Letters to the Editor

Letters: May/June 2023

We welcome readers’ letters, which should be emailed to yam@yale.edu or mailed to Letters Editor, PO Box 1905, New Haven, CT 06509-1905. Due to the volume of correspondence, we are unable to respond to or publish all mail received. Letters accepted for publication are subject to editing. Priority is given to letters of fewer than 300 words.

On finding Dr. Greene

I read with great pleasure your article “History, Found” (March/April) about Yale graduate Richard Henry Greene, which included a fabulous image of Greene in his naval uniform. Yale’s Richard H. Greene Papers were an incredibly important resource in developing a chapter on Greene that appears in my book, Without Concealment, Without Compromise: The Courageous Lives of Black Civil War Surgeons, published in May by Southern Illinois University Press. Greene’s fascinating and important story is illuminated so well by the letters in the library’s collection. I am grateful for access to the library’s Richard H. Greene papers. It is a treasure!
Jill L. Newmark
Silver Spring, MD

Twelve years ago, you published my article that shined a light on “John Henryism,” a syndrome that you reference in your captivating piece about Yale’s first Black graduate, Richard Henry Greene. Greene graduated from Yale College in 1857. He went on to Dartmouth medical school and died at the age of 43. It might be said, regarding race in elite America, Plus ça change.

In your May/June 2011 issue, I wrote that my cohort of Black male Yalies was dying at several times the rate of the white guys from our era. The article was titled “Before Their Time.” I cited epidemiologists who said those high-achieving Black brothers of mine were manifestations of John Henry. He was the nineteenth-century Black folk legend who hammered steel into rock, making rails that extended America. In the legend, John Henry competed one day against an Industrial Age steam-powered drilling machine; he won—all but pumping his fists in victory—only to then collapse and die.

Given the cited evidence that Richard Henry Greene had a “disease of the heart,” I believe it’s possible-to-likely that “John Henryism” killed him. The same could be said of the early departed Black guys of my time.

My Class of 1970 was the last all-male one in Yale’s history; and demographic data showed beyond a doubt that Black males (in our binary world) had higher rates of mortality than women. That said, we must pay stronger attention to the singular agonies of Black women, notably in their—I’ll say our—high maternal mortality rates.

Let me acknowledge that the theme standing out in the article was not John Henryism, but rather race and identity. Near white in complexion and features, Greene all but passed as a white American. Please know that there are advantages, but also unique pains, that have come with “passing for white,” from Greene’s days all the way through the twentieth century. (Given increasing rates of intermarriage, this is perhaps one aspect of America’s racial reality that has broadened.)

But look around political America today and note that the “race problem” of Richard Henry Greene’s lifetime is still with us.
Ron Howell ’70
Brooklyn, NY

Had Richard Henry Greene been perceived, by others, as “Black” or “African American” he would not have been able to study at Yale or serve as a US naval officer before “The War.” The evidence suggests that he did not think of himself as such. Your article makes the common mistake of assuming that “Black” and “African American” are synonyms. They are not. “Whiteness” and “Blackness,” as we experience them, were constructed, through the law, in Virginia in the middle of the seventeenth century and structured around the mythology of white purity/superiority and black impurity/inferiority. The law has the ability to create phenomena that don’t exist in material reality—like families and corporations.

“Black” is a social/legal/racial term. “African American” is a cultural/historical term that describes human beings whose life experiences have been defined, directly or indirectly, by slavery, “Jim Crow,” and racism.

You don’t even have to be “Black” in order to be “African American.” My grandfather, born shortly after “The War,” had a half-sister who was legally white but who grew up, from infancy, in an African American family. She married a Black man and gave birth to Black children and could not have had any cultural identity other than African American.

Several years ago, there was an article in the Yale Alumni Magazine about men with some African ancestry who were able to study at Yale, long before Richard Henry Greene, because they were not perceived as “Black,” and did not see themselves as such.

As it is for most African Americans, ambivalence is my comfort zone. Richard Henry Greene’s family name suggests the possibility that he may be distantly related to my wife, Annie, who is descended from Christopher, the brother of Nathanael Greene. It might not be necessary for Richard to be Black in order for him to be one of “my people.”
Robert Hinton ’93PhD
Hamden, CT

I read with great interest the article about Yale’s first Black graduate, Richard Henry Greene. He seems to have lived a remarkable, if all too short, life. The “two” tintypes shown in the article (with the “second tintype” showing “Greene in the same uniform as the first”) were of particular interest to me, but as I examined them I realized that the images are identical. They are the same picture, the only differences being the cropping of the one, and the differing left-right orientation.
Tintype cameras usually give a mirror image of the subject, so it is likely that the “headshot” is a photographic copy of the other one, with the reversal of orientation having occurred naturally in the process of producing the second tintype. The copy could have been done at the same time, or it could have been made at a later date. In any event it is a real boon that his family has preserved his image for posterity.
Valerie Becker Makkai ’64PhD
Lake Bluff, IL

