Dissonant Histories

A few weeks ago, Kate posted about the mascot debate and the concern that merely erasing the mascot without recognizing his legacy could in a sense deny the school’s racist history and not lead to any type of healing. Over break, I found this interesting New Yorker article titled “Names in the Ivy League.” The author Joshua Rothman highlights the example of an enormous complex near Nuremberg that had been the grounds of Nazi rallies and a symbol of the regime.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Germans worried that if they preserved the complex it could be seen as celebrating it, while destroying it could merely serve as a denial of the past. In the end, they decided to do what they called “trivialization” – letting the facilities fall into disrepair and using them for unimportant purposes, like storage and tennis.

In this sense, the Germans were both recognizing and degrading the history of the grounds. When students at Princeton and Yale protest the naming of Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs or Calhoun College, and we at Amherst protest the Lord Jeff, we are contesting the heritage of the school, borne from both the racism within American society as well as the racism inherently built into the educational institutions. In short, protesting the naming of places asks the question of how we can move past a dissonant heritage to an institution that is more safe and more equal.

Rothman writes:

“There are, in short, a range of ways in which we can respond to dissonant heritage. We can try to erase it, by launching cancellare campaigns, or decide to preserve it, hoping, perhaps, that its dissonance will diminish with time. We can also invent creative, even inspired strategies for recontextualizing the past—although doing so requires uncommon patience, thoughtfulness, and unanimity.”

As Kate brought up, both in the Lord Jeff removal and in all types of curricular and institutional reform, the school and the students must recognize the legacy of racism out of which this institution was borne, and also recognize that vestiges of that racism still exist in a very real way. As the New Yorker article points out, there are an endless number of ways that we can both recognize and move past the school’s often ugly history. As Rothman points out, this project will require thoughtfulness and patience, but as students and faculty at a liberal arts college, we possess both the time and the responsibility to realize this more equitable and just future.

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One thought on “Dissonant Histories

  1. This relates to a thought I’ve had pretty frequently this semester: over Diversity Weekend, I hosted a student who was part of the Indigenous Open House program. The students in that program stay a day later, travel to Hampshire to learn about the five colleges Indigenous Studies certificate, and explore the Kim Wait collection of Native American literature in the archives. The whole time he was here, I couldn’t help but feel that his experience of this place must be really bizarre: being told that he will find a home for himself at this school whose mascot is Lord Jeff. I wonder if they address the mascot issue over the course of that weekend, and I wonder what “creative, even inspired strategies for recontextualizing the past” are available to us. This would be an interesting conversation to have with Mike Kelly in the archives: how do we acknowledge Lord Jeff and our institutional legacy of racism while also acknowledging the ways Amherst is stretching past that racism?

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