[ Content | Sidebar ]

To the President of Yale

November 21st, 2015

Dear President Salovey,

An appeal from the Yale Alumni Fund came to me through the mail this week.  I haven’t given to Yale in a number of years, but have decided, after much reflection on the events at Yale this fall, to send in a donation.  I thought I would explain why.

Years ago I played a very small part in Brown University’s pioneering project to reckon with the institution’s role in the history of slavery.  I had the opportunity, along with several other academics, to meet then-President Ruth Simmons and to discuss how a public monument might fit into Brown’s larger effort.  As I’m sure you know, the whole process of study and reflection took several years and culminated in a number of specific institutional initiatives that involved historical archiving, curricular reform, integration of the research in K-12 education, community engagement and investment, and a new monument on campus.

Yale did not engage in any such process, despite appeals from within and without.  Frankly, I was very disappointed and I stopped giving to the alumni fund.  Given Yale’s enormous wealth and privilege, the institution – it seemed to me – should have been resilient enough to do some serious self-examination and inquire openly into the sources and legacies of its privilege.  I was hoping that the inquiry might go beyond slavery and include also the long fraught history of town-gown relations, including for example Yale’s role in the “urban renewal” of New Haven, which destroyed black communities in the name of progress.

As an art historian, I have been amazed at the longevity of images of bondage on campus.  The portrait of Elihu Yale with his black “servant” in a silver collar that hung in the corporation boardroom did not come down until 2007, and then only in a hush-hush way with no open discussion.  A metal statue of a kneeling black man/slave holding up a sundial – once in Elihu Yale’s estate – sat in the gardens of JE College when I lived just across the way in Branford in the 1970s.  John C. Calhoun’s chained slave, in his stained glass window in Calhoun College, survived until about 1990.  All of these examples offered “teachable moments,” but they were swept under the rug of institutional amnesia.

Now that policy of willful amnesia has caught up with Yale and with many other universities across the country, as they struggle with protests and criticisms about ongoing institutional racism.  I understand that there are some who feel that your response of November 17 (http://yaledailynews.com/blog/2015/11/18/salovey-announces-policy-responses-in-campuswide-email/) is too little, too late.  But I am also a believer in “better late than never.”  I want to commend you for getting started, and hope that a more searching self-examination will follow.

Even just a cursory glance at the online commentary in response to the student protests makes clear that you will get a lot of pushback from angry donors with deep pockets.  Without engaging in accusation, I’ll just say that these critics drastically oversimplify the issues.  If you are sitting comfortably outside the university, you don’t have the same perspective as a faculty member trying to teach the history of slavery or race or images like those that once adorned the collective spaces of Yale – much less the perspective of students of color trying to open up these discussions or simply endure them when they are dominated by others who have no understanding of them. But it is the job of the university to teach these issues, to create spaces where people can air disagreements and still listen to one another, and to work toward a better dialogue.  It isn’t easy, but it’s essential.

Brown has a twelve-year start on Yale.  It would be interesting to consult with a range of people involved in Brown’s effort and learn more about what worked and what didn’t, how the university is following through, and which initiatives seem to have the most continuing impact. We can and should learn from each other.  We need to stay open to new ideas and flexible enough to change course.

In that spirit, I enclose an annual gift with my hope that you can indeed work toward a “better Yale.”

What to do with Confederate monuments?

November 5th, 2015

Over the years I’ve heard from many people who were upset that Confederate monuments still had a place of honor on courthouse greens and college campuses. Honestly, I never thought I would see the day when the idea of removing any of them would be taken seriously.  Now that day has arrived, because of Charleston, and Ferguson, and other tragedies that have begun to force us, as a nation, to connect the dots.

A colleague in New Orleans who works with public sculpture and monuments asked me to share my thoughts about the current debate there over four Confederate monuments in the city.  She asked, “Do you think they should be moved?  Who do you think should decide?”  Here is my response, which I am posting essentially verbatim in the hope that it might prove useful or thought-provoking to others who are struggling with the same or similar issues:

There are certainly many precedents for moving or destroying monuments, nationally and internationally.  Revolutionaries destroyed the equestrian monument of George III in 1776 in New York; a few fragments still exist.  The U.S. army destroyed the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, cheered on by most Americans.  Many of the same arguments used to defend Confederate monuments (“it’s our history”) would apply equally to Saddam in Iraq or George III in New York. Post-Soviet countries have done many different things to statues of Lenin, including moving them to statue parks or graveyards.  These are all examples of regime change where the usual arguments for preservation are suddenly thrown out the window.

