Yale’s Narrative, and Yours
August 29, 2015
Provost Polak, Dean Cooley, Dean Gendler, Secretary Goff-Crews, Chaplain Kugler, masters, deans, and honored guests, allow me to join President Salovey in wishing you a good morning and welcome.
Class of 2019, I am thrilled to see you and look forward to getting to know you well in the years ahead. Together we will add a new chapter to Yale’s narrative. It will be a chapter filled with astonishing highs, intense disagreements, controversy, laughter, and I hope an enduring sense of community.
To the parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, and grandparents who have done such critical work shaping and raising the students seated before us, thank you. You have a lot for which to be proud this morning. To the students seated before us, I presume that you have thanked your family numerous times for the sacrifices that have brought you here. If not, I expect you to correct that oversight immediately following the Assembly. In addition to recognizing your family’s contributions, I implore every student to take a few minutes today to reach out to someone from your respective hometowns. Just as Yale coaches, professors, administrators, custodians, conductors, dining hall workers, librarians, and groundskeepers will do everything they can to help you succeed, there are legions of similar people from your communities who have assisted you in your journey here. Thank them.
I recognize that each of you has taken an individual path to this place, but now that you are here you have a group identity as well. You are the Class of 2019, after all. But who, exactly, are you? You hail from across this country and from around the world. Many of you are the children of parents who are already Yale alumni. More of you will be the first in your families to graduate from college at all. Most of you went to public school. Nearly half of you are receiving financial aid. All of you are dazzling. These facts are part of your collective narrative at this, the very first page of your Yale story. But what of this place, the place that claims you as its own and hopes that you, in time, will return the favor? What is Yale’s narrative?
I won’t bother going into much present-day detail; I feel safe in my assumption that you’ve read the brochures and web pages and that you may even already track our mascot, Handsome Dan, on Instagram. By being here you signal that some part of you has already accepted Yale’s narrative about pursuing excellence, about mental discipline, about valuing diversity, and about light and truth. And, honestly, I believe that narrative is accurate and that this place is as dazzling as each of you. But has it always been this way? As a historian, I am predisposed to ask if and how things have changed over time. So, I wonder, what does Yale’s narrative look like when we explore its past?
For the next few minutes I’d like you to turn to the images that are in your program. A close reading of these images—what we historians call primary sources—will help us reflect upon this place and its history.
The images you see are something of a triptych—three different paintings of British merchant Elihu Yale that when brought together tell a fascinating story. For those who don’t already know, Elihu Yale rose to power and accumulated wealth through his leadership in the East India Company. In 1718, Yale received a request to finance a new building for the Collegiate School of Connecticut, a small enterprise founded in 1701 for the training of Congregationalist ministers. Yale sent hundreds of books, a portrait of King George I, and bales of goods that were later sold to finance the building. In short order, the Collegiate School was renamed in his honor. (I note as an aside that Elihu Yale made that donation because of the effective lobbying of a colonial author named Jeremiah Dummer. What this means is that you probably should not be called Yalies at all, but rather Dummies. But this is a historical problem for another day.)
As far as we know, there aren’t that many paintings of Elihu Yale, and for understandable reasons Yale University has many, if not all of them. You have in your hand three examples of this collection of “Elihu-iana.” As you see, Elihu Yale figures centrally in all three images. In the first, Elihu Yale is by himself. Below that you find him depicted with a servant. And on the reverse you see him surrounded by similar men of high standing with a young page to their collective left.
In all of the paintings Elihu Yale is wearing and surrounded by sumptuous fabrics. This tells us that he is a man of means. In the two paintings on side one we see ships in the distance—a reference to the fact that Elihu Yale built his career on trade that navigated the ports in the British empire. In the second and third paintings we see an unidentified attendant. Much like the wearing of exquisite clothes suggested, placing a servant in a portrait was an articulation of standing and wealth. But when we look more carefully at these two paintings we notice that in addition to the fine clothes the servant and page are wearing they also happen to have metal collars and clasps around their necks. What we are seeing in each painting, then, isn’t a servant or a page, but a slave.
We are fairly certain that Elihu Yale did not own any slaves himself, but there’s no doubting the fact that he participated in the slave trade, profiting from the sale of humans just as he profited from the sale of so many actual objects that were part of the East India trade empire. As such, Elihu Yale’s wealth was linked to a global economy that was deeply, practically inextricably, interwoven with the sale of human beings to other human beings. In fact, when we look at the paintings it is safe to assume that Elihu Yale was a willing participant in that economy. Since he could have selected anything to represent him in these paintings we can conclude that he chose to be depicted with enslaved people because he believed this narrative would best signify his wealth, power, and worldliness.
