The same Yale roots

by Eshe Sherley 

On Wednesday evening, President Peter Salovey sent a campus-wide email announcing that the name of Calhoun College will remain, the title of “master” will be changed to “head of college,” and that the two new residential colleges will be named after Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray ’65 LAW. As the wise singer Lauryn Hill once said: It could all be so simple. But you’d rather make it hard.

Yale says that it respects civil dialogue. But these decisions reveal to us that what Yale really respects — power. This campus had a civil, well-researched, passionate dialogue about Calhoun College for months. The Yale Daily News reported that the average student on campus thought the name of the college should be changed. Surely, the Yale Corporation knew this, so why did they decide to keep the name?

Yale is obsessed with its history, but only a certain version of it. The story goes that people like John C. Calhoun (or even Benjamin Franklin) are great men whose racism is just a blight on their pristine legacies. However, this is only partly true. Men like Calhoun were essential to the history of this country. But their racism is not just a stain; it was integral to the vision of the United States that people like him were working towards.

Men like Calhoun built their wealth on the backs of Black people and from land that they stole from Native people. They further augmented that wealth with underpaid labor of Asian and Latinx people during different periods of United States history. It is this labor that also was used to literally build and sustain this university.

But how do we square the recalcitrance on the issue of Calhoun College with the willingness to name one of the residential colleges after incomparable civil rights activist Murray and the change of the title “master” to “head?” These changes happened because the power marshaled by students forced Yale to respond.

However, the University was also more willing to change because racist systems have always been willing to bend a little in order to contain dissent. A Pauli Murray College does the work of building a somewhat different Yale. That is a good thing. But in order to build a more racially just future we must also actively undo the racial wrongs of the past.

Renaming Calhoun College would have begun that work. What Calhoun College continues to represent now are years of exclusion and racial injustice that are the bedrock of how Yale accumulated its wealth and built its foundations.

The University leadership argues that keeping the name of Calhoun College allows them to teach about the complicated history of Yale. That is disingenuous at best. We do not need to hold onto the racist relics of our past to teach about them. We could teach the history of Calhoun College by putting a plaque on the wall of a newly renamed college. Or we could start by fostering an environment that is hospitable to the ethnic studies professors who have already been teaching this history for decades.

Changing Calhoun College is not about history as it is something that is separate from the lived experience of people of color in the present. Dean Jonathan Holloway himself argues in his book “Jim Crow Wisdom” that the traumas of this past are still with us today — that they continue to live in the bodies and psyches of the subsequent generations of Black people. The students of this university gave Yale the opportunity to heal these original sins that haunt us to this day. But Yale refused.

This intergenerational pain experienced by students of color, and especially Black students, is not rhetorical. It is real. This decision to retain the Calhoun name is already affecting students’ health and well-being. It is reminding us that Yale will never be a place where we can thrive as human beings and that it will always be a place that ultimately demoralizes students of color because the University does not care enough about our lives to change beyond the surface level.

To let go of the name of Calhoun College is to symbolically alter the very roots of Yale College. It is to truly honor the spirit of the protests not only of last semester, but of the generations of marginalized students on this campus. Student activism last semester called on this university to become a better version of itself.

But instead, the University decided to protect its racist foundations on the backs of people of color, as they have done for hundreds of years, even before Black students were allowed to enter this place as students.

I never bought the lie that this place would be like home. But I did hope that just this once, Yale could value students over money and its racist past. I guess not. I guess this is the beginning of round two.

This article was also published in the Yale Daily News