FT Rejoinder : On Not Changing Slave-Owners Names: We See Things Differently
Mr. Garland S. Tucker III
C/O Financial Times
1 Southwark Bridge
Re: Expunging Slave-owners Names Erases Our Complex History: We See Things Differently
I read with interest your article titled, Expunging Slave-owners names erases our complex history **, which was published in the 17 February 2017 edition of the Financial Times. In your opinion piece, you argue that Yale University’s recent decision to rename Calhoun College due to John Calhoun’s White supremacist past is misguided. The central premise of your piece is that the current trend of expunging slave-owners names in American cities colleges robs us from becoming aware of the evil deeds of our ancestors who also achieved greatness. Sir, I am compelled to write my fourth “We See Things Differently” FT rejoinder and second Damnatio memoriae FT rejoinder because this article follows the never-ending trend of the White media presenting a racial discussion from a White-dominant narrative.
Before, I proceed, let me briefly explain my bona fides. I am a Black man of African descent who is strongly opposed to racism, segregation and slavery. I believe that slavery is an unnecessary evil. I am also sympathetic to the plight of the forerunners of the present day African-Americans who were kidnapped from Africa, shackled in chains, shipped like cargoes over the Atlantic Ocean and sold as slaves to work in animal-like conditions in the various plantations that dotted the American landscape. So it should be no surprise that my rejoinder to your piece will be from a Black Plantation point of view.
Your central thesis is flawed because it is based on the assumption that having colleges named after historic figures is the only way in which students can learn history. There are other ways students can learn history such as reading books, watching documentaries, checking encyclopedias or searching online.
You use Calhoun’s good deeds to suggest that the renaming of Calhoun College is wrong. You cite Calhoun’s role as a free trade champion, political thinker, senator and vice-president. There is no doubt that John Calhoun left his footprint on the sands of time, but one cannot dismiss his evil deeds with a wave of the hand by saying, “For much of Calhoun’s career, the tariff — not slavery — was the battleground issue of greatest national consequence.” Slavery might not have been an issue of great national consequence for the millions of White America reaping the benefits of slavery, however, for the millions of Black slaves picking cotton in the plantation, it was an issue of great national consequence.
Calhoun was as you rightly pointed out a leading American thinker, whose theories carried a lot of weight. However, unlike other American founding fathers who supported slavery which they viewed as a necessary evil, Calhoun regarded slavery as a positive good saying, “I hold that in the present state of civilization, where two races of different origin, and distinguished by color, and other physical differences, as well as intellectual, are brought together, the relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two, is, instead of an evil, a good–a positive good.” He also advocated the supremacy of the White race and inferiority of the Black race arguing, “Never before has the Black race of Central Africa, from the dawn of history to the present day, attained a condition so civilized and so improved, not only physically, but morally and intellectually.” Calhoun as Secretary of War played a crucial role in displacing Native Indian Americans from their territories in the Eastern half of the country.
Another flaw in your piece is that it suffers from status quo and confirmation bias. It is written from a White privileged perspective. In order to understand your viewpoint, I did some background research into the book you authored titled “Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan.” In your book, you chronicle the lives of fourteen White conservative Americans who you call heroes. Included among your fourteen “Hall of Famers” is John Calhoun. Your Hall of Fame also includes other White supremacists who supported the suppression of African-Americans. For instance, John Davis, a White Conservative who opposed the desegregation of schools makes your Hall of Fame, likewise Barry Goldwater, the White Conservative whom Martin Luther King once said “Articulates a philosophy which gives aid and comfort to the racist.” Furthermore, Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph, two White Conservatives who supported slavery make the cut. In short, your strong admiration for Conservative champions appears to make it incapable for you to support Calhoun’s name removal.
I also researched Triangle Capital Corporation, the company that you co-founded and currently chair. In analysing the staff composition of the company’s Senior Management, Admin & Human Resources Department, Investment Committee and Finance and Investor Relations team, I observed that out of the twenty-six employees whose images were displayed on the company’s website, there wasn’t a single image of any person of colour. I admit that this form of analysis might be flawed as the absence of people of colour in the workplace is a weak proxy to suggest writer’s bias. I also admit that it is possible that there might be other people of colour working in the company that I could have possibly overlooked. However, the point I am trying to bring out is whether the lack of Black representation in your organisation is indicative of your lack of appreciation of the Black perspective. Mr. Tucker, I urge you not to dismiss this section of the rejoinder as an ad hominem attack. I have only extrapolated information available in the public domain and apologise in advance for any wrong conclusion drawn.
