Letters to the Editor

Letters: May/June 2022

Readers write back about Yale's history with slavery, Robert F. Thompson, and more.

We welcome readers’ letters, which should be emailed to yam@yale.edu or mailed to Letters Editor, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905. Due to the volume of correspondence, we are unable to respond to or publish all mail received. Letters accepted for publication are subject to editing. Priority is given to letters of fewer than 300 words.

More on Yale and slavery

I eagerly read every issue of the magazine, but I just made my first donation to the Yale Alumni Magazine after reading the January/February issue, and particularly after reading the articles associated with “A Reckoning With Our Past.” I hope as many alumni as possible read and become aware of the history of enslaved persons and Yale, plus the potential for conversations about how to acknowledge and respond to the afterlife of slavery, as Professor Jennings lays out. Thank you for opening the eyes of those of us who learned about this history for the first time.
Justin List ’04MAR
Bronx, NY

The cover story of the January/February issue brought the interesting news that Connecticut Hall was partly funded by two Connecticut slaveholders and that 27 percent of the work was provided by five slaves and two free Black men, presumably from a local, multiracial workforce. (The research here doesn’t say how many workers were in the crew or whether they were all paid the same wages.)

The essays that followed used that data as a springboard for a special point of view, a viewpoint apparent from the start. In your introductory piece to describe the scholarly process, you used the verb “investigate,” a word with a sharper prosecutorial edge than more conventional “examine,” or “consider,” or “explore.”

One of the essayists in your series of eight vaulted from eighteenth-century history to twenty-first-century politics by praising the Yale janitor who destroyed a stained-glass window (fired with fanfare and quietly rehired to work in a less inflammatory environment) and sympathizing with the Yale undergraduates who were frightened and appalled by certain Halloween costumes. This writer brings things right up to date by citing recent petitions from members of the medical and nursing schools to have “their humanity acknowledged and be treated like their white peers,” the triggering injustice(s) here unspecified.

Other essayists used the piece of populist history to condemn the current scene. One writes, “The Protestant supremacy that justified enslavement . . . turned into the white supremacy that remains until this day.” Another author strengthens his argument by calling up reinforcements for the Connecticut Hall Seven, citing the thousands of Caribbean slaves who cut the cane that made the rum that provided the fortunes of the Yankees that financed the building. In fiery, unsupported generalizations, another writer decries the “greed and theft that originally made the university possible,” and concludes “the accumulation of wealth for those who enslaved and the opportunity to accumulate wealth for the enslaved and their freed children, making two different trajectories of living that flow right up to this moment.”

These essays were written by an editor, an assistant curator, a physician’s assistant, two professors in divinity schools, two graduate students, and two researchers. The piece identifies their occupations, but not their age. Their presumptive youth reveals the kind of history that Yale has been teaching in recent decades and the kind of teaching that will undoubtedly be taught in the foreseeable future. Their various opinions on a complicated and volatile subject sound sometimes like a sermon and sometimes like an undergraduate call to (or for) action.

Yale seems to be viewing our nation’s variegated history through a single, dark lens. Historically, Yale has always come down on the side of light.
Donald H. Werner ’55
Bloomfield, CT

The essays on slavery are short excerpts from a three-day conference, involving many history professors and led by Sterling Professor of History David Blight (who oversaw the essays). To learn more than the magazine had room for, go to tinyurl.com/YaleAndSlavery-GLC. In addition, the professor and his team are writing a book on their findings.—Eds.

Kudos to the magazine for its honesty in revelations, disturbing as they are, concerning Elihu Yale’s involvement with slavery, documented tellingly in the portrait including the boy with the metal collar on his neck. Mention was also made of slave-owning professors, even within the faculty of divinity.

Some would remark that it’s unfair to impugn persons for being products of the time in which they lived—or even for being part of a lineage of exploiters of privilege and subjugation of others. Times change, and some of us can recall very different mindsets that prevailed 50 and 60 years ago. We have either embraced or made our peace with these changes, but we have witnessed them occurring in far less than a century.

When Henry Louis Gates Jr. ’73 talks to prominent people about their family history, the subject of slavery often comes up, and when it does, strong emotions surface: for African American guests, who are enlightened about the brutality their ancestors had to endure, and for guests of European lineage, whose ancestry of slave ownership is revealed. One celebrity reportedly refused to have this part of his history aired.

