This August, moving back to Yale was especially exciting for my Saybrugian suitemates and me. We were pleased to find that our newly-renovated suite had retained its old-fashioned decorative quirks: grainy hardwood floors, elaborate carvings on the mantelpiece, whimsical etchings in the panels of our casement windows. One suitemate found a court jester dancing across her bedroom windowpane; my roommate’s window was adorned with the outline of a bulldog. The images were crude, but innocuous, and in no way prepared me for what I would find when I drew back the curtain above my bed: there grinning back at me were the exaggerated, blackface-style features of an aproned kitchen servant. The wide-eyed, thick-lipped, sexless figure balances a prepared fowl of some sort atop its head, wields a meat fork in one hand and a cleaver in the other, and is apparently ready to serve a meal. A grotesque, racist caricature, it is the perfect image of the happy house servant. Moreover, it is a part of Yale’s history – renovated right along with the rest of Saybrook College.
Such a discovery is particularly remarkable in the current Yale climate, as activists call for the renaming of several of Yale’s buildings on the grounds that the original namesakes were slaveholders or supporters of slavery. Saybrook College, which is named for a town, not a person, has thus far escaped censure, but there is no mistaking the message of the cartoon on my window. Simply changing the names of colleges like Morse and Calhoun seems ineffectual when the very fabric of Yale’s buildings bears witness to our racist past. For this very reason, I am glad that the caricature on my window, in spite of its offensive nature, has survived.
A large part of what I love about Yale – part of what draws many of us here – is the University’s 300-year history, its old-fashioned architecture, the “quaintness” of all that Yale represents. Our living spaces may not be entirely modern, but they are unique, and they connect us to the many generations of Yalies who have gone before us – students who studied in our libraries, ate in our dining halls, and lit fires in our once-functional fireplaces. That 300-year history has a dark side, however, and we do ourselves a disservice when we attempt to ignore or deny it. Every time I look out my window I am reminded of the injustices in the not-so-distant past, and I believe I am better for that reminder.
According to the online database of the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia
(located at Ferris State University, in Michigan), the “Negro caricature”
was popular during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and
appeared everywhere, from commercial packaging (think Aunt Jemima) to children’s
books (Little Black Sambo, for instance). Vestiges of this phenomenon
can still be seen – for example, the controversy surrounding the “Coon
Chicken” image in the recent film Ghost World, which was based on the logo
and history of an actual restaurant. Compared to many of these images,
my own “Mammy” (which probably dates from around 1917, when the Memorial
Quadrangle was built) is a relatively mild example of racist art.
Not that this excuses its existence in any way – but attempting to “excuse”
Yale for its racist history is the wrong approach to dealing with our past.
I am glad “Mammy” still exists, because it forces me to confront a reality
I would rather forget. For the same reason, I suspect that renaming
colleges like Morse and Calhoun is a step in the wrong direction.
We make progress by confronting the negative aspects of our history, not
by erasing all traces of past discrimination. After all, Maya Lin’s
Women’s Table does not only commemorate the history of female students
at Yale, it includes a spiral of zeroes to represent the years when women
were denied admission. Commemorating those years of exclusion makes
the achievements of women in subsequent years all the more impressive.
Mollie Wilson is a junior in Saybrook College.
Joseph A. P. De Feo
Return to Top