Zakaria's story

The story of the “chance” meeting of Zakaria, a Moroccan refugee, with Jake Halpern ’97 and his group of Yale students (“Wanderer,” March/April) made me realize once again the mysterious workings of fate/destiny/karma. The encounter took place in 2017 in the refugee camp, Moria, on the Greek island of Lesvos. Of the six thousand refugees crammed together in appalling conditions, it was Zakaria who somehow connected with Halpern’s group. It was a serendipitous bonding characterized by multiple kindnesses. The indefatigable Halpern recruited alumni in Greece and elsewhere in Europe to help. Points of Lux in many countries, aided by the Veritas that Yalies everywhere are generous of heart, resulted in a lot of Caritas. Made me proud to be a Yalie.
Karl Robinson ’60
Albuquerque, NM

How do we settle on one person?

As a pastor I have done a lot of prison visitation: the federal penitentiary in the barracks of what used to be Fort Dix, New Jersey, for example, and at others near Columbus, Ohio. In one of the latter, an older Black prisoner with an erect dignity came to one of our meetings without saying a word. He said he had isolated himself from people—didn’t even want to talk to anyone, other than doing fitness and helping young prisoners learn boxing. Yet something about him rang true, and I felt him to be a remarkable person.

When he was released, I helped him for a year to get back on his feet, and I heard his story. He had been a high school basketball star in Cleveland before entering the Navy during the early years of the Vietnam War. Aboard ship, he was subject to extreme racism. Not being able to take it, he went AWOL, ended up in the brig, and from there it was only downhill.

With his lawyer, he told his story on public radio. The VA apologized for what he had gone through and restored his vet status. He has been out six years now. He has earned an associate’s degree at the local community college, and he has three jobs. He sits with my wife and me every Sunday at a large downtown church, where he is liked so well that the church hired him as its custodian. He helps look after an eight-year-old girl whose mother is on drugs, and he works at a food bank.

Why him, among all the prisoners I have visited? I just felt his dignity and integrity in my heart, took the chance, and was richly rewarded.
Laurence E. Miller Jr. ’55E, ’58MA
Columbus, OH

More on Samuel Seabury

Thanks and a tip of my tricorn hat for fleshing out the story of Rev. Samuel Seabury, Class of 1748 (Old Yale, March/April), the loyalist parson who takes a slagging from patriot hero Alexander Hamilton in Act I of the eponymous musical. May I offer another word in the parson’s favor?

Two other “dastardly protesters against the proceedings of the Continental Congress,” a mayor and a judge, were jailed with Seabury in a private home in “New-Haven” in November 1775. Patriots held them without a warrant, a formal charge, or bail. Within days, Seabury’s companions won release by signing boilerplate apologies for their “inconsiderate conduct” in criticizing the Continental Congress. They vowed never to do so again.

Not so Seabury. He never apologized or forswore his beliefs during six weeks of captivity. Nor did he take the bait when a sarcastic jailer suggested that the reverend use his time in confinement and his considerable rhetorical powers to compose sermons calling down Heaven’s blessings on the patriot cause.

Would Seabury be viewed differently today if he had used that time instead to draft his own loyalist rap musical?
Richard Willing ’71
McLean, VA

Your article on Samuel Seabury moved me to write about playing his grandson, also an Episcopal minister, in A New York Lamentation, a theatrical production of monologues with music. Produced by the Episcopal Diocese of New York, the piece examines the relationship of the diocese to slavery in the nineteenth century. It was written by the Reverend Chuck Kramer of St. James Church, Hyde Park, and directed by Jeannine Otis, music director of St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery.

The characters include Peter Williams, the first Black minister in New York; Phoebe Mott, freed by manumission; William Jay, abolitionist; Richard Jenkins, Black sexton at Samuel Bard’s upstate parish; and several others, including the younger Reverend Seabury, who in 1861 penned a tract that sought to justify slavery. Using the justification of human bondage as a holy estate in the Bible and Eve’s bondage to Adam, Seabury stated his belief in white supremacy. He taught for many years at General Theological Seminary, until his death in 1872.  

