The Corpses of Discovery

“Lewis & Clark College replicates the assertion of, and benefits from, the legacy of Anglo-American white supremacy.”

—Lewis & Clark Black Lives Matter, “Official Vision,” composed and Published from inside the Manor House

“I don’t have time to hate people, I have time to love them… Don’t give hate a space in your heart.”

—Tanguy Muvuna

If you went to a spendy private liberal arts school in the w bush administration, one dominated by white privilege in a way even superlative compared to other spendy private liberal arts colleges, you were either likely to have learned a shit ton about hypocrisy, or convinced yourself that you are an empathetic aware multicultural citizen of a new Obama-topped world. 

You go on with your life, co-captain of a team of exploration and discovery, continuing the Jeffersonian legacy of understanding, and sharing that understanding with all you touch. 

Of course, you know, Lewis & Clark did not reach the hills south of present-day downtown Portland—they didn’t go past St. Johns in their rush to find the damned ocean. Instead they stuck to their main arterials—the Missouri and the Columbia Rivers, let’s call them the broken spine of the West—pretty closely. Everything not seen, smelt, tasted, touched, heard, drawn, or documented thereby becomes the Missouri and Columbia of those who inherit the tradition. Call them the nerves, the arteries and capillaries. And those places where the water ends, the heads of ravines, the watershed divides, the nearly panoramic views, the Lewis & Clark Colleges, those are the Fort Clatsops that the ceaseless perpetuation of colonialism infinitely reproduces, the nerve ends of an ever-increasing stranglehold on whatever capital remains to be extracted from the now closed frontier. What’s worse is that some of these places pride themselves as institutional critiques on the very legacies they have inherited, benefit from, and reproduce: racism, wealth inequality, environmental degradation, erasure of unprivileged identity.

It’s not that the sons and daughters of Alaskan dentists can’t comprehend institutional racism—it is our history and we should be able to grasp or at least grapple with our own history—it’s that these places, as they came to exist and as they presently exist and as they will continue to exist, are rooted in all the shit they are supposedly precipitating the dismantling of. 

How can a private school even exist if it doesn’t pack its dorms and classrooms with the children of the 1%? 

I didn’t learn the etymology of the mascot—The Pioneers—until years after graduating.

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It comes from the french word that gives us pawn, peon. In its literal, original meaning, a pioneer is not someone who “goes first or does something first,” though they may literally do that, they are those who go first in order to report of the terrain, the loot, and the enemy in order to report back, so those who will ultimately benefit may know the easiest way to navigate the terrain, extract the resources, and placate or destroy the enemy. And indeed, what better way to use a piece of land to extract millions of dollars of capital than to build a spendy private liberal arts school? 

Going to school in the w bush administration meant pretty low-hanging fruit in terms of progressive politics. The school was first-rate for sustainability issues. Vegan, gluten-free food was available in the cafeteria. The required curriculum (first Inventing America and then Exploration & Discovery) supposedly confronted the American paradox. We invited bell hooks to speak and it was powerful, until the q&a. Many Inventing America classes made attendance mandatory, and I’m sure ms. hooks never received so many questions by those who not only did not get it but had absolutely no interest in getting it. 

There was an incredible amount of privilege. The school was trying to sell itself as of a west coast ivy league, shedding its 1970s-era grubby hippie image. Polo shirts and boat shoes became increasingly common. Some people were republicans. Kids were given educations more expensive than most everyone’s annual salary, and then nice cars. Someone’s dad had invented crocs. Anyone with radical politics went across the river to an event at Reed on May Day, including the school’s only arguable leftist professor, a white male, but still stand up fellow, and also the only professor who has visited the Frank Manor House since students have begun occupying it over a week ago.

* * *

“Concerned Lewis & Clark students,” after two assaults on the campus the weekend before, and threatening statements made on an anonymous social media site (doesn’t that seem contradictory?—I guess sex in the dark with strangers is still sex, why can’t interacting with anonymous words that you assume to be typed by a human nearby you count as socializing?)—and, first, absence, then inaction from school president Barry Glassner, including those Lewis & Clark Black Lives Matters, concerned alumni, and anyone else empathetic to the situation on Palatine Hill, began an occupation of the mansion once home to the Frank of Meier & Frank (Meier & Frank is now Macy’s, not that that makes L&C the Macy’s of liberal arts colleges…), declaring “The president’s work will be done in the president’s office.”

