[Note: This post was edited slightly on Monday, 11/9/15 to correct a factual error I made in the second paragraph during its writing.]
A group of Harvard Law School students do not like the crest that adorns the school because that crest is also the coat-of-arms of Harvard’s founder, Isaac Royall, Jr., a slaveholder. The students want the crest removed.
The case bears a resemblance to the recent call for Mississippi to remove the Confederate symbol from the state flag, a decision supported by many writers from that state. Confederate flags may still readily be seen in public places and in museums across the south, and a museum may ultimately be the fate of Isaac Royall’s crest, as well. Yet, I have the feeling that something else is going on here, something not healthy for the students who are protesting.
Professor Dan Coquillette says that he would not like to see history rewritten by removal of the crest. Neither would I. My feeling, however, is that the students are aiming to do something worse. They don’t want to rewrite history. They want to erase it.
Man, why didn’t we think of this before? It’ll work in every situation, too. Got some old boyfriend who pissed you off? Get rid of his pictures in your purse, then hack the DMV and the SSA, and you can wipe out every trace of his existence. Every trace except the pain he left behind.
That’s the point. The traces of history are traces of pain. We can paint over them, as the Soviets tried to do for most of the last century, or rename them, perhaps, but we cannot remove them. We can only learn to live with them, just as we learn to live with wounds inflicted on our bodies by shifting our weight or by going just a little more slowly in our walk.
The American past is bound to the reality of slavery, from the founding of the colonies to the last days of Reconstruction. Everyone who ever lived in this country or participated in the slave trade which brought them over here from Africa through Europe was touched by it. No one is free from the moral responsibility of sustaining that trade–not Isaac Royall, Jr., not Thomas Jefferson, not the African tribal leaders, whose clans were taken by force or bargained away to the Europeans for just a few trinkets–no one.
Taking away Royall’s crest–wiping it out, pretending it never existed–will not, and does not, change the past. Neither will believing that slaveholders like Royall and Jefferson never did anything great in their lives, that slaveholding was the be-all and end-all of their existence. It wasn’t.
What the students need to do is say to themselves and others, “We will not live as our founders did. We will do better.” That’s a worthy goal; the best one to have. But the prerequisite for measuring one’s progress against the past is to know what the past was. We cannot know what the past was if we are earnestly trying to obliterate it.