I’m often proud of my brainy, big-hearted students and colleagues, and I’m occasionally even proud of an administrator–when I hear, for instance, that someone deployed funds to help my advisee get through a crisis. Wealthy small liberal arts colleges can be very good places to work and study. And in ways I did not expect when I arrived in 1994, I’ve developed strong feelings for the land I live on. Sometimes, however, all the good resources make it harder to accept my college’s failings.
One of the strangest, most upsetting aspects of being at Washington and Lee has been the university’s uncritical reverence of that second namesake. I know many white southerners were raised to think of Robert E. Lee as an honorable, heroic leader during a terrible war, but most faculty, and a good proportion of staff and students, come from elsewhere and find the mythology alienating. I never really got over the shock I felt about those narratives at first–in fact, my shock has deepened, as it becomes more and more obvious that white supremacist ideals have not lost their grip on our country, that violence against people of color remains epidemic. I worried that white supremacy was in fact part of what my college was selling–come here, white students, and feel validated in your prejudices! I know that is NOT what happens in our classrooms, but nostalgia for the Lost Cause is nevertheless the lesson imparted by our architecture, some of our publicity materials, rhetoric at some events, and even by our name. I’ve felt despair about reconciling the goals of liberal arts teaching with the fundamental unkindness of, say, marching students into Lee Chapel for required events while denying that the building, standing above Lee’s actual crypt, is a shrine to the Confederacy. History is complicated and no one is innocent, but still, these are men who might have enslaved my students’ great-great-grandparents, lashed them, poured brine in the wounds. It’s that plain, that brutal–not something you can fairly ask a person to be politely silent about.
Which is why I want to use my last post before a ten-day trip to give a shout-out to two amazing projects. First: look at this report just issued by W&L’s Commission on Institutional History. It’s very long and detailed–I confess my first move was to read the prologue and then skip to the recommendations–but all of it is worth careful reading, if you’re at all interested in this corner of the world. The conclusions about renaming and repurposing certain buildings are spot-on, and the history the committee tells is the most honest and even-handed I’ve ever seen in a W&L publication. I’m just stunned by its scholarly fairness (oh, those hundreds of footnotes!).
The report does NOT recommend changing the school’s name, or at least not yet. I respect the opposing view, and I suspect we’ll revisit the issue eventually, but I’m personally in agreement with the commission here, even though everyone I meet, these days, hears my institutional affiliation, pauses for a beat, and says, “They’ll be changing that name.” I read the report on my phone between sessions at the Bridgewater Poetry Conference, where multiple people made that remark, in fact. But at the same conference, I also talked to a professor from Randolph College, who recounted how tough their name change has been. It’s a costly step in all kinds of ways, and I’d rather put resources into making more substantive changes, at least at first.
If we DO change. The report itself, posted online in its full glory, gives me hope, but will W&L act on those recommendations, and if so, at what speed? There’s a massive culture gap between trustees and current students, for sure, and since the former have the money…well, in my experience, change happens very, very slowly here, with many constituencies fighting it every step of the way.
A better place to rest that optimism is in the students themselves, and in how, generation after generation, they challenge the status quo and strive to push crucial conversations forward. Witness “The Black Experience @ W&L,” a website just completed by the 12 general-education students, from all years and a wide range of disciplines, in my spring term African American Poetry class. In addition to reading and writing about poems from four centuries, we heard from an archaeologist, a genealogical researcher, and a specialist in Black Arts; talked to a visiting poet; and worked in Special Collections. For this final digital memorial, one group conducted interviews with eight current black students (audio posted online) and compared them to a series of interviews conducted in 1997. They’re all worth listening to (the seniors are the most blunt), but the upshot is that while academics have changed in a positive way since the nineties, the social life hasn’t–black students still get kicked out of parties and challenged to show ID, as if they couldn’t possibly be enrolled here. “How can you explain what it’s like to live in Confederate Virginia with, like, 83% of your fellow students being white?” one interviewee laughed–explaining it pretty well, I thought. Another group investigated integration on athletic teams and discovered that while there was a big jump in the seventies, the numbers of black players on teams has stayed the same since then. Other individuals created exhibits on protests and controversies, from offensively-themed formal dances to peace marches. I’m proud of their hard work and, again, the unvarnished honesty of the stories they tell.
We can do better, but there’s no moving forward without remembering where we started, and being honest about who paid for the privileges we now enjoy, musing about Lucille Clifton in well-furnished, sunny classrooms.