Letter to the Editor: On the HLS Crest

All peoples throughout history have held other humans as slaves.  They do so even today in many other countries and other cultures.  Species oppression, in the way the term is being used today at HLS,  predates the first Homo sapiens sapiens.  Let HLS not be myopic or narcissistic.  Purging the Royall crest of waving wheat does not eliminate slavery or hate, cannot change the rampant slavery that exists even today in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and will not purify HLS of an American past where slavery was once legal.

The line into the past, and into past slavery, the line of humans oppressing other humans, is a line that never stops.  It can never be traced to a single seminal beginning.  We all have slave forebears.  This truth of universal slavery and oppression, of the dreadful way that people can treat each other, is why keeping the crest on the HLS seal is the only right act that has any possibility of affirming good and changing the cycle of millennia.

If we change the crest, we stomp down the good act of someone long dead who may have owned slaves.  We decree that humans, as a species, may get no further than killing in the mud, or massacring in San Bernardino.   Is this true?  Are all humans doomed with our first unkind action?  Tarred with the brush of our ancestors’ misdeeds?  Tainted by original sin of some sort?  Denied redemption even if we act in ways that start the unraveling of wrongs we ourselves may have done?  Changing the HLS crest declares that there is no future for humankind, and once an eye is taken, then all eyes born thereafter must be put out.

In truth, we can only do better going forward.  Most of our ancestors were slaves and oppressed in one way or another.  There is a cycle of the oppressed becoming oppressors.  So, let us put aside ancestors now.  Put aside divisive talk.  All of us have been on both sides of the hate and hurt and discrimination table in our short lives.  Stopping harm can only stop here and now, with each of us.  Harm does not stop by hiding what has gone before.  It stops by recognizing a good act, by differentiating that from harmful acts, and by holding both of them firmly before us as reminders to do even better, ourselves, if we possibly can.

I direct a K-8 school.  We teach our children that they are judged for and held accountable for what they do, and how they behave.  They are judged on the content of their character, not on the color of their skin, or on the actions of their forebears.  They learn that it is only this particular instant, this moment in life, each going-forward second, they can control.  They cannot change or undo the past, but they can build a better today.

Yes, they are human.  And so they call each other names, they break each other’s toys, they may even hit each other in frustration or anger or due to poor aim.  We teach them that they can make amends, and we teach them how to do it here and now.  Building a better future is not accomplished by tearing down their good deeds, on grounds that they have done other wrong or hurtful things in the past.  The same is true today at HLS.

The person who donated monies in 1781 to fund the first HLS professorship acted for a valuable and moral purpose.  Whether or not he was a slaveholder himself, he made a bequest unrelated to slavery or its perpetuation, to a young institution that needed support, and that unrestricted gift helped to open a path for a future without slavery and a better America.

The situation would be different if the crest were adopted by HLS as a declaration in favor of slavery, or if it were universally known as an endorsement of slavery.  It was’t and it isn’t.   We aren’t dealing with a swastika, which in Western culture is known world-wide as a declaration that Jews, homosexuals, and gypsies are to be exterminated.  We aren’t examining a cross, which in Western culture is known worldwide as a declaration of belief in Jesus Christ.  We don’t have a hammer and sickle, known in most of the world as a declaration of Soviet dictatorship.  This crest is not a six pointed star of the Jews, nor a lotus of the Budda, not even a skull and crossbones flag.

At no time — or at least not within my knowledge of Harvard Law School  — has slaveholding been endorsed by HLS.  HLS materials do not hold out the crest as anything connected with slavery.  I wear my law school ring and think of Clark Byse, Alan Dershowitz, C. Clyde Ferguson, Richard Parker, Bernie Wolfman and more.  I think of my Section 1 classmates, including Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (and his humorous invocation of the Magna Carta in my contracts class).  This ring with its crest of wheat was – is – my engagement ring.

Yes, obliterating the crest would be symbolic.  The real narrative of its obliteration would be that we are spitting at hope and truth.  Destruction of the crest, a crest which recognizes a kind and important act, a legal and valuable act, erases the hope that all of us want.  This hope is the yearning that we can change – both individually and collectively as a community — and become better than we are, kinder than we thought possible, more humane than we have courage for.  The very imperfect person who gave funds over 200 years ago also helped HLS to thrive, and thereby gave strength and support to a continuing tradition of legal protections against slavery that Americans of any color enjoy today.

No one learns anything by obliterating the crest, other than the horrible lesson that we are damned to repeat history.  Without honoring and being grateful for beneficence, we fail to create a silver line of evolution and bar our own path forward.  Why stop killing when you will be slain the moment you sheath your sword?  Removing the crest means that all ends in the past and the future is dead.  No new meanings are possible and, with no different ways of being possible, what is the incentive for change?

The HLS students most interested in the crest can profitably redirect energies to international work, including places like Africa, Asia and the Middle East, where slavery is common today.  Changing the crest does not change America’s past.  It is not weregild.

The irony is that the crest, re-examined, is part of an actual narrative showing that there is a better way — that imperfect people can nevertheless do good things, things that are better than what came before, and in so doing, proving that we are all not limited to rancor, bitterness, war and chaos.  Today, understand that the crest is your charge to be a better person.   Act in goodness.  Say hello to your professors.  Shake the hand of a student next to you. Pick up the paper your neighbor has dropped.  Put away the tea mug someone has left in the corridor.  Make a better actual world for yourself and those right beside to you, here and now, by acting kindly at Harvard Law School today.  Call it HLS privilege.

Victoria Wagner Talkington
HLS 1981

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