Simkin’s Dormitory Part II Reply

Over at the Lounge we are having a good discussion on the role of history and remedial acts.   Tom Russell, the author of the article that revealed the Klan affiliation of the Simkins Dormitory namesake, has chimed in with some thoughtful comments.  (Tom may stop by the Table as well to offer his thoughts more fully).  For now, allow me to provide Tom’s comments to Al Brophy’s latest post here, as well as my response.

Tom said:

Let me say briefly, though, if UT stops honoring Prof. Simkins by taking his name off the dormitory, plenty of opportunities to discuss race, history, and law will remain on UT’s campus. For starters, a portrait of Simkins hangs in the law library; I’m fine with that. There is Painter Hall and the Sweatt Campus. There’s a statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee and Pres. Jefferson Davis; buildings named after confederate soldiers; the Darrell Royal stadium, and a host of other monuments, none of which I think should be removed or renamed.

On the flip side, there’s also no reason to believe that The University of Texas would in fact turn Simkins Hall into the history lesson that it might be. The history of the university’s administration suggests the opposite.

Finally, I do not believe that those who are harmed or insulted by Simkins’s undeserved honor in having his name on the building should have to continue to experience insult or injury in order to provide a possible history lesson to whomever is subjected to a plaque, lecture, or website post. I’m looking for the right metaphor to describe this–something along the lines of “We won’t set your broken arm because it’s a good teaching opportunity.”

I have posted the following response to Tom’s very good points:

Allow me to offer a brief interjection. First, let me say that your logic is thoughtful and I don’t want to sound like my disagreement is in anyway critical of the importance of the work you are doing in this area. I also agree with you that we have to be very careful not to cause further insult to those populations that are offended (and should be offended) by this vile representation of an awful past.

With that said, however, let me push back on a couple of points. I think it matters greatly to distinguish between opportunities to talk about race and the methods that we use to talk about race. In my mind, this is not just an opportunity to talk about race relations. I agree that there are many opportunities to do so in a variety of contexts. Rather, this is whether we are going to faithfully represent our past as we have those discussions. Let me key in in on two comments.

First, I don’t think the metaphor of a setting a broken leg is not quite correct in this case. Legs can be fixed and show virtually no signs that there was ever a problem. I also worry that the analogy suggests that we may try to fix something. If we are trying to fix the past, then I have real reservations for all of the reasons described in the first post. I think the better metaphor is the environment. Like so many of our actions in the environment, we do things that cause harmful effects, that cannot be undone. However, what we can do is begin to live more responsibly with what we have. This can have a powerful effect. In some ways, it can rehabilitate the environment. In the same way, we cannot undo the Simkin’s name on a building. It has been done. But we can begin to live more responsibly with it by having frank discussions about its impact, and adding to its vile nature something that better represents our normative view of the world.

Second, if the University of Texas is not inclined to deal responsibly with its past as suggested, isn’t it just as important to maintain the building’s name as a reminder that we have not come as far as we think we have? It seems to me that we often remove uncomfortable things from sight, when they remain just as powerfully present as they did before we covered them up. Changing the landscape rarely changes the actual environment. Perhaps the building’s name serves a purpose of reminding us of how far we still have to go, rather than allowing the name’s removal to fool us in believing that we have actually come pretty far.

This is a very thoughtful discussion in which the relevance of the historical narrative has meaning for our everyday interactions.  Your comments are welcome.  Come join the discussion, either here or at the Lounge.

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