IMG_9968 

Although Lewis & Clark is ranked 880th (to clarify: Eight hundred and eightieth) in terms of diversity, according to a questionable source that also provided this fun pie chart:

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Their page on diversity, however, is the epitome of lip service, as they describe what you will find, quote:

  • lively exchanges animating classes and symposia focused on a wide range of diversity and inclusion issues;
  • students, faculty, and staff continuing and deepening those discussions in casual and formal settings around campus;
  • events and speakers that bring the latest thinking and fresh perspectives to our community;
  • students actively engaged in exploring their identities through clubs, organizations, and civic engagement;
  • a commitment to an inclusive, engaged community that is welcoming to all.

In other words, you will find the occasional, poorly contextualized conversation about diversity existing in an echo chamber of whiteness. Of course you will presently find the admissions building full of “lively exchanges” in the “casual”—as in folks are sitting on the ground—”and formal setting”—meaning I was always asked to leave as an undergraduate when I explained I wanted to read in a quiet place, because it is typically a show room for prospective students and nothing more. The institution has not facilitated this—they failed to do so and the fact it is actually happening is in direct reaction against the institution.

* * *

I’m not sure if international students felt safe or included in campus life when I went to Lewis & Clark. For the most part international students were segregated in the complex of dorms that included the healthy living (sober) dorm, the all female dorm, and the internationally oriented dorm. Those international student friends I did make I encountered in the arts dorm. The school’s commitment to diversity fell on mostly white ears, and probably confused everybody else. In the light of day, students of color I’m sure felt safe, if not at least well photographed, but at night I wouldn’t feel safe as a person of color walking alone surrounded by privileged white bros in boat shoes and the tacit acceptance of white supremacy.

* * *

If you read the most recent installment of the story of the manor house’s occupation on oregonlive.com, a sponsored article appears on the right, with the iconic view of the manor house seen through the aperture of evergreens from the estate gardens below, its reflection captured in the reflecting pool. It was published on November 3rd before the attack on a student from Rwanda occurred by that reflecting pool, and before the manor house was occupied by those disgusted by inaction. The article is not written by anyone. It is “promoted by Lewis & Clark College.” It begins,

Critical examination of problems, thoughtful analysis of current events and the ability to see all sides of an issue are some of the hallmarks of a liberal arts education. When students and faculty collaborate to share their perspectives and experiences with a wider audience, students not only learn practical skills but also open the door to bring about real change.

Kimberly Brodkin, the director of two weeks of legitimate discourse on issues of ex/inclusion, the school’s symposiums on race and ethnic studies in the fall and gender in the spring, is quoted in the ad-icle:

“History is filled with examples of efforts by students to have some say in the experience of their education: what’s being taught, how it’s being taught, who’s doing the teaching and what that experience looks like,” Brodkin said.

It goes on,

Students are eager to engage in critical conversations about race, gender, sexuality, the environment, and politics, generating awareness throughout the campus and wider community. Their activism has the power to inspire new events, courses, student groups, campus publications and forums that give students an intellectual or personal outlet beyond what they can do in class. 

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At risk of belaboring the point: students are currently doing exactly what an advertisement the school has paid to put on oregonlive.com says that they are doing; this advertisement is placed on an article cataloguing students not only “engag[ing] in critical conversations,” but also “generating awareness throughout the campus and wider community,” and encountering instead of institutional enthusiasm—”yes, this is precisely what it’s about, precisely how we are advertising ourselves to the world!”—a glass door, which yields the portmanteau with President Barry Glassner’s name, of their website BarryGlassDoor.com.

* * *

Sitting in the Frank Manor House last week in support of these students, and after the touching surreal speech given by Tanguy Muvuna in the student center, I began to think more of the symbolism of Lewis & Clark and why it needs to change. It is not the lack of diversity in the Corps of Discovery that makes it historically complicated. By emphasizing Sacagawea’s contributions, or celebrating that their slave York was put on supposedly equal terms once they disappeared into the wilderness, or describing peaceful, respectful relations with tribal leaders that they encountered along the way—how could Lewis & Clark know that their promises would be so egregiously broken by those who followed them—you are not creating a more progressive vision by revisiting the past. You are lying as you perpetuate the same cycle of displacement and occupation, violence followed by exclusion followed by calm, which gives way to restlessness and the repetition of the cycle. And as long as we don’t rewrite this narrative, hold our mythology up to the light, and stop gleefully naming shit after representatives of theft, we will continue to make everyone not resembling the colonizers feel afraid, and empower those who do to intimidate, because they will know that this journey is for them, in spite of mistakes they may make, because the nickel in their pocket tells them so.

 

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