Discomfort over reminders of brutality and exploitation in the past have led many to fear divisiveness among adults or depression in schoolchildren born centuries after the acts of injustice. One remedy for this involved sanitizing the word “slave” by substituting “worker” in the textbook.

By way of contrast, many of us believe that American exceptionalism is rooted in candor that can tolerate the whole truth and can self-correct as a result. I’m proud that Yale is part of that tradition.
David Tarr ’67, ’71MDiv
Waxhaw, NC

Your article about Yale’s Civil War memorial (“The Republic and the Confederacy,” January/February) triggered broader questions for me. Has Yale recognized alumni who lost their lives fighting for Germany or her allies in either World War I or World War II? Or for Britain in the American Revolution? Or similar “enemy combatants” of any other wars? I imagine there must be such.
David H. Schroeder ’77
Port Townsend, WA

As far as we could determine, there are no alumni listed on the walls of Memorial Hall who died fighting against the armed forces of the United States or its allies, with the noted exception of the Confederate dead from the Civil War. Harvard’s Memorial Church has a separate memorial to four alumni who died fighting for Germany in World War I.—Eds.

Carved in stone

I trust that my two favorite aspects of the Hall of Graduate Studies were preserved in its renovation (“A Hub for the Humanities,” May/June). Allegedly arranged by some wit in the architect’s office, little faces are sticking out their tongues at you if you peer up into the niches at the entrance. And on the far wall in the courtyard, carved in large script, is the opening line of Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche: “He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” A wonderfully nonacademic statement.
Peter Stansky ’53
Stanford, CA

Both of these features are still intact. The 12 heads carved in the entrance arches are likenesses of draftsmen who worked on the project.—Eds.

About Blue Ivy

I noticed that the back cover of the March/April issue of the Yale Alumni Magazine was an advertisement for Blue Ivy, a venture capital fund targeted at the Yale alumni community. You should know that the entity that operates the Blue Ivy fund, Alumni Ventures Group LLC, was recently subject to a Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement action for misrepresenting the terms of its venture funds.

I suggest that you advise your readers that the SEC has taken this action and that the Yale Alumni Magazine will no longer accept advertisements from this group.
Thomas S. Halsey ’81MPPM
Dallas, TX

We will not accept any more advertisements from Alumni Ventures Group.—Eds.

Memories of Bob Thompson

Robert Farris Thompson, aka “Funky Bob” (“A Life Transformed by Mambo,” January/February), was a genuine mensch. Sure, he loved to wear wacky plaid ties and cared not for how anyone might look at him as he danced to any Afro-Cuban beat at any time of day or night. But Master T took a genuine interest in students. When I began my second semester of sophomore year, I had an emergency appendectomy that landed me in Yale New Haven Hospital. My parents drove up from Virginia to be with me. One day, an envelope arrived from the Timothy Dwight master’s office with a handwritten letter from Master T imploring me to get well soon: “You’re an essential guy in TD and we need you back!”

I will never forget the emotional impact of his personal touch. I’m sure I speak for legions of TD women and men when I salute Bob Thompson with a spirited “Ashè!”
Candler Gibson ’87
San Francisco, CA

I read your tribute to Robert Farris Thompson in the January/February issue. During the 1986–87 year, I was a freshman at Yale and enrolled in Thompson’s class on connections between African and American art. Thompson terrified me: he interspersed lectures with impromptu drumming and dance moves and randomly called on students to answer questions—or to dance in the lecture hall!

The highlight of the semester occurred when Thompson brought a friend to our class: a shy, bespectacled man, dressed in T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers, who told us about the New York City graffiti scene and how it had influenced his art, starting with pictures that he had drawn on subway walls in Manhattan. This friend was Keith Haring, who was still in the process of becoming an international pop art star.

Haring died from AIDS-related complications a little more than three years after he spoke to us. Now, every time I see one of Haring’s works—as I did in 2018 when I visited Pisa and enjoyed a cappuccino facing Tuttomundo, one of the last murals he painted—I think of the visit he made to Thompson’s cool but scary class.

