The Sewanee Spectre has the exceptional honor of publishing our first interview with the acclaimed writer, environmentalist, and visiting Sewanee professor Dr. Katharine Wilkinson.
When an anonymous student removed the bust of General Leonidas Polk from its perch in duPont Library and delivered it (unscathed) to the University Archives, and when Provost Berner later discouraged such “individual action” in a letter to students and faculty, I was led to wonder why we discourage the individual action that removed the bust but not the one that brought it to Sewanee in the first place.
Note: We’ve received multiple requests that Dr. Berner’s email be linked within this article. As it was not a public post made on any website, but rather an email to Sewanee students and faculty, we’ve included the full text in the comments below.
Dear Dr. Berner,
We write regarding your recent email encouraging students to refrain from “individual action” against racist artifacts and symbols at Sewanee. The University’s unwillingness to celebrate a material protest against an artifact of the Lost Cause is discouraging, especially after the Board of Regents’ decision to finally disavow the Confederacy and the Lost Cause last September.
The individual who removed the sculpture sent two letters explaining their decision and treated the bust with respect, despite Leonidas Polk deserving little in life, and even less in death. It’s not that Polk, and many other people who are enshrined as icons across campus, “might be considered problematic.” Unquestionably, “Sewanee’s Fighting Bishop” was a vile, murderous, treasonous slaver who tried to overthrow the United States government by force of arms. Even by the standards of 19th century ethics, Polk’s legacy is indefensible. Any critic of the anonymous student concerned with “presentism” would do well to remember that roughly half of the United States was against slavery when Polk died. His greatest service to Sewanee (and humankind) was his generous decision to step in front of a cannonball at Pine Mountain. Are we really expected to wait until June of 2022 for a committee of academics to confirm what a five minute Google search would reveal about Polk, or any other bigot commemorated on this campus?
Many of the greatest revolutionaries, peace makers, and activists throughout history began their work as individuals precisely because larger groups and systems were not doing enough. An anonymous student at Sewanee thought critically about the harm that this institution caused their peers, then acted on their conscience. The act of taking Polk’s bust was a profound statement of individual morality over institutional bureaucracy. It took the University over a century to confirm what the Union Army decided in 1865; it’s no wonder students have lost trust in University committees.
We should encourage students to seek justice within harmful institutions. It’s defeatist to assert that real change cannot be introduced by the actions of a single person, and that’s the message that comes across in your email. Reckoning with the past begins with discomfort in the present, and that was demonstrated by the necessary and ethical removal of Polk’s bust from duPont.
The Sewanee Spectre
Our face is not who we are. It is ephemeral, changeable, and shallow. And yet, in our society, it dictates how we are seen, heard and valued. Over this past summer in the United States and in the past week at Sewanee, I’ve witnessed the pain of Black citizens and students over the effects of blatant racism. More disturbing still is the indifference of the majority that enables the systems that hurts communities of color. It made me deeply sad that my Black friends felt unsafe, unvalued, and unheard. Originally all I wanted to do with this project was what I could to make people feel happy and loved, but I also wanted to pair that with conversations and learning. Since our society chooses to base so much of a human’s worth on their skin, yet favors “colorblindness” over acknowledging the reality of color, I thought I could accept the importance and beauty of skin, in full color and in all its glory by painting it, while pairing it with the voice of the human underneath it. I asked some of my Black classmates if they would be willing to be painted and share some of their thoughts regarding their experience of race at Sewanee. It is my hope in sharing this with a wider audience that it will become easier to harmonize the beautiful superficiality of skin with the deeply internal lived experience that it implies. These are our classmates, our friends, and our brothers and sisters, and they are beautiful and valued. I would encourage you to look as well as listen, and if you are a Black community member at Sewanee, I would love to paint your portrait and hear your thoughts.
– Phoebe-Agnès Mills
Just to be clear, I sympathize with my classmates’ reactions towards the new 10-person limit on student gatherings. I’m also upset and frustrated by the actions of the University and their apparent lack of trust. It’s unfair to change the rules as quickly as they did. The new 10-person limit amounts to a petty collective punishment for the actions of 11 unnamed Greek organizations on Shake Day. Not everyone at Sewanee is involved in Greek life, and it’s unfair for other organizations and individuals to be held accountable for mistakes they didn’t make and rules they didn’t break. However, we need to discuss the language we’re using to voice our discontent.