Isaiah Zeavin-Moss: The necessary messiness of our histories

Monday, January 9, 2017 - 10:11am

I’m going to tell you a personal anecdote and then relate it to an advertisement I saw on campus; these two things, together, will help me make my point. I promise they relate to one another. This does not mean, despite my best wishes to live in the world of “maybe it’s Maybelline,” that my life is an advertisement. If my life were an advertisement, if any of our lives were advertisements, we would be fucked. OK?

In the days before our Winter Break, I went to the Central Campus Recreation Building twice. These were my first times going to the gym at school. By the end of the second trip, I had to hold the banister with both of my hands as I walked down the steps in my cooperative house to prevent myself from falling. My whole body ached. I began to ask myself, “When can I start considering myself a ‘gym rat?’ ”

I have a brother who has always been more athletic than I am, and I was raised by two parents who really care about their health and their bodies. I have never really gotten into that whole thing, despite their best efforts to push me toward the gym.

I recognize this. I recognize that by going to the gym a couple of times, I am not going to make any great changes to my body or to my understanding of myself. This work is continuous. It demands sustained, unrelenting effort.

After the second of these two trips to the gym, I saw an advertisement for the University of Michigan Bicentennial. It contained two photographs, positioned vertically, with one above the other. In the top photo, taken in black and white, five white students sit, looking goofy as they eat and drink while looking at the camera. In the bottom photo, in color, two Asian students sit on the grass, chatting. Accompanying these photographs were the words, written in capitalized font, “Always Michigan/Forever Valiant.”

This advertisement represents a vitally destructive mode of examining one’s history. The caption denies that Michigan was ever not “valiant.” For example, James Burrill Angell, the longest-standing president of the University (from 1871 to 1909), played a vital role in drafting the Chinese Exclusion Act, signed in 1882. This act denied immigration to the United States by Chinese laborers and served as the foundation for restrictive, divisive immigration law today.

And yet, we valorize him. Most students on this campus would only know his name because one of our most illustrious, celebrated buildings is named after him. I insist that we must reckon with this past in order to better understand ourselves today. The phrase “Always Valiant” denies any sense of humility or recognition or introspection. How are we meant to create a more equitable culture today if we do not even attempt to understand from where we are coming? How will we know what is wrong, what is evil, if we refuse to study it, all in an attempt to glorify ourselves? 

Yes, the University has taken active strides to combat instances of bigotry and hate speech on campus. I am serving on the student board for the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Plan, and I have spoken with administrators who genuinely care about these issues and, I believe, will work in our favor for the sake of combatting these issues. But why do hate crimes happen here? Why do racist posters adorn the walls of our campus? What are the roots of these cancerous elements which are given space to bubble and thrive on our campus? Why are we so afraid to study these roots? Why do we insist upon our eternal, long-lasting sanctity?

I posit that these two moments — my grappling with my understanding of my body while going to the gym and this advertisement — demonstrate the destruction that accompanies a presentist mindset, a perspective which focuses solely on the present moment and refuses to reckon with its past. Two trips to the gym do not change me. And contemporary advertising campaigns and “initiatives” do not change the history of this campus. Our past always informs our present and our future. We must study it in order to assure ourselves that it does not happen again. The threats of a reversion to a less equitable world are imminent, always looming. For evidence, we can use the number of hate crimes and instances of racism on our campus that took place last semester, and will, in some form, explicit or not, characterize the semester that has just begun. These forces of hate have not been successfully defeated, I believe, precisely because we have thus far refused to engage with our history.

Instead of only focusing on moving past these instances of hatred, I posit that we study their origins, that we understand the limitations of our perspective — we, a university that glorifies and celebrates Angell, also honors Clarence Cook Little, a prominent eugenicist. Little was also a University president, as if once one becomes a president at our school, they achieve a certain undeniable, unquestionable glory. Their careers of working toward institutional division and hatred are discarded, in order to construct an unrealistic, ignorant profile, which we can subsequently admire.

The solution also does not lie simply in changing the names of the buildings this University has named after these men. That would be a move of intentional erasure, and this is not what we need. Let the names linger for some time while we study their meanings and their impacts. Let them soak in their disgusting, soiled, foul history. Let the unsullied reputations of these men die, through dialogue and recognition and consciousness. 

Only then can we move forward.

Isaiah Zeavin-Moss can be reached at izeavinm@umich.edu.