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Editorials

What’s Hiding Behind the Hollow Panels

By The Crimson Editorial Board

Harvard has a new old racist sculpture.

Earlier this month, a Crimson investigation revealed a stone sculpted fireplace in the stately Westmorly Court. A gothic, monumental hearth, its imagery suggests a racist disparity or hierarchy. On the left pillar stand caricatures of the ‘uncivilized’, purported African, Asian, and Indigenous figures with twisted, exaggerated proportions; on their right, their ‘civilized’ European counterparts, dignified, engaged in learned activities. The close-up images, retrieved from archives and past students, are inevitably striking.

But few current Westmorly students would know the existence of those pillars today. In yet another example of the seeming miscommunication between and fallibility of our administrators, the fireplace was provisionally paneled over in 2019, pending upcoming house renovations. Students were kept in the blind about the aesthetic touch-up or the reasons behind it — until now.

Needless to say, we find the pillars disturbingly and disgustingly racist in every conceivable way. Its grotesque sculpted caricatures have frozen in time stereotypes that were already profoundly harmful when the chisel first touched the stone. The fireplace stands as a hideous example of our institution's elitist disconnect from the world around us; it’s a symbol of pompous wealth that, in a painfully nonchalant fashion, distorts and dehumanizes the marginalized.

It should have never existed in the first place. And yet it does.

Hiding it behind hollow panels won’t change that, or remedy the pain and strife etched into the stone. The fact that this was administrators’ initial impulse — that they chose a literal cover-up over a frank, difficult conversation with the dorm’s residents, several of whom report expressing unanswered concerns — is disturbing. It’s an example of the sort of high-brow, condescending paternalism that sometimes characterizes how the University wrestles with its history. Avoiding scandal, even through the walling up of evidence, primes over honest introspection, almost as if the historic meaning of these objects (of the racist portraits and enslaved daguerreotypes) laid only in the eyes of the annoying, student-protesting beholders.

The University seems to know that Westmorly’s fireplace is a stain on the community that first created it. It is not, however, one that should be simply patched over, or, worse still, bleached away. The racist pillars cannot stand; they can’t be destroyed without sanitizing and fictionalizing our complex past. Instead, they should be rescued from their creaky dark panels and thrust into the public spotlight, where the filth of our past can nudge us towards a better future.

That place, of course, cannot be a student dorm, where individuals from all backgrounds should be able to feel safe and comfortable, not threatened or mocked by our darkest chapters. The fireplace ought to be removed, stored, and displayed among all the other surviving fragments from those chapters. Harvard needs a permanent place to grapple with its role in shaping some of the most gruesome parts of human history. A museum of institutional failings, if you will, where self-reflection about our shortcomings and a respectful honoring of those affected can take place. A powerful, honest reminder of what this University has been and of what we’ve been far too willing to brush under the rug.

That might prove uncomfortable. It might upset some donors, prompt national coverage highlighting our faults or attacking our University. It might even dispel the notion that our institution’s history is, in some sense, an unbroken stream of unblemished achievement.

We say: Bring it on. Ignoring history and burning the paper trails is one of the foremost barriers to progress at Harvard and beyond. Engaging with our faults — exploring them, publicizing them, investigating how they came to be — is the only way to ensure we don’t repeat them, to verify we aren’t repeating and reinventing them already. Few institutions, governmental, academic, or otherwise, do this well. Harvard’s critical self-reflection could help lead the way.

Our Harvard, the current Harvard, is no longer the sort of community that would happily overlook Westmorly’s fireplace — most of our peers, we’d hope, wouldn’t pose and kiss by it, delighting in white supremacy-laced luxury. But we are, at the same time, the exact same Harvard, plagued by the same ghosts in different clothes, weighed down by our past. Until we recognize that much, until we can speak with nuance and depth about our very worst crimes, we too will remain trapped in stone, unable to move or change, our core values hidden behind hollow panels.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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