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Opinion

Liminal Spaces: Calhoun College’s Ongoing Legacy

The Grace Hopper College library is, like most residential college libraries, small. It’s two floors, each about double the size of a typical suite common room. Upholstered seats intermingle with large brown couches and hard-backed wooden chairs. It looks and feels old, traditional, Hogwartsean, like every stereotypical definition of the word “Yale” coalesced and transformed into a library. Grand fireplaces that have remained fire-less for generations beckon students as they walk in, gaping chasms of brick that merge seamlessly with the mahogany walls. Blue carpeting contrasts with the reddish centerpiece, a rug with flowering patterns that nearly covers the entire first floor. The muffled sounds of cars and chatter seem worlds away from the cozy shelter that is the Grace Hopper College library: small, Hogwartsean, mahogany, and flowery rugs. Except, the word Grace Hopper is nonexistent.

Much of the wallspace is dedicated to books and, on the bottom of almost every single one of them, a yellowing, rectangular label: Calhoun. Some of the labels show evidence of wear, almost as though someone tried to peel part of it off and then gave up. The labels are small, just like the library itself, but they are hard to miss.

In the space between the library and the carrels, sunlight streams in through a thin, stained glass window. A tree branch supporting vivid green leaves drooping downwards towards the small ledge displaying a plaque: “The Calhoun Elm.”  The Parlor, a small, seminar-style room adjoining the dining hall, has a cabinet on one of its sides that, if unlocked, gives one view into the adjacent cabinet, which is dominated by a white bust of John C. Calhoun, staring angrily ahead, furrowed brow, at a door that can’t open. Legend says that the bust is his death mask. No one knows why it’s there. 

Outside, in the courtyard, there are three benches surrounding the main green. The first is a normal park bench, and the second one seemingly is as well but, upon closer inspection, the slightly raised letters of “CALHOUN COLLEGE” can be made out. It’s easy to miss, and depends upon fickle factors such as how the sunlight reflects off the words and how keen the observer’s eye is. The third bench, however, is bold. The “CALHOUN COLLEGE” is in black, an unmistakable contrast from the pale wood surrounding it. It’s weathered but resolute: the colored pattern of the wood wears through some of the letters as though it is trying to cover them, but they still show through. This, and more. 

A gold plaque commemorating renovations to the courtyard of Calhoun College. Dining hall and common room windows conspicuously devoid of elaborate designs: the panes depicting slavery and the life and legacy of John C. Calhoun were removed after one was broken by a dining hall worker. The gateway into the College from Cross Campus, situated between twisting, ornate stonework: “Calhoun College.” And the library, row after row after row of books with little yellow labels, peeling but still tightly fastened, a testament to history that lingers: “Calhoun College.” The word Hopper is nowhere to be found. 

In 2017, Calhoun College was renamed as Grace Hopper College. Only three years later, the identity of the college remains very much malleable. Chants, for example, are still not fully formed, and, in recent Hopper College Council meetings, there have been discussions about purchasing a trident from a nearby forgery, to complement the Coat of Arms, a shield with a heraldic dolphin as the centerpiece. Occasionally, students within the college will receive emails from the Hopper College Window Commission Committee about meeting various artists who will potentially be designing the new windows, both in the dining hall and in the common room. 

During the 2016 graduation, Head of Hopper College Julia Adams centered her speech around liminality, around “the quality of being almost there.” At that time, Calhoun was referred to as CFKAC, or the “College Formerly Known as Calhoun.” Head Adams’ speech the following year was framed as a contrast to that theme of liminality. They were there, they made it through not just senior year, but through the renaming of the college. Through the protests, through the conversations, through the meetings with members of different committees. There was no liminality anymore: they had crossed over to the other side. 

Some first-year students demonstrate how this sense of finality towards the college’s history of Calhoun can be perceived by incoming classes. For Austin Cheung, a first-year in Grace Hopper, his initial impression of the college came from the “about” page on the website, which reads: “Grace Hopper College – founded as Calhoun College in 1933 and renamed in honor of Grace Hopper ‘30 M.A., ‘34 Ph.D. in 2017 – is one of the smaller residential colleges. But don’t let that fool you! Its size encourages tight-knit community, and its central location and intimate space make it a wonderful place to be.” 

Cheung was most concerned about the size of the college itself, but, upon coming to campus, felt an overwhelming sense of community. When asked if he felt as though the history of the college and the question of naming has affected his experience in the college, the answer was a resolute no: “I know it’s a part of Hopper’s history, but I feel like the people here really just embrace the Hopper aspect and don’t acknowledge the Calhoun side of it.” 

Emily Quisenberry, another first-year in Hopper, echoes that sentiment: “I only think of a couple instances where I even had to reflect on the fact that we used to be called Calhoun. For one, the chant, ‘We’re not racist anymore. Calhoun College out the door.’ And then, one of the first couple weeks during froco meetings, when they were explaining the history of the glass windows in the dining hall and the worker who smashed one. And then seeing the email list with the seniors Calhoun20. I guess that’s just because we’re still so close to the name change, and by the time we’re seniors, it’ll be even less in everyone’s mind.”

For both of them, and as reflected in the 2017 commencement speech, there is an audible sigh of relief: we have crossed some sort of boundary and are safely on the other side. Now, we move forward. However, this expression of hope for moving forward can easily translate into an eagerness to erase the past, a fear that Vishwa Padigepati ’23 expresses seeing come to fruition already.

“The name change is good, and it’s a positive step, but there are a lot of issues that I don’t think Yale properly addresses. When you achieve something, it kind of creates this institutional sense of complacency, like the institution is like, look, we are progressive, we changed something.”

Professor James Sleeper points to a more contemporary example of the consequences of this complicity: the renaming of the Freshman Commons to the Schwarzman Center. 

“Why did Yalies who argued so strongly for or against re-naming John C. Calhoun College only shrug at renaming Commons, in the college’s civic center, for a self-celebrating predator? Stephen Schwarzman ‘69 worked tightly with Trump to try to keep control of Congress in 2018. He’s made billions, with federal support, from dispossessing tens of thousands of Americans from secure homes.” 

In the case of the Schwarzman Center, there is the question of whether the comparison is even valid. Is perpetuating the policies of President Trump comparable to the legacy of Calhoun, who directly was responsible for the continuation of slavery? For Professor Sleeper, the answer is yes. Vishwa Padigepati also agrees.

“I think it’s really like at the core very inherently disrespectful to not just the people who are here now who are suffering under certain names, and having to deal with these very vivid reminders of the feeling that they don’t belong, historically. But it’s also I think, equally disrespectful, if not more, to the people who have had to suffer those ills very, very directly. So yes, it’s about Yale students, because it’s a name on a Yale building that you will have to see every single day, but you can’t separate history from a name.”

For both of them, then, names are inseparable from history, and are also directly intertwined with systems of oppression that still very much affect both students and the larger world at hand. 

The larger question, then, is not if we are still in this liminal space, this in-betweenness, this “quality of almost being there,” but if, in our eagerness to move forward, we are allowing ourselves to become complicit and willingly blind to the larger institutional issues at play. Despite the progress that the Yale community has made, reminders of its past remain etched into buildings and inscribed on yellowing book labels in residential college libraries, asking whether we are yet on the other side, and cautioning us about the dangers of forgetting. It’s up to us whether we’ll listen.