Thompson’s class proved memorable for another reason, too. One week, he assigned The Savage Mind by Claude Lévi-Strauss (1908–2009), a classic work of anthropology first published as La Pensée sauvage in 1962. Reading it made me feel as if I were wandering in a fog, grasping at hazy ideas. The next day, as we settled into our lecture in Linsly-Chittenden Hall, Thompson held up his copy toward us, flipped through the pages, and declared, “See this? Whenever I find something in here that I understand, I highlight it.” He was a funny man, because in that whole book, he had marked only a few sparse sentences in neon-yellow highlighter.  

Thompson’s candor left me simultaneously reassured and unsettled. Reassured, because he seemed to admit that he found the text befuddling, too. Unsettled, because I came away not knowing what to think about, and how to approach, esoteric books and articles. Would some of us really be “getting it”; would or should the rest of us just pose; and—here was the tricky part—was the performance of looking smart as important as the state of genuine comprehension when it came to succeeding in college?

I still find myself thinking about The Savage Mind and what Lévi-Strauss wrote about the bricoleur and the act of bricolage. Meanwhile, I remain grateful to Thompson for his intellectual honesty, ebullient approach to learning, and pragmatism about how to engage with challenging books and ideas!
Heather Sharkey ’90
Bala Cynwyd, PA

Changing careers

Career Pivots” (January/February) was a stimulating read, and it was interesting to compare how, when, and why people made their pivot. So many Yale grads with creative talent or entrepreneurial ideas end up choosing well-established career paths, in part because they have thrived within structured academic settings and it’s convenient to stay on a track.

Based on my experience as a student, and then as an employer of Yale grads, I believe that Yale and Career Services could do more to encourage and stimulate a broader set of post-college opportunities. In my case, it wasn’t until after 19 years in finance that I made my pivot to working in the art world at Sotheby’s—I wish it had happened sooner.
Charles Stewart ’92
New York, NY

Mr. Stewart is CEO of Sotheby’s.—Eds.

Kudos for Yale sailors

Evan Frondorf ’14 scribes a good piece about the welcome return of athletics (“The Return of The Game,” January/February) to the Yale community this past fall. Thank you.

Unfortunately, the article did not mention the unprecedented success of Zack Leonard’s exceptional sailing squad, whose fall-season performance earned top national honors for both the women’s team and the coed roster. Let’s raise a glass and Bulldog cheer to Yale’s committed sailors and coaches, who consistently deliver at the highest levels.
Timo Platt ’77
Arroyo Séco, NM

Garvin and the city

I was one of the lucky few to be chosen for Alexander Garvin’s first class at Yale (Milestones, March/April). It was, without doubt, the best educational experience I had at Yale. I spent many a weekend poking around various New York City neighborhoods studying city planning proposals. He will be missed.
Michael Cummings ’71
New Smyrna Beach, FL


Defending Spirtualism

I read with interest the article about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his relationship with the Spiritualist Church (“The Man Who Believed Too Much,” January/February). I reside in Niantic, Connecticut, where the Pine Grove Spiritualist Camp, established in 1882, still holds workshops and meetings every summer. I have come to learn about the religion of Spiritualism through visiting the camp, and can testify that I have witnessed readings for myself and others where the medium voiced information about our families and past that they would have no way of knowing.

Regarding the article, I have concern that the author made an assumption that Spiritualism is not to be believed and is no more than wishful thinking on the part of the participant. The author does not say this outright, but the article’s title, and comments like “The problem is that he [Doyle] was too easily fooled,” and “it’s easy to see why Americans might welcome a message that promised relief from sorrow and fatigue” imply that Spiritualism is a hoax.

This is not “lux et veritas” thinking. This is one-sided. I would commend the author to visit a certified Spiritualist minister and learn more about the religion before judging it with a restricted mind and without proper research.
Shari Lucas ’84MusM
Niantic, CT

Corrections

In an information graphic about the New Haven Promise program (Light and Verity, March/April), which offers scholarships of up to full tuition to in-state colleges for New Haven public school students who meet its minimum GPA and other requirements, we reported that 37 students in the program had been awarded scholarships to Yale. That is the number of Promise scholars currently enrolled at Yale. In all, 66 Promise scholars have attended Yale since 2010.

In our profile of David Duchovny ’89Grd (“From Film to Paper,” March/April), we described Duchovny’s role on the television series Twin Peaks using the word “transvestite,” an outdated term for cross-dressing that many consider offensive. We apologize for the mistake.

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