Sometimes monuments are moved just because they have gone out of fashion stylistically.  Greenough’s statue of Washington in the national capital is a good example.  It stood outside the Capitol building on axis with the entrance for almost 70 years before being moved inside to the Smithsonian, not because of any problem with George Washington but because the statue had long been a laughing stock.

Some more direct precedents for the current discussion would be the two sculptural groups that framed the entrance to the Capitol building, both with demeaning representations of Indians, which were removed to storage in 1958 and have not been seen since.  Then there is Louisiana’s own “Good Darky,” which was erected in Natchitoches in the 1920s, removed in the late 1960s, and then resurrected on the grounds of the Rural Life Museum in Baton Rouge.

In general I lean toward preservation and reinterpretation, but I don’t feel dogmatic about it.  The Good Darky had to go for sure, and the Capitol groups as well. Probably Saddam too for that matter, though the way it was orchestrated top-down by the U.S. still offends me.

I don’t have a lot of sympathy for Confederate monuments, especially since the arguments to spare them almost always minimize in some way the enormity of the crime of slavery, and the lingering impacts of white supremacy on black lives.  If we could use these monuments to confront the issue of white supremacy head on, unflinchingly, then I would be in favor of keeping them for that purpose.  The problem with simply taking them away and putting them in storage is that solution doesn’t answer the purpose either.  However, at the very least, removing them sends a message that they are no longer honored, that their defense of the crime of slavery will no longer be misrepresented as valor.

Thinking about Lee Circle specifically, I might consider a compromise where his statue is removed and put in a museum (who really sees it all the way up there anyway?) but the empty column remains as a reminder, and as a focal point for creative temporary installations, dialogues, and reinterpretations.  I would get art schools and local museums and an array of community organizations involved to program the site. It might be redubbed “First Amendment Circle.”  But all that would take money and/or passion and a lot of thought and planning, which doesn’t usually happen in these cases because people are scared of possible conflict, or just unwilling to do the work.

The “who should decide” question is a tough one, because for me the who question can’t be separated from the how question, how should we decide?  The process of going to a city council is certainly democratic but also polarizing, not conducive to true listening and dialogue.  I’d much prefer setting in motion a bottom-up process of discussion, and seeing where it leads.  Ultimately this kind of discussion, if it had legs, would create the energy and thought necessary to do genuine reinterpretation, counter-installations, and other ongoing programming — to make the site meaningful once again, but in a radically new way.

The Unknown Dead

July 21st, 2014

Driving to New York last week, I took a detour to see the Confederate cemetery in Hagerstown, Maryland.  It’s a cemetery within a cemetery, a special section inside the municipal cemetery but with its own gate and boundary markers and monument.

The cemetery owes its existence largely to the battle of Antietam, which left thousands of Confederate dead in mass trenches hastily dug by the Union forces on private property.  The federal soldier cemetery established there, one of the first in the new national cemetery system, decided – under pressure from Union veterans – not to accept any Confederate remains.   Not long after, the Maryland state assembly responded by establishing the cemetery in Hagerstown, which hired a local contractor to scour the landscape for miles around, digging up Confederate bodies and relocating them to the cemetery plot.  Hagerstown took its place alongside Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond and Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston as one of the major repositories for reburying the Confederate dead.  When the cemetery was rededicated for the Civil War Centennial in 1961, ex-President Eisenhower showed up to give the address.

I had read up on the site before going but wasn’t prepared for what I found.  It is a large semicircular plot of grass on a gentle downhill slope, surrounded on three sides by a regular late-19th century cemetery cluttered with angels and obelisks and other typical gravestones of that era.  But in the Confederate plot there is none of this, just a huge empty stretch of grass without markers of any kind – a void in this city of the dead.  I didn’t even realize at first when I passed through the gate that I was walking on top of graves.  Apparently the managers had no money to order gravestones, and with so many of the dead unidentified anyway, they decided it would be more appropriate to leave all the graves unmarked.  Since then only a couple of small granite plaques have been added, flush with the ground.  Some three thousand bodies lie there, only a few hundred known to be identified, and just two marked.

