OUT OF THE PICTURE

I think several generations of Yale activists have had the chance to gather in protest or at least reflect on the outrageousness of the university’s top decision-making body gathering beneath a portrait of the university’s namesake with a slave. Looks like the next generation will have to come up with a new rite of passage.

Yale is finally taking the goddamn thing down. But god forbid you should think that Yale’s leaders feel regret about leaving it hanging there the past few decades:

Since the portrait is confusing without the explanation [that Elihu Yale did not own slaves], I have decided it would be prudent to exchange that portrait of Elihu to another one in the University’s collection,” Lorimer said.

The quote, from Yale’s VP and Secretary, leaves you with the sense that Yale is taking down the portrait, which involves adjusting the moldings around the mantelpiece around the painting (the classic explanation of yesteryear for why the thing had to stay up), because it’s easier than putting up a plaque explaining that the man was not a slave owner. But it’s a portrait designed to honor Elihu Yale by painting a chained Black man at his feet. It honors him with the imagery of White supremacy – an ideology of which the colonial Governor and the university named for him have been no small beneficiaries.

It’s a painting that belongs in a museum. It has no place hanging over Yale’s president as he meets with the Yale Corporation to try to chart a course for the university. It never did. (That’s the difference between engaging and exulting the problematic)

To suggest that the racist graphic is being taken down to avert misunderstanding is to make abundantly clear that you don’t get it.

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MSNBC reports that Justice Scalia is touring the country promoting himself and his “dead constitution” jurisprudence:

Executing someone under 18 was not unconstitutional in 1791, so it is not unconstitutional today. Now, it may be very stupid, it may be a very bad idea, just as notching ears, which was a punishment in 1791, is a very bad idea.

Among those rolling in their graves over Scalia’s insistence on originalism must be Frederick Douglass, who declared in a speech in Glasgow in 1860:

…the intentions of those who framed the Constitution, be they good or bad, for slavery or against slavery, are to be respected so far, and so far only, as will find those intentions plainly stated in the Constitution. It would be the wildest of absurdities, and lead to endless confusion and mischiefs, if, instead of looking to the written paper itself for its meaning, it were attempted to make us search it out, in the secret motives, and dishonest intentions, of some of the men who took part in writing it. It was what they said that was adopted by the people, not what they were ashamed or afraid to say, and really omitted to say.

Strom Thurmond’s successor, Senator Lindsey Graham, apparently thought this was funny:

“We don’t do Lincoln Day Dinners in South Carolina,” he said. “It’s nothing personal, but it takes awhile to get over things.”

Steve Gilliard says Graham “is being unfairly attacked” for a perfectly innocent joke about the burning of the State Capitol and that

nothing to apologize for, because every South Carolinian knows he’s talking about Sherman’s March and not slavery.

Really? Every South Carolinan? There’s plenty to fault Lincoln for, be it his racism or his erosion of civil liberties. But for a US Senator from a state which attempted to seceed from the union and fought an extended war against the United States, a war which had little to do with slavery for the North but a great deal to do with it for the South (Apostles of Disunion I’d say makes the most succinct case here), to say of the man who is for most Americans the defining symbol of the winning side in that war – the very man murdered by a confederate havinga hard time “getting over things” in the wake of the war – that the people of his state bear him an enduring grudge is shamefully reckless. Whatever Graham’s intentions, it suggests something to the listener – be he Pennsylvanian or South Carolinian – other than disagreement with military tactics. And one can’t help but wonder whether, when Graham constructs the “We” who don’t do dinners for Lincoln, he means to speak for the descendants of slaves who worked and died in bondage in South Carolina as well.

Last Martin Luther King Day, after a march to the New Haven Savings Bank to threaten a boycott, students, workers, and community members gathered in the Woolsey Rotunda to speak out about the meaning of the day and the path to making “Jobs and Freedom” a reality in New Haven and in this country. Here (because mine is the only one I have a copy of) is what I said:

Never in this country has the symbol of Dr. King been so popular and so ubiquitous; never in this country has the vision he struggled for faced such tremendous opposition. In this morning’s New York Times, a Reagan archivist argues that Reagan and King were soulmates – that though their politics differed, their values were the same. Such a claim goes beyond cynicism – it is nihilism. It demonstrates a choice to forget who Reagan was – that he kicked off his Presidential campaign in a city in which civil rights activists were murdered and he called for states’ rights and excoriated welfare queens as a threat to our society. But as troublingly, it demonstrates a choice to forget who King was. There was a time when the FBI called King the most dangerous Negro in America. It’s time King was dangerous again.

