Two re-namings, two defaults. How and how not to use history and public memory at Yale

tags: slavery, Yale, naming

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale and the author of "Liberal Racism" (1997) and "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York" (1990).

When the African-American historian Jonathan Holloway, then-Master of Yale’s John C. Calhoun College, invited me to become a fellow there in 2009, the university hadn’t yet been convulsed by controversy over the name of Calhoun—the pre-Civil war vice president, senator, and constitutional theorist but also ardent and powerful defender of slavery—or over the designation of the university’s residential-college heads as “master,” a title that seemed to many to double down on Calhoun’s legacy.

Holloway’s America and mine was still the country where Joan Baez, a progressive’s progressive, had moved audiences of all persuasions by singing Robbie Robertson and The Band’s “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” a song that enfolds the Confederacy’s “lost cause” romantics empathetically into a larger American civic culture. If there wasn’t much controversy in 2009 about Calhoun College and the title of “master,” it wasn’t because no one was “woke” to history’s cruelties and ironies; it was because there was more hope for a shared civic and political culture. No one was more “woke” to that culture’s defaults than Holloway, an intellectual historian of black America, but he had wiser ideas and inclinations, honed since his childhood, about how to confront America’s racial cruelties and ironies.

Now that Yale is stirring again, as it was in 2015, with controversies over re-namings – a somewhat nasty rehashing of what was accomplished and lost in renaming Calhoun College, this time in order to name a new residential college for the late, pioneering Yale computer scientist Grace Hopper, and in the form of a rising resistance to the university’s renaming of its historic Commons dining hall as the “Stephen A. Schwarzman Center” –  we need to reassess Holloway’s admonition that “The real work for a place at Yale is not about the name on the building. It’s about a deep and substantive commitment to being honest about power, structural systems of privilege and their perpetuation.”

By re-naming Calhoun College for Hopper, the university acknowledged but merely finessed Holloway’s call for substantive commitment to interrogate and challenge structures that perpetuate and deepen the country’s inequalities. Re-naming Commons for Stephen A. Schwarzman openly flouts any such commitment by giving Yale’s imprimatur to self-celebrating, self-exculpating philanthropy. No donor is pure, but Yale’s acceptance of this donor and donation was unnecessary. Undoubtedly, there are several reasons why Holloway has left Yale to become the provost of Northwestern University, but I can’t imagine him being happy when, as dean of Yale College, he was tasked with co-chairing the committee on reconfiguring Commons to become the Schwarzman Center, in whose redesign Schwarzman himself has been intimately involved.

Read entire article at The Politic