The experience was strangely moving and disturbing.  Here were 3,000 men whose names, dates, and life histories had been buried with them.  Their lives erased, they had become defined solely by their deaths, deaths in the name of the Confederacy.  The empty hillside created a powerful impression of unity, of men subsumed and consumed in a cause much bigger than their individual existence ever could be.  That in a nutshell is what is wrong with war.  These 3,000 men ended up under the ground in Hagerstown because a nation-state had calculated the efficacy of their bodies like so much money or fuel, then buried their lives under a death-dealing abstraction.  I left the cemetery wondering whether the Lost Cause might have been deprived of at least some of its power if the federal cemeteries like Antietam had just accepted Confederate bodies from the start.  If the enemy’s deaths are going to define their lives, why not bring those dead over to your side?

The Roll of Honor

November 19th, 2013

Update July 20, 2014:

If you read the post below, you would know that I got my nose bent out of joint by Fold3’s “Honor Wall” and its inclusion of Confederate veterans.  But this was unfair: I had conveniently forgotten that Fold3 was simply following federal policy dating back to 1929.  My apologies (from a loyal paying customer) to the good people at Fold3.

The policy in question was a law passed by Congress in 1929 that extended eligibility for a War Department headstone to all veterans of the C.S.A.  This piece of legislation was the capstone of a series of incremental policy changes beginning with the creation of a Confederate section of Arlington national cemetery by federal legislation in 1900.  By 1929 almost all the Union veterans who would have been outraged by this gesture had died off.  Southern blacks and their white supporters, who felt most acutely the injustice of the so-called Lost Cause, had been ruthlessly silenced in the political arena as well.  So the path to “reconciliation” was clear.  As a nation we have absorbed Confederate veterans “into the fold,” but without a serious moral reckoning of the costs involved.

It’s interesting, for example, that Indian warriors who fought the U.S. army don’t get the same privileges that Confederates do.  And on that subject, I’d like to point out to Fold3 that Sitting Bull is “honor rolling” in his grave because he is included on the Honor Wall as having enlisted as a scout in the U.S. Army in July 1, 1877.  Turns out that there were several Sitting Bulls around the same time and place (ah, the joys of genealogy!).  The famous Sitting Bull, whose picture is on the Honor Wall, was in Canada on that date, having fled the U.S. army.  Crowd-sourcing is a beautiful thing, but sometimes leads to strange results.

My original post, unrevised and in full:

I subscribe to Fold3, which has a treasure trove of digitized records from the National Archives.  Just this week it announced the launch of its Honor Roll, a digital gallery that “pays tribute to millions of men and women who served our nation, from colonial days to the present.”

My first search was for a Confederate soldier from South Carolina named Thomas W. Sligh, who was killed at Gettysburg.  (I’ll tell you why I chose him in a just a minute.) Sure enough, he was there.

I’m not sure what nation Fold3 is talking about, but my nation, the United States of America, is not the nation the Confederates were serving.  They had their own nation, the Confederate States of America, with its own constitution and its own military.  Led by South Carolina, which seceded from the Union because of its “increasing hostility…to the institution of slavery” (Declaration of Secession), the new nation of the C.S.A. enshrined “the right of property in negro slaves” in its founding document (Article 1, Section 9 [4]).  It was this nation, with this moral mission, that the Confederate soldiers were serving.

Fold3’s inclusion of Confederates in this national compendium of “service” is self-contradictory but hardly surprising.  It is the logical conclusion of an ideal of military service divorced from both history and morality.  Since the Civil War, this ethic of service has become a way to separate the warrior from the war and thereby to sidestep a frank accounting of war’s moral and human costs.

One of those costs was Thomas W. Sligh, a young man from Newberry, South Carolina, who left college to sign up for military duty in April of 1861, before even the bombardment of Fort Sumter.  According to a comrade of his, writing many years after the war, Sligh was a favorite with the troops, “witty, very ready, and always kind.”  But he was “rather girlish in appearance, for physically he was not strong.”  And so his officers, who must have liked the kid, made him an “orderly” whose duties were in the rear, away from harm.  When they arrived in Gettysburg, on the threshold of a battle that they all realized could turn the tide of the war, they told him to tend to the horses, but Sligh burst into tears and pleaded with them to be allowed to join his company and go into battle.  And so he did on July 2, and this witty, kind, physically slight young man, advancing bravely to defend his nation’s “right of property in negro slaves,” was cut down with his comrades in a peach orchard under a hail of bullets.

