On Feb. 21, President Sean Decatur emailed the Kenyon community announcing a process and timeline for changing the Kenyon moniker. After a period of suggestions, deliberation and voting, the announcement of the new moniker is expected in mid-May. It won’t be the Crows.
For a change this significant, the timeline felt rushed, and the selection process for the finalists was obscure. During an online forum held in March, Vice President for Advancement Colleen Garland indicated that the top suggestions, vetted by the Office of Communications, would be put to a vote. Somewhere along the vetting process, one of the popular options — the Kenyon Crows — was dropped. Perhaps more perplexingly, another bird from the corvid family, the rook, is a finalist.
Something doesn’t add up. Why choose a cousin of the crow that lives in the Palearctic when the American crow is abundant in North America, including in Gambier? Why not go with the alliteration, and the option that gives KC a double meaning — Kenyon College and Kenyon Crows? Why not give a nod to one of Kenyon’s most notorious professors and founder of the Kenyon Review, John Crowe Ransom? I have heard others make the case for crows, but no compelling arguments for rooks. What happened?
After inquiring, what I gathered was that some people had concerns about possible racist undertones associated with the Kenyon Crows option. Specifically, folks raised the issue of crows used in racist depictions of black people in popular American culture, and of Ransom’s objectionable views on slavery and the Confederacy. While the concerns are valid, canceling the crow is an unproductive reaction to these problems at best, and likely even detrimental.
When discussing this with a good friend, he reasoned that for a Black kid who grew up experiencing racism and who had seen how crows had been used historically to parody Black people, to then get to college and have a crow as a mascot would be insensitive. I acknowledged the point, but then asked what he would do if I, as a Latin-American international student, found the American flag to be an insensitive symbol given the history of American violence and interference in Latin-American countries. Would he support not using the image of the flag anywhere? He laughed.
When I pointed out that Philander Chase was a slave owner, James Gambier bombarded civilians in battle and George Kenyon was active in the persecution of Catholics, he was surprised and suggested we may want to stop celebrating those people too. But do we seriously consider renaming the Philander Chase Conservancy, the Village of Gambier and Kenyon College itself? Following the principle to its logical conclusion, we would ultimately have to reckon with the fact this entire country only came to exist after the mass genocide of native peoples and the forcible taking of their land. What other names, symbols and uncomfortable truths go unquestioned while we object to crows as mascots?
I don’t advocate for censoring the American flag because, while it is certainly a symbol of oppression in many parts of the world, I don’t believe banning it is an effective way of countering U.S. imperialism. I don’t propose renaming Kenyon, Gambier and most of the American continent because I don’t believe it would bring any justice to those who were wronged by the namesakes of those places. And I don’t agree with rejecting crows as mascots because I don’t believe it does anything to truly confront racism in our society.
When crows get canceled out of concerns over racism, it illustrates our inability to properly diagnose the problem or address it in any serious way. It’s not just an ineffective reaction that does nothing to combat racism, it’s detrimental in that it exemplifies the laziness, the inconsistency and the hypocrisy of our actions. We reject crows as monikers because it would be inappropriate to have this supposed symbol of oppression tied to Kenyon College. But we allow far worse to go unquestioned because doing work that actually fights injustice and systems of oppression is much harder and more uncomfortable.
Crows are not the problem, racism is. It’s a shame that a small group of people made the decision to block a popular option for the new moniker out of selective and misguided fears. We address injustice not by trivial avoidance of symbols, but by the significance of our actions. The new moniker will not define Kenyon. But what Kenyon does going forward will define what the College and its moniker stand for.