The incalculable toll

by Erika Hairston with contributions from Yonas Takele 

Native land and bodies, Black bodies, Latinx bodies, and Asian bodies have built the foundations of Yale’s campus. The greatest donation our forefathers and foremothers have given this place is their blood, sweat, and tears. The toll of these sacrifices is simply too high to count. I consider myself a quite logical person, but Yale had three chances to do better. I tried to write a response last night, but I was mentally paralyzed by the illogical and offensive statements released by my University’s President.

After receiving Peter’s email last night, I had approximately 7.5 minutes to celebrate a queer Black womanist and civil rights activist. As a queer woman of color, Pauli Murray embodies the tension between oppression and hope.  Every time a person speaks her name, they will be etching her into the fabric of this university forever. Nowhere on this campus has a tribute of this scale been constructed for a person of color. Nowhere on this campus do students of color see themselves so powerfully represented. A woman of color is finally being centered. I will no longer have to eat underneath the gaze or scowl of white portraits in a college dining hall. Pauli Murray, women of color, and my queer brothers and sisters, you are worthy of remembrance.

But of course, I kept reading the email after doing my little dance for the bone they threw me. As my eyes continued scrolling, Yale Corporation quickly snatched the bone from my mouth, reminding me what’s truly important and how useless their words are:

“Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college risks masking this past, downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative, albeit one that might allow us to feel complacent or, even, self-congratulatory. Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale’s and our nation’s past.”

And then Salovey on Benjamin Franklin:

“In adopting his name for one of the new colleges, we honor as well the generosity of Charles B. Johnson ’54 B.A., who considers Franklin a personal role model. Mr. Johnson’s contribution to enable the construction of the new colleges is the single largest gift made to Yale.”

Reading these words, I cackled. These quotations display pure ignorance. The claim that erasing Calhoun’s name would lead to complacency completely erases the experiences of students of color on this campus. We have never been silent in the face of injustice and oppression. To make such a claim is baseless and offensive. With this decision, President Salovey continues Yale’s tradition of undermining the contributions of minority students. There is no room for students of color to be honored or made to feel at home. As this name reminds, students of color will be made to live inside their oppression. The burden will once again fall on us to educate. President Salovey, thank you for being a part of a legacy that haunts us. We will not let you or the rest of Yale forget the incalculable work people of color have done to better this institution.

I decided to edit Peter’s paragraph: “Not erasing Calhoun’s name from a residential college risks painfully reminding students of color every day of the lasting effects of slavery, and supports a violent narrative tearing down Black and Brown bodies, allowing ignorant people to feel complacent, unmoved, or even self-congratulatory.”

Those are the words I should’ve read.

Though Yale has reminded us where their true priorities stand, I will make time to rejoice Murray.

We Out Here.
We’ve Been Here.
We Ain’t Leaving.
We Are Loved.

Say it again, but think of the land you stand on. Think of a person of color whose ancestors have bled for a place that has only stolen. Think of yourself and your place in a white supremacist and capitalist ruling nation. Who is the “We” these words are affirming? Who is centered in this space?

We Out Here.
We’ve Been Here.
We Ain’t Leaving.
We Are Loved.