On February 20, Emory President Claire Sterk sent a message to the student body discussing images within Emory yearbooks “inconsistent with our values” – blackface, mock lynchings, frat brothers proudly waving the Confederate flag while in uniform. These images are a horrific display of the worst of what Emory has been, and yet it is crucial that images like these remain available to the public and be seen. Without them, we allow ourselves to ignore the parts we have played in segregation, racism, and oppression in the past.
The United States has a long history with racism, starting with the conquest of Native American groups and the arrival of African slaves at Jamestown in 1619. We once engaged in a civil war over the right to maintain racial slaves. We restricted immigration from country after country to protect the interests of those viewed as “true Americans.” We kept African Americans out of voting booths, out of schools, out of jobs. Images like these in our yearbooks are just a tiny glimpse into the racism that was pervasive throughout American society for centuries.
Removing these images might feel like the most moral course of action then. However, in doing so, we would be denying our complicity in past bigotry, which is more offensive than keeping the pictures online. For example, some of the images of blackface at Emory were taken after desegregation, meaning that there were students attending who these images impacted in a profound and negative way. Even more so, there were people who could not attend these schools because of policy or because they felt threatened because of their race. The removal of these pictures would be the removal of these people’s experiences as well.
These images are separate from other controversies, such as the statues of Confederate soldiers, because they are capturing the moment of racism in itself. They in no way immortalize or idolize the individuals in the picture. If anything, all they do is capture the casual nature of racism in our society merely fifty years ago. Monuments remove the individual in question from their past deeds – such as fighting for the right to keep slavery in place – and therefore become a celebration instead of a lens for critique. Through these images, we are able to start a dialogue about these issues. We are able to educate and understand, which is crucial for progress.
The purpose of these images now must be education. Emory itself has taken steps to ensure that our past involvement in racism is not forgotten and to prevent such mistakes from being made again. We have held events focused on the history of slavery on our campus, such as how slaves were rented to build some of the buildings still standing today. We also now have offices and clubs on campus dedicated to promoting diversity and cultural awareness. This is just another step in the long process of acknowledging that we have done wrong in the past, and another step in the long process of ensuring a better future.
In times like this, it would be all too easy to erase our past, but doing so would be purging our past mistakes from public memory, which is infinitely more dangerous. These are inconsistent with our values now – but they weren’t before. It is now a time to reflect, acknowledge the mistakes within our campus’s past and figure out how to ensure these mistakes will not be made again, both on our campus and in our society.