SUNY New Paltz recently announced that they will be changing the names of the buildings in the Hasbrouck Complex. While the buildings were once named for celebrated founders of the region, their status as slave owners has come to the university’s attention. After a lot of community conversation and input, the College Council voted to rename these buildings. The history is no longer something the community can ignore.
I grew up in that neighborhood and went to school with descendants of the families associated with the Hasbrouck Complex. I’m sure that they never thought about, or perhaps even knew about, this part of their family history. They were like me, just kids going to school comfortable in the knowledge that slave ownership was something that happened elsewhere in the country. Those days are gone. While the scale of slavery was different in the north, and many of our ancestors fought on the winning side of the Civil War, our history is in no way pure. I applaud the bravery of SUNY New Paltz in their tackling of this issue.
This has me thinking about all of the name changes and statue removals that have been occurring as the details of our histories become visible to us. Our understanding of discrimination, in all of its forms, has expanded every decade of my life. While it is true that there have been enlightened people throughout history who have pointed out our hypocrisies and hideous behavior as they emerged, for the many, identifying the beliefs that have supported our bigotries has taken time. We discover our blind spots, we battle over their meaning, and slowly we change.
In my children’s school district, there is a tradition of studying the monuments in Washington, D.C. and then traveling there to see them in person. I was a chaperone on this trip (twice). As I hopped on and off of our tour bus, watching excited children see their monument (each had reconstructed and reported on one of them), it never occurred to me to see those monuments as vulnerable to new understandings of history. They represented the celebrated leaders and conflicts that underpin our sense of America. I should have thought about it as we traveled to Mt. Vernon to observe the home of one of our early slave-owning presidents, but I didn’t. We weren’t in this moment yet.
What I did observe was the small museum tucked away under the Lincoln Memorial. I wouldn’t have found it, we were focused on the steps and statue above, but two of my charges needed a rest-room. As we poked around downstairs, I discovered a room full of protest memorabilia. There it was, the waves of our awakenings to patterns of discrimination. Marches for African-Americans, Women, LGBTQ, and more are remembered in this small room. These histories are the moments that mark our readiness for change. Much more has needed to follow those marches, but they are a record of our move from the enlightened few to movements for change.
As we go through the conversations that precede or accompany the re-naming of buildings or the taking down of statues, there is a sense of loss and conflict. Some argue that these changes erase history. I don’t agree. These changes make the history more visible. They require us to look more closely at the stories we are telling, and those we are not. Questioning our decisions about who we honor makes us more open to fullness of our histories.
Then there is the other protest… when will it end? Are we just going to keep taking down names as we discover the faults in our heroes? Probably. It is unlikely that anyone we celebrate will be thought heroic forever. Perhaps we should try to get our minds around that. Embracing our fallibility could make us more open to making the changes we need to make.
So, I’m thinking about the Second Commandment. The prohibition against graven images is frequently interpreted as a ban on idolatry. It seems a good caution in today’s context. We select our heroes at our peril, knowing that they will be fallible and may not bear close scrutiny over time. Maybe we should avoid these homages to perceived importance and greatness completely.
I don’t think so. We like heroes and it is important to celebrate greatness, even if our definitions of greatness change over time. Indeed, we have to make room for the heroes that emerge as we change, making room for the new values and achievements they represent. But we are going to have to let go of the sense of permanence that accompanies our monuments. They reflect a moment in time: they are not forever, no matter how massive our tribute.
As for the names of our buildings, I think we should consider the meaning of the word “graven” in the 2nd Commandment. It is frequently translated as etching, and that something that is difficult to erase. Perhaps, in the spirit of our openness to change, we should stop the etching and move to plaques. They’re much more easily moved.