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Truth and Change

On history, erasure, and remembering

By Brianna J. Suslovic

I opened my email earlier this week to see an email from Dean Khurana, explaining that Harvard's House masters would be changing their title due to concerns about the title’s implications. I anticipated the backlash.

As expected, my Facebook newsfeed flooded with sarcastic comments and impassioned posts about the change: Why do we have to change this title when it doesn’t even come from slave-holding histories? Why is the social justice language police coming down on us again, restricting our speech? What will those lefties do next—come after our Master’s degrees? Such a slippery slope!

I’ll respond: Master’s degrees reflect mastery of a subject. House masters refer to people with tangible power over other people. No one on this campus would liken being a student under a House master to being a slave under a master. However, if the word master used in this context holds connotations that are inextricably linked to a slave-owning title—whether those connotations are accurate or not—we have to address it head-on.

“History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again,” wrote Maya Angelou. Reliving the pain of the past is unnecessary and thoroughly preventable with the help of compassionate administrators. Fellow students might argue that we need to leave “open wounds,” as Dean of Yale Jonathan Holloway would say, in the names of buildings and titles here. I’m here to disagree.

I could tell you the story of the Royall family. I could tell you the story of Mather, Holyoke, and Brattle’s slave ownership. I could tell you that Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz’s husband was instrumental in creating a system of racial typologies designed to prove the superiority of the white race.

Instead, I’ll tell you that despite concerns of “erasing” these histories by renaming buildings or titles, we are actually preventing ourselves from engaging fully with these histories. I spent three years on this campus before I learned about Mather, Brattle, or Agassiz. Why is that? Is it that we’re already erasing the injustices that these powerful families partook in?

During the fall of my freshman year, I went to a reading of a play that was based on President Lowell’s Secret Court of 1920, a covert convening of administrators who systematically expelled a number of male Harvard students for their suspected homosexual activities, leading some to commit suicide. With some determined Googling after the show, I learned that President Lowell had also expelled all black students from the Yard and created quotas to limit the number of Jewish students at Harvard.

If cautious liberals and free speech fanatics are worried about changing the term House master or renaming buildings, I have to ask them once again—why? It can’t be because of erasure, because that’s clearly already happening. If the dark histories of our university’s founding fathers and mothers weren’t being erased, we would already know about the horrors that Lowell enacted upon nonwhite, non-Christian, and queer students. We would already know that Elizabeth Cabot Cary Agassiz was married to a man who tried scientifically to justify his belief that black Americans were “incapable of living on a footing of social equality with the whites.”

Unlike the many concerned community-members in a panic about free speech, speech restriction, and the erasure of history from this renaming, I’m in a panic about the unacknowledged histories that lie in the names of current buildings and titles. I’m completely in favor of finding ways to remember the past and opening up speech that brings new truths to light.

Harvard is not alone in these new changes, and those in a panic about them might recall the recent renaming of the Smith Campus Center and the Danoff Deanship of the College. Where were the moral qualms and outcries regarding these changes? When these kinds of changes happen, they deserve thoughtful critique, too.

In order to face history in the most productive way possible, Royall must fall. House masters must claim a new title. Students must be comprehensively and continually educated about the giants whose shoulders we stood on, and also about whose legacies we will now choose to uphold.

We must critically engage with the painful histories that have given us the names on our buildings, thoughtfully and critically taking history in stride as we find names that better fit the giants whose shoulders we want to stand on. Only through a documented renaming process and a continued teaching of Harvard’s dark history will future students know about the tensions we faced, the injustices we decided to denounce, and the ways that we reformed our campus to make it more reflective and inclusive of the community that we were.

Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 is a joint social anthropology and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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