On July 1, I received an e-mail from a fellow Yale student. She urged me to sign a petition to change the name of Calhoun College, a Yale residential building named after John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina statesman who graduated from Yale in 1804. The e-mail called Calhoun “the U.S.’s most ardent supporter of slavery.” I clicked on the petition, which began: “It is deeply upsetting that it has taken a tragedy such as the shooting in Charleston to initiate the removal of symbols of white supremacy from public spaces.”
Just weeks before, Dylann Roof shot nine people at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church because they were black. This is the kind of racism white America knows how to deal with. It is the racism I learned about in high school. Klan racism, Bull Connor racism. “You are raping our women,” Roof had said before he sprayed the church with blood. Roof wanted his actions to launch a race war. In photos on his website, he posed proudly with a Confederate flag.
Like most people, I was livid about Charleston. I wanted to strip the Confederate flag from every statehouse, every town square, every lawn. But on Calhoun, I froze. A Confederate flag was easy. Calhoun seemed more complicated. I abhorred the man and his ideas, of course. But maybe his name on a building was a good way to remember that? Should Yale forget John C. Calhoun? I imagined a student asking, four or five years down the road, “Calhoun who?” I didn’t sign the petition.
Conversations about race at Yale boiled over on November 5. Students confronted Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway in the middle of the campus and, for the better part of three hours, tried to explain why they were hurt and angry. I wasn’t at Yale when this happened. I was in Atlanta, doing research for a paper on the Atlanta Cyclorama, a painting that many have interpreted as a commemoration of the Confederacy. When I received texts from my friends telling me what was going on at Yale, I was in an archive reading an article about the premiere of Gone With the Wind back in 1939.
Mayor William Hartsfield declared the day of the premiere a holiday in Atlanta. The city was festive and frenzied. Atlanta’s own Margaret Mitchell had written a book about Atlanta’s own battle, and just three years later Hollywood—Clark Gable!—had made Atlanta’s own film. In the days leading up to the premiere, the city rewound some 70 years. The Loew’s Grand Theatre had been specially renovated, its façade transformed into a Southern mansion. Newspapers ran thick souvenir editions with detailed instructions for the rebel yell. Young men and young women asked their grandparents if they could borrow clothes. The hoop skirt returned. The gray uniform was passed down. Oh, and did they still have their swords?
That night, 18,000 Atlantans lined an avenue to watch their past parade by. The past came in a shiny black car. Hattie McDaniel, whose performance the Atlanta Constitution adored, was not in the car and was not at the theater. Blacks were not allowed in the Loew’s Grand. Margaret Mitchell was in the car, and she was very pleased. “I feel it has been a great thing for Georgia and the South to see the Confederates come back,” she said, beaming.
I couldn’t figure out if she was talking about the film.
* * *
Jeff Hobbs’s The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace is about the experience of one black student, Robert Peace, at Yale from 1998 to 2002. Peace grew up with his mother in a violent neighborhood just outside Newark, and his father was imprisoned when he was 7—but he made it to Yale. Despite excelling academically and socially, he never felt truly comfortable or at home. Hobbs, Peace’s white roommate, says this of their relationship: “He knew I could never understand, and he was kind enough not to hold my sheltered obliviousness against me…. he would share with me the smallest fragment of his world and then step back into the whole of mine.”
I cling to my sheltered obliviousness every Saturday morning, and the inmates at Manson Youth Correctional Facility are kind enough not to hold it against me. I go there to tutor. Manson has grey concrete walls, a single story high, that seem to go on forever—out of sight from the parking lot, at least. The visitor entrance is a single gray door with a single glass pane at eye level. Inside, a visitor’s desk that is itself another cement wall with another single glass pane, this one at chest height. Behind that pane sits a woman who makes us sign a sheet and hand over our Yale IDs.
The group of prisoners I work with is post-GED, 18–21 years old. They told us they wanted to learn about political issues. About race, one of them said. The six inmates in my tutoring program do not buy the idea of cultural appropriation. Four are black, two Latino. When I suggested it would be wrong if I wore blackface for Halloween, they suggested I was full of shit. “You do whatever you want, and if I think you’re doing it for the wrong reasons, I’ll let you know,” Mac said. I told them they should be angrier. They should be offended. They shrugged.
I had not bothered to ask them where they were from. What they saw, who they were. How they got here. I’m actually not allowed to ask them that last one—prison rules. They are quite literally forbidden from conveying their experiences to me. They are only allowed to shrug. After two hours, I left. I can always leave.
Student movements at Yale and other schools across the country are decrying the imbalance Hobbs describes. White students like myself are rarely aware of our own consciousness—and our own culture—when we enter into an intellectual discussion. When we speak from our experience, we do not have to recognize the consciousnesses of students of color. Those students of color, though, have to recognize both their own consciousness and those of their white peers.
These student movements are political movements. They are battle cries of a mobilized generation. Yet instead of dealing with the political issues that they raise, critics on the right (and some on the left) have psychologized these movements, painting their leaders as whining children. They say that student protesters are acting from individual feelings, using muddled thinking, shouting down neutral civil discourse, and concerned with neither ideas nor politics. Or, that students are concerned with politics, but with the wrong, dangerous kind—egocentric and driven by identity.
But students of color are not separatists practicing identity politics. Their kind of politics does not exclude allies or abandon universal ethics. The demand is simply that we allow students of color to share more than just a fragment of their world.
Margaret Mitchell’s confederates are not back. Exclusion now comes in subtler forms, like the gray walls of a youth correctional facility. But there is a link between grandsons of confederates dressing up in their granddaddy’s uniforms and Yalies donning blackface for Halloween. Or between the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse and John C. Calhoun’s name on a college dorm room. Students of color recognize this link. They are demanding that white students—white people—see it too.
Otherwise, American society will not work any more. Students of color are not imagining hurt. They are not creating false history. They are not exaggerating pain. They want white people to understand how reflexively resistant we are to surrendering our American narrative. It is a narrative that disconnects us from our past and obscures our present. It lets us honor slaveholders and supremacists, glamorize emancipation—and dismiss angry, passionate, visceral voices of dissent as childish drivel. We ought to want no part of it.
Student activists are fed up with false histories and a false present. They are proposing we write a new American narrative, one that includes them. They want to inject their experiences into the body of civil discourse. A body whose blood, right now, runs white.
Yesterday, I signed that petition to rename Calhoun College.