We can only imagine how this young man, who had been shunted to the rear because he wasn’t strong enough for combat, must have wanted to prove his honor, his manliness.  It’s an old story, and it still continues.  How did he feel as he marched into the oncoming fire?  That his few moments of manliness were better than a life of kindness, of “girlishness”?  But how, I wonder, did marching obediently toward certain death become manly?  How did this become “service”?  Service for what?  For the right to enslave others you deem inferior?  Is it honorable to die in the service of that privilege, the privilege to enslave and abuse other human beings?  These are not the questions that Fold3’s “Roll of Honor” allows us to ask.

Just to be clear: by asking these questions I am not condemning Thomas Sligh or his fellow soldiers.  My ancestors joined the Confederate army too, some whole-heartedly, some more reluctantly.  These are my people. Thomas Sligh was a kind and good-hearted man who belonged to a culture that condoned both slavery and war.  As a culture we have renounced slavery, but we still cling to war and cloak its ugliness in an ethic of service.

I met Thomas W. Sligh in a photograph.  The celebrated photographer Timothy O’Sullivan was at Gettysburg and found three Confederate bodies in a grave their comrades had dug but didn’t have time to finish.  The graves were marked with headboards hastily carved with the three initials of the names and the characters E 3, standing for the 3rd South Carolina, Company E.  In O’Sullivan’s picture the headboards come into focus along with the corpses lying in the sun, filling with gas and decomposing.  Sligh’s body is the one on the left, his face hidden.  It’s just as well, because it would be too hard to see that face battered in death, knowing something of its beauty in life.

On the ground, along the Cherokee frontier

June 14th, 2013

I’ve been looking at a lot of nineteenth-century land deeds lately. 

They are one major component of a new project I’m working on that deals with the complex entanglements between Cherokees and white settlers on the frontier in western North Carolina.  The project has taken me rather far afield from my home discipline (art history) and yet even so I keep coming back to my core interests in space and landscape, and how they are imagined, represented, and negotiated.

Land deeds are a gold mine of information for genealogists and historians, but at the same time they are more than just sources.  They are representations of the landscape – and of how people thought about land and how they interacted with it.  Their very existence testifies to an elaborate set of cultural practices that transformed human relationships with the natural environment.  And in this case they were weapons in the long war over Cherokee territory.

Deeds are connected uniquely to territory, to ground.  Nowadays we like to talk about space – “public space,” “domestic space,” the “production of space,” “cost-space” – the list goes on ad infinitum.  Space is an abstract mathematical concept that we impose on the world around us.  An extraordinarily powerful and useful concept, for sure, but surprisingly in the nineteenth century you didn’t hear much about it.  You heard a lot about ground instead.  The ground wasn’t at all abstract. People walked it, rode horseback on it, dug it up, farmed it, slept on it.  The physical quality of the terrain and the soil were huge factors in the daily life of much of the population, in a way that is hard to imagine today.

One of the primary purposes of deeds was to plot the ground that one person was claiming or selling to another.  Sometimes the deed was accompanied by a rough little “plat” of the property, but this picture was nothing more than a schematic two-dimensional diagram – imprecise and oddly uninformative because it flattened out the ground and ignored its most important features.  What really mattered was being able to tell someone how to walk the perimeter of this particular piece of ground, and for that purpose the visual representation was actually inadequate.

Therefore the language of most deeds included very specific directions tied to the natural landscape, particularly its trees and waterways.  In Pittsburgh we joke about how old-timers give directions: “Do you know where the gas station is?  Well you go up to the gas station and turn left…”  But deed descriptions basically did the same thing, using landmarks as their guides.  Typically they would start with language like “beginning on a black oak on the west side of the creek” then tell you to go north from that tree 320 poles (1 mile) to a stake, then turn east and go 160 poles, and so on.  If there was no tree or waterway to mark where the line turned, then a stake driven into the ground by the surveyor would mark the spot instead.  Sometimes the lines meandered along rivers or creeks but more often they were straight.  This meant they were also mathematical fictions (like space), not always walkable because there would be obstacles in the way like trees or brambles or unfordable waterways.  Even so, these lines were legally tied to the ground and whether you stood on one side or the other of that line on the ground was sometimes a matter of life or death.

