|Race roundtable takes place
by Skip Anderson
“… Please make it clear [to attendees of the roundtable] that I have no fear of these Confederate groups and their death threats,” wrote Farley, in an e-mail to Felderman dated Dec. 7 which she shared with the media. “My essay had nothing to do with Vanderbilt University and I have no interest in getting into arguments with people who think that slaveholders did not commit crimes that deserved punishment.”
Despite the absence of Farley, whose essay has generated local and national media coverage, the roundtable drew around 50 people into the small Reading Room in Lewis Hall dormitory.
“This has stemmed into the U.S. community, not just the Vanderbilt and Nashville communities,” said Felderman.
Timothy Wise, a local activist and writer, opened the dialogue.
“I’m here as a friend of Jonathan Farley, and a member of this community,” said Wise. “Jonathan does not need me to defend him.”
Wise, a lifelong Southerner, said it is wrong of Farley’s critics to tell him how he should feel about his black heritage.
“I’m a Jew, and nobody tells me [how to feel],” he said. “We can’t judge unless we are ready to be the descendents of people’s footstools and people’s cattle, because that’s the equivalent of what [slaves] were.”
Challenging what he described as neo-Confederate notion that the Civil War was not about slavery, he compared the group to German Nazis.
“The leadership knew what they were fighting for,” he said. “The institution of white supremacy and slavery.”
The first person to speak when the floor was opened to discussion encouraged the group to “drop some of the labels” around race issues, and to speak respectfully.
“The tone of Professor Farley’s [essay] does not present the situation in a way you can talk about it,” he said. “It was argumentative.”
The man, who said he is a native of Connecticut, criticized Wise’s comparison of the Confederacy to Nazis as “intellectually ingenuous.” He also criticized Vanderbilt for changing the name of Confederate Memorial Hall to Memorial Hall recently.
“You just can’t tell people they can’t have memorials,” he said.
The decision announced earlier this fall to change the name of the dormitory on the Peabody campus, has drawn both criticism and support, as well as a lawsuit from the United Daughters of the Confederacy which provided some of the funds for the construction last century.
A college-aged, African-American man from South Carolina said references to the Confederacy draws strong emotions from blacks.
“For a group of people who had to be written into the Constitution, how should it make us feel that you say we should not be upset?” he said. “The free-speech threshold was crossed when people threatened [Farley’s] life. We’re not talking about that; this conversation is in the wrong direction.”
He also defended the University’s decision to strike the work “Confederate” from the building’s façade.
“You wouldn’t have an Adolf Hitler Hall next to the Schulman Center because that would be offensive to Jewish students,” he said.
Seventeen people contributed to the discussion, including several Vanderbilt faculty members, and Nashville historian John Egerton, the author of Speak Now Against the Day: The Generation Before the Civil Rights Movement in the South.
“I’m kind of glad Farley did what he did,” said Egerton. “Look at what he started, look at what he did — now we have to figure out why it doesn’t work after more than 150 years.”
Egerton said he would not have changed the name of the dormitory.
“If you change the name, then where do you draw the line?” he asked. “What about the Commodore Vanderbilt? He was a robber baron [who satisfied] a great appetite at other people’s expense.”
A student-aged, African-American woman said she is concerned that the South is depicted from two perspectives, rather than one.
“It’s always ‘Southern history,’ and then ‘black folks.’ What about just Southern history?” she said, referring to comments made by the man from Connecticut.
“I didn’t purposefully exclude any certain group,” he said.
“I know you didn’t, but black people notice it when it happens, and it happens all the time.”
A white woman who identified herself as a Vanderbilt student said she is surprised over an omission from the dialogue over the past few months.
“What surprises me is the lack of an apology [from contemporary supporters of the Confederacy],” she said.
The meeting concluded shortly after the suggestion from a white, male student that Vanderbilt offer an objective class on the at-times tumultuous history of race within the 127-year-old University.
“I think it might help to never let those problems happen again,” he said.
The roundtable was sponsored by the Office of Housing and Residential Education.
Posted 12/10/02 at 10 a.m.