You claim that while modern historians are divided about Calhoun’s legacy, he earned the respect of his generation. You fail to acknowledge that during his time, he was considered a controversial figure due to his role in what the Chicago Defender calls the “defence and advocacy of the capture, recapture and permanent enslavement of African-Americans.” You also ignore the fact that at the time of naming the college in his honour, there was also some strong opposition. Yale establishment figures like Anson Stokes and John Sterling in addition to Leonard Bacon opposed the college name.
In your article, you airbrush the voices and viewpoints of Black people. To support your line of reasoning you only quote White thinkers and politicians like Daniel Webster, Cicero and President Kennedy. Since I am presenting the Black side of the argument, perhaps you may want to know what some Black thinkers had to say about John Calhoun. W.E. Du Bois, one of America’s greatest thinkers described Calhoun as one of those men who “Fought against freedom and democracy in a land that was founded on democracy and freedom.” Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper which has now ceased publication once described Calhoun as the, “Negro’s arch enemy and premier defender of human slavery.”
You also describe attempts by several institutions to rename colleges previously named after slave-owners as, “Seeking to cleanse the American scene of any history that does not fit perfectly into 21st-century morality.” This line of reasoning is flawed because you are suggesting that the morality of slavery is time dependent. Slavery is an evil which was morally wrong in the 16th century when slaves were shipped to America, it was morally wrong in the 19th century when Calhoun walked the surface of the earth and it is still morally wrong today in the 21st century.
You create an equivalency by suggesting that if we are to apply the same logic in the renaming of Calhoun College, we should also apply the same logic in renaming Yale University because Elihu Yale participated in slave trading. You note, “To be consistent, Yale will have to rename not only itself but many university offices and institutions.” You then cite other attempts to rename colleges in other institutions of learning and conclude that such attempts are ignorant, dangerous and tyrannical. To be consistent we should apply your logic to other instances of Damnatio Memoriae.
The renaming of Calhoun College isn’t the only instance in which a college or significant space within Yale University has been renamed. According to the Yale Committee To Establish Principles On Renaming, since 1894, there have been around 29 situations in which buildings, structures and significant spaces in the university have been renamed. 28 of these name changes weren’t related to slave owning issues. If renaming these other buildings and colleges doesn’t erase our complex history, why should the renaming of colleges named after White Supremacists erase it? Furthermore, in 2003, the US Central Command changed the Saddam International Airport to Baghdad International Airport. To be consistent, shouldn’t the US Central Command change the airport’s name back to its former name as expunging Saddam Hussein’s name erases Iraq of its complex history?
Prior to being exposed as a serial paedophile, Jimmy Saville was widely respected in Britain for his charitable works. After it was revealed that he preyed on vulnerable children, a memorial plaque on the wall of Saville’s former home in Scarborough was removed, the Saville Hall conference centre at the Royal Armouries Museum in Leeds, was changed to New Dock Hall and the Jimmy Saville Cafe at Stoke Mandeville Hospital was renamed. To be consistent, should Saville’s name be reinstated because his fundraising ability was of greater national consequence than paedophilia or because there is something useful in knowing that Jimmy Saville was capable not only of great achievements but also evil? Would you call the erasure of Jimmy Saville’s memory an attempt to cleanse the British scene of any history that does not fit perfectly into 21st-century morality?
Sir, as explained earlier, this is my fourth ‘We See Things Differently’ rejoinder to the FT. The Financial Times sometimes allows its space to be used by White men who make the case for White supremacists and bigots like Cecil Rhodes, Woodrow Wilson, Donald Sterling and John Calhoun. Perhaps the Financial Times and influential White men like yourself should spare some thought to the erasure of Black and other non-White viewpoints from mainstream thinking. We see Black exploits expunged from the history books, we see Black heroes like Mary Seacole expunged from the history books, we see Black civilisation expunged from the history books, we see Native American culture expunged from the history books, we see Aboriginal civilisation expunged from the history books, however when people in my community raise their voices against the asymmetric racial status quo, we see White male intellectuals using their influential White spaces to justify the racial status quo.
There is something useful in knowing that there is an alternative point of view to the mainstream White supremacist line of reasoning. Two Black thinkers saw the challenge clearly. Martin Luther King said, “Few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race.” Perhaps even more relevant is a quote from Malcolm X, “What is logical to the oppressor isn’t logical to the oppressed. And what is reason to the oppressor isn’t reason to the oppressed.”
Ahmed Olayinka Sule, CFA
** The online version of Tucker’s article has now been renamed: ‘Changing the name of Yale college erases our complex history’