In the mountains of western North Carolina during the early nineteenth century, Cherokees and white setters intermingled on the ground in various ways.  But rarely did they do so in deeds because the Cherokee didn’t have a system of individual property ownership – at least not until they had to adopt a system in order to try to stay on their ancestral ground.

Every now and then, though, in early settler deeds one will come across a glancing reference to the world the Indians inhabited.  A word or phrase will appear that is like a small stake in the ground, marking the presence of a people who otherwise remained invisible in the system of property relations that settlers imposed on the Indians’ landscape.

I recently came across one such example, a seemingly gratuitous sentence added as an afterthought at the very end of a deed, after the legal boilerplate language had run its course.  It was a deed originally made in 1802 by a somewhat shady land speculator named Joseph Dobson who was selling to a German immigrant farmer George Shuler.  The final sentence reads:

“The above tract of Land begins about a Quarter of a mile above the Indian Camp as he thinks where Dobson and Shuler lay all Night.”

Before you start thinking of Brokeback Mountain, here is some specific context: the tract in question was on a particular waterway called Scot’s Creek near where it emptied into the Tuckaseegee River.  Today this is the location of Dillsboro, in Jackson County, North Carolina, though in 1802 white settlement was still many years away.  Dobson and Shuler must have been scouting the area, and whether they “lay” that night within the Indian encampment or just upstream from it is hard to say given the mangled grammar of the sentence.

A couple of things are clear though.  They had crossed the North Carolina border into “Indian country,” territory that still legally belonged to the Cherokee, over fifteen years before the Treaty of 1819 would cede the land to North Carolina.  Of course, as the deed shows, this didn’t stop men like Dobson from charting the Indian land and selling it presumptively to white settlers who were willing to push over the boundary and take their chances.  The Indians weren’t a party to the deed and it wasn’t meant for them anyway.  It was meant for other white settlers.  In effect it was a warning to them: if you want to settle on Indian land you better go somewhere else.

The other takeaway from this deed is that the local Cherokee must have known Dobson and Shuler were there that night and may even have invited the two white men into their “camp.”  This camp was more likely a settlement, with log houses and cornfields under cultivation, not much different from what a white settler’s property would look like.  The Cherokee by this time were a settled agrarian society with a long history of trade, intermarriage, diplomacy, and sometimes warfare with white immigrants from various European cultures.  The Cherokee men that Dobson and Shuler encountered were almost certainly armed.  But they used their guns to shoot animals, not people, because they had been down the road of armed resistance before and typically it ended in disaster.  So forget John Wayne movies and think instead of negotiation, nonviolent resistance, and, always, adaptation.  This was a world in which the whites ultimately had the upper hand but in which they and the Cherokee inhabitants were thoroughly enmeshed, and constantly pushing across their own physical, cultural, and familial boundaries.  An essential point of the land deed system was to to erase that messy lived reality and hold tight to clear and fixed boundaries.

Dobson and Shuler sure look like bad guys in this story, but the truth is more difficult to gauge.  Although the Indian land on which they were encroaching was officially opened to settlement in 1820, the treaty that made this happen actually created a legal mess of overlapping white and Indian land claims.  In the sometimes violent conflicts that ensued, the Dobson and Shuler families appear in a somewhat different light.

Joseph Dobson’s son John, who lived a few miles from the plot described in the deed, took in some of the Indians who were displaced by the 1819 treaty.  George Shuler, who ended up settling peacefully on a farm a few miles downstream from the plot, actually testified against some of his white neighbors who drove the Cherokee off nearby land, one of whom had boasted to him of whipping an Indian.

In a final irony, the piece of property described in the Dobson-Shuler deed later came into Cherokee ownership, after the 1819 treaty, within a tract known as “Indian Dick’s reservation.”  Indian Dick was a Cherokee man also known as Richard Walker, himself a bilingual child of a white trader and a Cherokee woman.  He was one of the few Cherokee who were able to establish land ownership in the area after the treaty, and the “Indian camp” where Dobson and Shuler lay that night in 1802 probably still existed on Walker’s “reservation” under his patronage.  It would take more time, more treaties, and more deeds before the Indian camp was finally dispersed and the town of Dillsboro could rise from its ashes.