalties, but the sources of the college names were negligible, at least then. Undergraduates are assigned to colleges randomly (unlike at Harvard, where they choose after freshman year). Many of the colleges developed consistent personalities, but those have nothing to do with the men or towns they're named after. Jonathan Edwards College was known for arts and theater, which the Rev. Jonathan Edwards opposed. Calhoun College had a reputation for being preppy, not for being particularly aligned toward the American South.

My college, Davenport, was named after an early leader of New Haven. I knew more about him than 99% of my classmates because I did a little research for a satirical poem. Like other New England Puritans, the Rev. John Davenport was involved in oppressing the early Quakers. I never felt that by living in Davenport College I was either carrying on his tradition or, coming from a Quaker family, being oppressed by it. The Rev. Mr. Davenport was just a vague source of amusement, his world-view long since eclipsed.

Now I had the advantages of being white and male and relatively tall and well educated. I never worried that I didn't belong at that college. I was never insulted for my ethnicity the way I heard my African-American and Japanese-American roommates insulted. I may therefore have been better able to shrug off the legacy of Charles C. Calhoun or forget conversations about it. But back then we seemed to treat the college names as relics of a past society, and we focused on other political matters.