'That Thing's Coming Down Today'
Amia Srinivasan · Trouble at Yale
When I started my freshman year at Yale, in 2003, Locals 34 and 35 – the unions that represent Yale’s clerical, maintenance, custodial and food service workers – were on strike. As I moved into my dorm on Old Campus, I crossed a picket line. We all did. Some workers held up signs saying: ‘You should have gone to Harvard.’ There were no meals served in the dining halls; Yale gave us cash to eat out. Each morning we were woken up by chanting outside our neo-neo-Gothic windows: ‘What do we want? A CONTRACT! When do we want it? NOW!’ Early on we were addressed by the undergraduate dean, who cautioned us (after some stirring words about our being the best and the brightest) not to be in any rush to take sides on the current labour dispute – we had plenty of time, four blissful years, to think and reflect. It is widely recognised that Yale, the biggest employer in New Haven, Connecticut (the poorest city in the richest state) has the worst labour relations of any major university in the US; this strike was the eighth since 1968. Some freshmen ignored the dean’s advice and joined the strike, but the general mood, I remember, was one of entitled disgruntlement. Eventually a contract was agreed, the workers went back to work, and we started eating our meals in the dining halls.
For me that meant walking a few hundred metres from Old Campus, where most freshmen live, to Calhoun, the residential college to which I had been randomly assigned. (The option to choose one’s college was abolished in 1962, as self-selection quickly resulted in a division between rich and ‘scholarship’ colleges.) The Calhoun dining hall was then known more for its mediocre food than for its stained-glass windows depicting scenes of happy slaves working on plantations. Founded in 1933, the college was named after John C. Calhoun, a Yale graduate who served as senator of South Carolina and vice-president of the US. He is famous primarily as a white supremacist and intellectual architect of Southern secession: he argued that slavery, rather than being a ‘necessary evil’ (as most Southern politicians had it), was a ‘positive good’. (Yale wasn’t alone in deciding that Calhoun’s record merited memorialisation; in 1957, a committee headed by John F. Kennedy named Calhoun one of five ‘outstanding’ historical senators.) One of the original dining hall windows depicted Calhoun with a shackled black slave kneeling at his feet; after a student campaign in the 1990s the slave was replaced with plain glass, though the rest of the windows were left untouched.
Last month, Corey Menafee, who had worked in the dining hall for eight years, climbed onto a table and used a broom handle to smash a panel picturing two slaves with bushels of cotton. While Yale agreed not to seek restitution for the window provided he offer his resignation, Menafee was arrested by the police on two criminal charges. After an outcry from the Yale community, the university put in a request that the charges be dropped, and has offered him ‘a position in a different setting’. Menafee explained: ‘It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that. I just said, “That thing’s coming down today. I’m tired of it.”’ Yale has since announced that the Calhoun slavery panels will be taken down and ‘conserved for future study and a possible contextual exhibition’.
These events follow a year-long student-led campaign to change the name of Calhoun College. In April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that the college’s name would be preserved ‘to confront, teach and learn from the history of slavery in the United States’. Some Yale students may need that lesson. But it’s less clear that Yale’s largely black workforce, which cooks for and cleans up after Yale’s largely white student population, needs it as well.