Yale Misses the Boat

I was reading an article about an African-American dish washer at Yale who smashed a stain-glass window depicting John C. Calhoun and an image of slaves harvesting in a field. The custodian was arrested and charged with destroying private property. He was offended by the racist depiction of America’s past decided to do something about it since Yale wouldn’t.

My beef is not with the dish washer. He did what he wanted to do and he’ll have to deal with the consequences of breaking the law. (I’ve since read that Yale will not pursue charges against him. That’s their choice, and I don’t care about that either.) The problem I had was Yale’s response to the broken window. They said the broken glass was a danger to others around, so the man shouldn’t have broken the window because he endangered others.

What?

That’s the reason they’re upset? Broken glass on the floor?

When will we start using history to teach, rather than ignore it or turn aside its significance?

For those unaware of John C. Calhoun, he was a southern senator, a secessionist, and a proud and strong voice for the preservation of the southern way of life, yes, including slavery. He was one of the most well-known graduates from Yale,  eventually using his namesake at the founding of Calhoun College in 1933, a residential college of Yale.

Was Calhoun a racist? Absolutely. He was a slave-loving racist, and his influence during the mid-19th century caused horrendous grief and pain on many African-Americans caught in the horrible bonds of slavery.

Was it appropriate for Yale to have a stained-glass window and a depiction of southern slavery as part of their 21st century campus?

Well, to me, that question is irrelevant, and here’s why. I feel strongly about understanding history, not white-washing it and hiding everything that might be distasteful in our modern world. I don’t believe a historical symbol or depiction is an endorsement of past racist practices. I believe they are teachable moments, and should be used as such. I wish Yale’s response to the breaking of the stained-glass window would have been something like this:

“We regret that the stained glass window, depicting John C. Calhoun, was intentionally broken, because it provided a glimpse of the country we once were. The pictures embossed on those stained glass windows were full of lessons for us today, especially in our current divisive environment. We used those pictures of slavery to teach us all of where we have come from, to help us remember the sins of the past, to remember the progress we have made, and to encourage us all to engage in the founding premise of this country that all men (and women) are created equal. We must strive to remember this above all else, so that everyone of us Americans can continue in our pursuit of happiness under the pretense of freedom.”

Instead, they said: “Broken glass is a danger to others.”

What is wrong with our institutions of higher learning?

 

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