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The Images We Can’t Unsee

In the North, the legacy of slavery is built into the architecture

June 13 wasn’t the first day a stained glass window depicting two slaves in a cotton field interrupted Corey Menafee’s line of vision. Working as a dishwasher at Yale University, Menafee surely encountered the window, and displays like it, regularly. Like the vines artificially grafted onto its buildings, incidental icons of slavery appear throughout the Ivy League, nestled in seals, in names, in glass windows. The images favored by these schools are often agricultural, showing black slaves working the earth. They're unobtrusive, of course, until the day they’re not — until they become so prominent that they consume one’s entire visual and psychological frame.

June 13 was that day for Menafee, the day he climbed a table in the Calhoun College cafeteria and smashed the glass panel with a broomstick. “We’re in a modern era where we shouldn’t have to be subjected to those primitive and degrading images,” he said in a recent interview with Democracy Now.

I'm stuck on Menafee's use of “primitive.” It's a biting word, a cold assessment wholly opposed to the way in which worldly intellectual institutions are typically appraised. And yet, Yale and the eight other colonial colleges founded before the revolution — surviving in an economy fueled by slavery — are polite strongholds of heinous American history. For as long as the Ivy League and Predominantly White Institutions (PWIs) have been accepting black people, these students have protested their schools’ entrenched iconography of slavery and racism, and the men who championed these systems.

That tradition of protest has been recently revived. In 2015, activists from the Black Justice League at Princeton University conducted sit-ins demanding that administrators rename the Woodrow Wilson School and remove all portraits of the segregation advocate, so prevalent that the campus is sometimes called “The Wilsonic Temple.” Following Brown University’s 2006 disclosure of its links to the slave trade, faculty and students alike have also demanded buildings be renamed, in addition to reparations for black students. Last year, Harvard Law School students protested against the Royall seal, a family shield designed much like the stained-glass window at Calhoun College, displaying black slaves carrying bushels of cotton. Last fall, a community petition demanded that Yale University change the name of Calhoun College, given that the former vice-president was an ardent defender of slavery.

Of those examples, Harvard was the only one to drop the seal. To some, Harvard's decision was seen as a capitulation rather than a progression, however, a weakened response to the growing force of millennials empowered by safe-space ideologies. Critics, both white and black, argue that renaming is intellectual surrender, one that amounts to the social death of the concept of the Ivy League. They maintain that the images educate people about this country's history, rather than commemorate it. “Through teaching and learning about the most troubling aspects of our past, our community will be better prepared to challenge their legacies,” Yale president Peter Salovey said in an April statement about the retaining of Calhoun College’s name.

The problem is, this assumes the community is neutralized enough to see these monuments as emotionless matters of history. The Ivy League maintains that its context is purely academic. Corey Menafee, however, wasn’t a part of the academic community at Yale. He was behind-the-scenes labor — though his job maintained the functioning of the building, the cleanliness of the halls; though he did, in a way, make the school run. Which is why he was subsequently arrested and forced to resign his position in exchange for the charges being dropped (as of this writing, the state attorney is still pressing charges against Menafee). Menafee was not the caricature of the idealized, overly privileged young student who longs to smash problematic idols in search of comfort. Menafee did not align himself with a group — unlike staff members at the University of Cape Town, for example, who joined South Africa's successful Rhodes Must Fall movement to remove a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes from campus. Menafee was an employee reacting independently to a stressful workplace environment.

Regional narratives foster specific delusions. Much scholarship and journalism has been devoted to correcting the sense that the North isn’t “as bad” as the South when it comes to racism, and that slavery didn’t construct its cities and its most beloved liberal institutions. The stereotype of an enlightened North versus a backward South is what deems Bree Newsome — the black activist who was arrested for taking down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State House following the massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church — a hero, yet trivializes Menafee for his anger.

But the border between the North and the South has always been porous. Though they may register as benign, Northeastern colonial materials — crests, building names, the bricks in the building themselves — implicitly revere pre–Civil War heritage. The Ivy League in particular is a bastion of Americana and its often troubling idols. It’s a powerful aesthetic, providing an apolitical zone for the patriotic to profess their love of country. And it seems harmless, a quirk of history filtered primarily through art. But Confederate memory can be found throughout Americana, whether the symbol is a flag or the windows in an Ivy League residential college.

The acts of Corey Menafee, Bree Newsome, and all the civilly disobedient must be remembered as transgressions against symbolism that solemnizes slavery in America. It is one thing to memorialize the fact that this violence occurred, while quite another to uncritically enshrine the men who perpetuated it.

Menafee and Newsome had to break the law to right a moral wrong, even as the status quo obscures their work. Prior to Bree Newsome removing the Confederate flag, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley mostly hedged on the question of the flag's symbolism at the State House. Once public opinion aligned with Newsome, Haley opportunistically positioned herself as the lone rebel “ridding” her state of the dark shadow of the battle flag, even though she’d previously denounced Newsome.

Yale, too, has already erased Menafee’s civil disobedience from the narrative, claiming, “After the window was broken in June, the Committee recommended that it and some other windows be removed from Calhoun, conserved for future study, and a possible contextual exhibition.” These elite institutions are enamored with the purity of historical narrative — so long as it boosts their appeal. When it questions their foundation, they would have the record reflect fake stories of precocious benevolence.