by J. Ery Díaz
“Listen, dear, I realize that you’ve been hurt deeply because I have been there,” drawls Aretha Franklin at the start of “A Rose Is Still a Rose.” The titular track in her 1998 album, released through Arista after a long hiatus, is a tremendously slick piece of R&B—Franklin’s showstopping vocal potency, enhanced by its rich warmth, grooves glossily with Ms. Lauryn Hill’s bright contralto. Amidst swaying violins, Franklin offers identity advice to her younger counterpart, sharing the knowledge accumulated through years of being wronged: “’Cause a rose is still a rose / Baby girl, you’re still a flower / He can’t lead you and then take you / Make you and then break you / Darlin’ you hold the power.”
The lyrics to “A Rose Is Still a Rose” read today like a manifesto of symbolic correction, the rebranding of self as a way to exert some agency over unfortunate circumstances. And what is more unfortunate today than the piecemeal decision to name one of the new residential colleges after Pauli Murray, a powerhouse as driven as Franklin’s voice, while naming the other after the unaffiliated Benjamin Franklin of all people? “We honor as well the generosity of Charles B. Johnson ’54 B.A., who considers Franklin a personal role model,” wrote Peter Salovey, showing that half measures can make excellent decisions seem more craven, more calculated. Yale understands that a name can be powerful, so we get Murray, but it firmly believes that a name is still a name, so we get Franklin.
A name is profoundly influential, so we get to keep John C. Calhoun as an open wound, a reminder of “one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past.” His legacy is too raw to obfuscate and will stop the institution, according to Salovey, from becoming complacent and wildly revisionist. But a name is still just a name, so Benjamin Franklin is subjected to a revisionist narrative where he has more than tenuous ties to Yale University, where he becomes a founding symbol despite founding, quite literally, the University of Pennsylvania.
But a rose is still a rose is still a flower. And in the face of an absurdly empty decision by the least transparent and accountable figure in the university—the Yale Corporation—Yale students hold the intellectual toolbox to construct something meaningful in the name of Franklin College. If Salovey is tacitly admitting that symbols are all-enduring yet fluid, the community can intervene to wrest control of the latent meaning from a signifier that is unlikely to be changed.
This is happening already. The stenciled portrait of a regal Aretha Franklin covers corkboards across campus. “FRANKLIN COLLEGE: We Deserve R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, it states. On social media, students are changing their profile pictures to the same blue image of Aretha Franklin singing into a microphone. They post photos of Aretha Franklin next to Peter Salovey, superimposed over $100 bills. Outside of the Women’s Center, a giant banner reads “WE OUT HERE. WE’VE BEEN HERE. WE AIN’T LEAVING. WE ARE LOVED”. To its right, the portrait of Aretha Franklin, who holds an Honorary Degree from Yale, seems to heighten the message: “Baby girl, you hold the power.”
Although Benjamin Franklin means many things to many people, most regrettably to Charles B. Johnson, Aretha Franklin has the gift of a voice that we can actually hear. In its belting power, in its range and projection, it is able to send anyone into passionate frisson in the way that only the most talented singers can. After Aretha and Lauryn Hill released “A Rose Is Still a Rose,” the resulting chart performance and critical acclaim reinvigorated Franklin’s career. So we must remember that a rose is still a rose is still a flower. Let’s repeat until the image of the diva fills up an empty name: Franklin College. Franklin College. Franklin College.
Photo by J. Ery Díaz