This is a difficult story to hear, especially on an occasion of welcoming and celebration. But I share it with you because just as proper histories are unafraid of their darker corners you should be unafraid to ask difficult questions of this university. Indeed, we expect you to do so. I also share this story because historians understand that the people, places, and things about which we write leave legacies that connect the past to the present in often unsettling ways.
By means of example, let’s return to the paintings.
Their story does not stop in the eighteenth century when they were created. This fact is confirmed when we consider how this group of portraits has been put to use by the university: Two are in storage, along with the bulk of Yale’s vast collections, but one is on display. The first of your three images hangs in the Corporation Room of Woodbridge Hall—the nerve center of the university. That this specific portrait hangs there, however, is fairly recent history. Until 2007, the second painting of Elihu Yale you see in the program insert is what you would have found in the Corporation Room. That year, recognizing that this representation was terribly jarring whether it was understood in its historical context or not, the university removed the painting. There was no ceremony accompanying the move, no conversation, just the quiet exchange of one portrait for another.
Was this the right thing to do? Was this a missed opportunity to ask larger questions about race, representations, economic systems, and, specifically, empire? To both questions I answer a singular “perhaps.” I believe the painting was taken down with the best of intentions. But I am left, still, with more questions—questions not just about the portraits but also about many of the symbols, names, and legacies that surround us on the campus, many of which may have been instituted with good intentions (who doesn’t do what they think is best?) but that now clash discordantly with our values and aspirations. Of course, addressing questions of intention, legacy, and belonging is not merely a local challenge: Consider the recent struggles over the Confederate flag and who belongs on the twenty dollar bill; consider the pointed language about who is legally in this country and who is not. But addressing these questions also remains a decidedly local challenge: Consider the new and ongoing debate about the title of “master,” which we use for the heads of our residential colleges.
These clashes between the history we inherit and the future we aspire to create are common at Yale as they are across the United States. To be a Yalie is to be an engaged citizen—of the university and the world—so these are questions that we need to think through together: What should we do with the artifacts of a past that now offends us? Do we leave them in view to haunt us? If we erase portions of who we are—hiding them from view without engaging them—do we run the risk of self-satisfaction? If we are prepared to change the name of one college, say Calhoun, because of John Calhoun’s anti-abolitionism, what are we to do with those named for individuals who also owned slaves, were deeply racist, or whose personal views on any number of issues run counter to our current sensibilities? To be clear, I am not advocating that we change the name of this university—that much is off the table—but these questions lead us to even more questions: Is it possible to simultaneously hold conflicting feelings about a thing and its history? Can we love Yale College and quarrel with the man who gave this place its name? Inevitably, honest and informed debate will yield a range of possibilities about the right way forward. I am certain that my answers may not be the same as many of yours. How should we reconcile them, and ourselves?
As you answer these questions you will do well to remember that the Yale community which you have just joined looks radically different in ways that would have been beyond the imagination of the eighteen-year old men, who, in 1965, sat in the same seats you occupy today. Similarly, the Yale of 2065 will be something quite distinct from what your present collective imagination can summon. This place is ever-evolving; and this is how it should be at a great university. To do or be otherwise, to remain wed only to tradition and an incurious determination to “keep things the way they are just because” would mean that we have defaulted on our commitment to ask penetrating, potentially destabilizing questions of our known worlds.
So, Class of 2019: here you are, in a place that has been waiting a long time for you to arrive, a place where you emphatically belong. Whatever your race, religion, wealth, sport, political philosophy, taste in music; whatever your sexuality, your passport’s origin, or the number of stamps in your passport, this place is yours, ready for you to make your contribution to it.
You have come here at a unique moment, when this university engages with questions of its own identity, at a time when national conversations about race have shined a light on social constructions and assumptions that for many (but not for all), have lain dormant for decades, if not centuries. You also bring your own questions about your own identities and what the future holds for you. These big questions will form part of the education that awaits you, even more than problem sets, term papers, or exams. But so will the conversation that begins today, as you write your own story and build your own Yale.
This is hard but joyous work, and you embark on it with many others. Joining you are your peers and your professors, the friends you are about to make, and the students who have preceded you. I join you, too.
Welcome to this work. Welcome to this place. Welcome to Yale.