Last Wednesday, Duke University’s Student Government unanimously adopted a resolution to rename Aycock residence hall. Charles Aycock, after whom the dorm is named, was a leading figure in North Carolina white supremacist movements in the late 19th century. The resolution recommended that the dorm instead be named after Julian Abele, the black architect who designed much of Duke’s West Campus (the one with the Chapel and all the stately Gothic architecture).
While not of direct concern to us, this does present an opportunity to reflect on how our own University projects itself.
N.C. State likes to talk a lot about how it cherishes and promotes diversity. But then, in the entering class of 2013, only 20 percent of black applicants were admitted to the University, a number that “in previous years,” according to The Nubian Message, has “consistently remained closer to 50 percent.” (In comparison, 53 percent of white applicants were admitted.) This happened, although in the previous decade, “[African-American] graduation rates have risen from 47 percent to 65 percent” and “[t]he retention rate for first year students has remained at or above 90 percent.” Similarly, from 2003 to 2013, the percentage of black students declined from 9.8 percent to 6.8 percent.
Along with trying to address such issues of minority representation and inclusion directly, as the African-American Student Advisory Council is currently trying to do about the acceptance rate matter, we, too, could also take symbolic actions such as Duke’s.
We have a starting point to rename a building, though the case isn’t as glaring as with Aycock. The “D.H. Hill” in D.H. Hill Library is supposed to designate D.H. Hill, Jr., a former University president and librarian… not his former confederate general father, D.H. Hill. One may argue that the “Jr.” isn’t necessary in the name. But type “D.H. Hill -library” into Google (“-library” to filter out results pertaining to the library), and many of the results are about the father who fought for slavery. Plus, after naming our new robo-library “James B. Hunt Jr. Library,” there’s no reason we can’t also be that precise with D.H. Hill Library. If the University is seriously concerned about being associated with—or rather, being seen as honoring—a confederate general, then it may want to think about renaming that Library.
While the action may seem trivial, and if not accompanied by substantive changes could devolve into yet another example of tokenism, it could also have the beneficial effect of standing as an explicit denunciation of racism. It could also raise the question about the extent to which embedded racism prevails at N.C. State.
An editorial in Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, put it perfectly: “We must realize that honorifically naming buildings after individuals is a form of historiography—a kind of story telling that reflects both our University’s principles and institutional biases. Ponder for a moment the sparsity of Duke buildings named after non-white and female individuals. Our story can change only if we bring to light the contributions of overlooked individuals in our University’s history.”
At N.C. State, we have at least two frequently talked about buildings that are not named after white men: the Witherspoon Student Center and the Marye Anne Fox Labs.
Such tokenism, in the form of a building’s name, in The Chronicle’s words, “reflects the University’s values and projects the history that the University wants to tell about itself.” Reflected in particular here is that N.C. State will make a perfunctory nod toward minorities by harping about naming a building after one such figure, but will let the status quo continue, in which the rest of the world remains dominated by a white, male identity to such an extent that this situation is then internalized and unnoticed.
Of course, renaming a building won’t overhaul the culture of universalized whiteness and maleness (and bourgeois sensibilities, heteronormativity, etc.). But it will slightly shake a perception of reality in which the exclusion of minority people and their experiences is normalized, in which dominant groups’ ways of appearing and relating to the world are made to be a universal standard, and thus imposed on those who cannot identify with them, and so are alienated from the world at large. And only when systems of oppression are shaken first does toppling them come into question.