Last Friday, temperatures dropped in New Haven and as darkness fell, the rain started and quickly became thunderous. I took my heap of books (and my headcold) from the library and went back to my room at the Elm Street Graduate Club for an evening of reading.
The Graduate Club is olde worlde New England with many years of neglect. My room has a brass plaque with the title ‘David’s Den’ over the door. I don’t know who David was; the size of the room is more suited to a convent novice than a young man. The furniture is Shaker, the sash windows don’t open and there are flowers pretty much everywhere you look.
When I Skyped home, my sister-in-law very quickly identified the bedroom décor: ‘It’s like you’re in that film Brooklyn! It’s like a 1950s boarding house for girls.’
The analogy was perfect. (Slightly worrying. Eh, who’s the writer here?) I’m home by ten; there are no guests and I always wipe my feet before crossing the varnished hall floor. Sondra (the manager) sorts our post and puts it in a cubbyhole. Today, when I got up, there was a note under my door inviting me to join the other girls for dinner. (Signed: P. (Uganda)) Everyone is identified by their country of origin.
As I curled up on my flowery bedspread, I could hear raised voices out the window. The voices rose to a chanting, the chanting to a hub-bub. Whatever was going on, it was quite a gathering. It became loud, threatening, and I didn’t know what to do: was this some kind of protest against Donald Trump on New Haven Green? The rain grew harder; the protestors didn’t waver. I put on my coat and took an umbrella. I didn’t stay long. It was, in fact, a loud and busy protest outside Calhoun College, the Yale residential college on the corner of Elm Street.
All of the students at Yale are linked to residential colleges. Freshmen (or undergraduates) are assigned to the colleges where they sleep, socialise and eat three meals a day. Each college has its own iron gates, its own 24-hour dining hall and its own extensive living space. Some have gardens with hammocks; some have giant TVs; Calhoun had a sauna for years. Students here have a level of privilege that is awesome to witness. But here they were on a Friday night, with many others from the community, waving banners and chanting outside the gates of the college.
Even in a sophisticated eco-system like Yale, the issue of Race (capitalised, always) is never far away when you’re in America.
I’ve never felt so white and European as I do here; the ‘neutral Irish’ thing really doesn’t wash with anyone. I’ve come to see myself differently: to observe my race, my background and my own privilege following me into every room and each conversation, just like the rucksack on my back. It’s always there, and yet it’s never spoken about.
Yale has an incredibly diverse ethnic population. And if the students at Yale are ethnically diverse, there’s a whole subculture of other ethnicities sustained by the university that don’t have the same privileges. As the students stride off to lectures in the morning, I see gatherings of African-Americans workers outside the backdoors of the colleges, chatting and smoking. When I run the Canal Greenway to the outskirts of the campus at the weekends, I stop and turn around around the 3km mark, which, coincidentally, is right beside a Baptist church. I know it’s close when I hear the gospel choir through the tannoy that broadcasts the service across the community.
Calhoun College is named after John C. Calhoun: an 1804 graduate who went on to become US Vice President. He was a white supremacist and an advocate of slaveholding. (It also boasts actress Jodie Foster as a former boarder.) Yale has the biggest collection of non-religious stained glass in the world, and much of it is in the windows of the neo-gothic buildings of the colleges. Windows (dating from 1933) showed Calhoun standing over a black man in shackles. Another window depicted slaves harvesting cotton. They’re no longer there; plain black glass has replaced them.
A few weeks ago, a young African-American man working as a dishwasher in the dining hall of the college threw a stone through the windows. There had been months of debates, pleas to the college authorities to deal with the issues, and nothing was changing. The press interviews with the young man show he’s smart, eloquent and calm. He was not proud of the violent act; he was left with no choice. Yale University did not press charges. They removed the broken glass and the window will be kept, broken as it is, as evidence of the debate over the naming of the college and the response. The Yale Daily News (where I’ve been following the debate) states that Yale University have considered the request to rename the college and have denied it. The new residential college currently being built will be named after Benjamin Franklin (also a slaveholder) because the alumnus that donated $250 million to build it suggested the title. I don’t know what figures will be pictured in the stain-glass windows.
It’s generally around here where I segue seamlessly into writing about Abbey actresses of the 1930s. And I thought about doing that: about telling you about May Craig’s memories of the South Carolina plantation where they listened to Negro spirituals and Ria Mooney’s friendship with Paul Robeson. But this time, I just couldn’t do it.
The one connection I can make is how I’ve come to appreciate the gulf between Ireland and America, for all we share a language. Ria Mooney moved into a different world. The racial-blind casting I’ve seen in every production at Yale theatres goes unremarked, and perhaps unnoticed by everyone but the Irish girl in the stalls. As I muse on the way home over the casting of an African-American mother to an Asian son in a Spanish play, I walk past the walls of Calhoun College.
I realise that even when there’s an African-American president in the White House, none of this goes away. I’ll never understand it, but I now appreciate the weight of the problem in a new way. I hear the chanting voices, above the rain.
** This post is dedicated to Charlotte McIvor, in the hope that she’ll forgive my lack of inter-cultural theory and terminology.**