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G U E S T    C O L U M N
Mullioned Minstrelsy
Mollie Wilson • Renaming the colleges is not the way to confront a racist past • January 2002

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.
Of course, the etching on my dorm-room window was probably not intended to condemn racism, or to express any opinion at all.  But to remove it, and other decorations like it – the war-painted Indians in SML, for example, or the money-counting Jew atop the Theater Studies building on York Street – would be a misleading sanitization of Yale’s history.  Such cosmetic alterations would do nothing to erase the lingering traces of discrimination and injustice at Yale.  I am not proud that in the recent history of our country, let alone our university, this sort of stereotyping was deemed not only acceptable, but entertaining.  But I also never want to forget how far we have come.  So long as “Mammy” stands between me and a clear view of the SML stacks, I will be mindful of the social progress Yale has made – and of the distance we have yet to travel. 

Mollie Wilson is a junior in Saybrook College.


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