On Thursday the President of United States made a last minute visit to lay a wreath on King’s grave, and in so doing foisted on the American people the bill for a trip followed by a $2,000 a plate fundraiser. Hundreds of people turned out to protest, and the administration decided to salvage its photo op at Dr. King’s grave by obscuring the view of the social protest, the non-violent resistance, going on behind. And they did it with rows of buses. The searing image of Dr. King’s birthday, 2004, is that of Blacks, Whites, and Latinos mobilized in protest on the other side of buses. What did Dr. King’s last living birthday look like? According to Jesse Jackson, “Perhaps what he did on that day would be instructive to us…he pulled together the coalition – black, white, Jewish, Hispanic, Native American, labor – to work on the Poor People’s Campaign. The object was to demand a job or an income for all Americans. He was driven by a moral imperative to include all and leave no one behind.”

“It is crimminal to have people working on a full-time basis and a full-time job getting part-time income,” King preached in Memphis soon before his death, standing with striking sanitation workers. “One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive. For the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job diseases are rampant.” Today in New Haven, service workers who make hospitals function and graduate student researchers who make medical research happen both find themselves unable to pay for health insurance for themselves and their families.

Dr. King declared that “Negroes will no longer spend our money where we cannot get substantial jobs.” Today this bind remains salient, as does its twin: even as too many are locked out of substantial work in the institutions their business and their taxes fund, too many are forced to work manufacturing products they cannot themselves afford to buy. Wal-Mart employees cannot afford discount Wal-Mart clothing. University employees here in New Haven cannot afford to send their children to college.

One year after the Voting Rights Act and two after the Civil Rights Act, King argued that these “legislative and judicial victories did very little to improve” the ghetto or “penetrate the lower depths of Negro deprivation.” Thirty-six years ago, on his last birthday, Dr. King declared “we have an underclass, that is a reality – an underclass that is not a working class…thousands and thousands of Negroes working on full-time jobs with part-time income…to work on two and three jobs to make ends meet.” The solution, he said the next month, was “a redistribution of economic power.”

“The problem of transforming the ghetto,” Dr. King wrote, “is a problem of power–confrontation of the forces of power demanding change and the forces of power dedicated to preserving the status quo. Now power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political and economic change. Walter Reuther defined power one day. He said, ‘Power is the ability of a labor union like the UAW to make the most powerful corporation in the world, General Motors, say, ‘Yes’ when it wants to say ‘No.’ That’s power.”

It’s not enough to glorify the symbol of the fallen King. We must rededicate ourselves to his vision of social, economic, and democratic change. It is not enough for our leaders to lay wreaths on the man’s grave. We must hold them accountable for a status quo which has deprived too many Americans of all races of the right to freedom from want, of the right to a voice in the decisions which determine their future. It is not enough for the President of this great University to recount that he cried on hearing Dr. King’s “I have a dream”
speech. Yale, as King confidante Rev. James Lawson declared here this summer, must commit itself to becoming fully human.

“A nation that will keep people in slavery for 244 years will thingify them,” Dr. King warned, “make them things…And a nation that will exploit economically will have to have foreign investments and everything else, and will have to use its military might to protect them. All of these problems are tied together. What I am saying today is that we must go from this convention and say, ‘America, you must be born again!'”

In light of Brown’s new investigation of its ties to slavery the YDN reflects on the continuing controversy over the dark side of the history of this institution and the men after whom its facilities are named, going back to the “Yale, Slavery, and Abolition” report released in 2001:

In what was perhaps the report’s most significant contribution, the authors documented extensive evidence of racist, pro-slavery tendencies in Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph and the man for whom Morse College is named. Morse, the report pointed out, was created in 1962, near the height of the Civil Rights movement.

The Yale administration’s response, as usual, is to discredit criticism of the University on one issue on the grounds that those making it have criticized the University on other issues rather than by reckoning with the facts. That, and an insinuation (well, more than an insinuation) that Yale beats Brown in the reckong-with-historical-connections-to-slavery department:

University President Richard Levin said Yale, unlike Brown, satisfactorily dealt with the issue slavery’s legacy two years ago when the Law School sponsored a conference on the topic. “I think they’re two years behind us,” Levin said.

Not everyone, however, is so blase:

For Owen Williams GRD ’08, a member of the New Haven Reparations Coalition who was present during the conference, the core issue of Yale’s involvement with, and responsibility for, its ties to slavery was never adequately addressed or resolved. “The conference had great intellectual merit, but it was a charade,” Williams said. “The issue of Yale was only discussed once, and very briefly.” Williams has recently completed work on a paper outlining the pro-slavery activity of John Calhoun, for whom Calhoun College was named.

Additional materials from the authors of the report are on-line here.

One step is confronting the entirety of Yale’s historical connection to slavery would be addressing the painting that sits over President Levin’s head in the Corporation room.

And no, this doesn’t count:

“I have to say when I first saw it I scratched my head and wondered what it was doing there,” University President Richard Levin said. “It’s probably worth discussion, but we haven’t had any yet. It’s obviously an artifact from a much different historical era, when people had a different perspective. But it’s certainly not consistent with our thinking today. I’ll grant that without any argument.”