The Lamentation was presented at several churches in the diocese and also at a diocesan convention. It was received as a timely bearing of witness to our history and the reconciliation needed to repair the mistakes of that legacy.
Tom Walker ’70
New York, NY

Preeminence in humanities

President Peter Salovey’s well-deserved celebration of the humanities at Yale (President’s Letter, March/April) did not adequately record the historic eminence—actually, preeminence—of the literature programs at Yale in the past five decades. In those years I was privileged to serve as legal adviser to three presidents (Brewster, Gray, and Giamatti) and, after appointment to the federal bench, as a successor trustee of the Yale Corporation. Though a mere observer of the work and celebrity of Yale’s literature programs, I knew that they were indisputably among the strongest academic components of the university and greatly contributed to its international renown.

I did not know or admire all of the celebrated teachers drawn to Yale in those years, but I can attest that, from the late sixties of the last century on, Yale gathered a stellar team of literature professors, both its own and foreign luminaries. These included the French theoretician Jacques Derrida, among others.

A veritable “Yale School,” as it came to be known, existed, made up of celebrities like Harold Bloom ’55PhD, Geoffrey Hartman ’53PhD, J. Hillis Miller, Peter Brooks, Shoshana Felman, and Roberto González Echevarría ’70PhD (who received the National Humanities Medal from President Barack Obama in 2011). These were mostly members of the English, French, and comparative literature departments, but there were others, like Rolena Adorno in Spanish and Giuseppe Mazzotta (and before him John Freccero) in Italian. Most of these were Sterling Professors.

No other university came close to this distinguished literature faculty, whose members were celebrated around the world. The new French criticism, which began as structuralism and morphed into post-structuralism, entered the United States through Yale; influential journals like Yale French Studies and the Yale Journal of Criticism (from the Whitney Humanities Center) were the disseminators. In fact, the Center, presided over by Peter Brooks, became a focus of Yale work in literature, holding well-attended and sometimes controversial symposiums and weekly seminars. Students of these professors wound up in leading positions at other institutions.
José A. Cabranes ’65JD
New Haven, CT

How much for the bond?

Regarding the 375-year-old Dutch bond in Yale’s collection that still pays interest (Object Lesson, March/April): I’m just curious about the amount that was paid at auction to acquire the document (which would have been an interesting acquisition at whatever price).
Dave Allen ’71
La Grange, KY

Yale bought the bond as an artifact at auction in 2015 for 24,000 euros, around $26,000.—Eds.

Still more on organ donor ads

In response to Dr. John Ricotta’s objection to my advertisement for a kidney donor in this magazine, Geoffrey Berg ’70 recently noted that “the Yale community could do more to raise awareness around the benefits of organ donation,” and George Gagliardi ’79 wrote that the magazine should “consider an article discussing organ transplantation and shortages, as the issue needs greater awareness” (Letters, March/April).

The fundamental problem, at least for kidney donation, is the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, which totally prohibits the purchase and sale of kidney organs. The only workable solution is an allocation system which is neither entirely prohibited nor entirely free-market, but a middle ground in which the state sets an equitable price and facilitates distribution.

So far, only Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for organ donation reform. Perhaps discussion in this magazine or amongst Yale alumni can assist in bringing about the necessary change. In the meanwhile, those suffering from end-stage renal disease are left at the mercy of placing ads such as mine in order to find a living kidney donor.
Philip Ellis Foster ’74PhD, ’75MSL
New York, NY

I read the letter to the editor from the transplant surgeon in the January/February issue, as well as the response from Mr. Gagliardi (who was a kidney donor) in the March/April issue. I don’t remember seeing the ad in question, but I have no problem with advertising for one. Unless a kidney was damaged due to an accident, etc., most recipients know well in advance that they will need one. I think you will find that many recipients check among their friends to see if one might donate. Isn’t that “advertising”?

I received a kidney in 2010 from a living donor. My brother-in-law called friends to see if anyone might donate. The son of one of the folks who was called volunteered. How is what my brother-in-law did different from running an ad in the Yale Alumni Magazine?
Harry Ward ’62
Toledo, OH

College choices

It is a fine thing that Yale has created the Pennington Fellowship, which will provide a substantial annual scholarship to 12 New Haven high school graduates for their use in attending a historically Black college or university (“A New Route to HBCUs,” March/April). There is, however, this question: may the prospective student use this money to go to a school that is not historically Black?

You quote President Salovey as having said, “This scholarship addresses, in part, historical disparities in educational opportunities for Black citizens.” Would not such a disparity be addressed if that student chose to go to a large state university? And would not a Black student going to a large state university create some diversity and inclusion that would not be found if that student went to a historically Black college or university?
John Connaughton ’76LLM
South Bend, IN

Since 2010, the New Haven Promise program, largely funded by Yale, has offered a scholarship of up to full tuition at a Connecticut public college—or $2,500 per year toward tuition at a Connecticut private college—to any New Haven public school graduate who has a 3.0 GPA or higher and meets attendance and community-service requirements. Students who are eligible for the Pennington Fellowship can opt instead to go to a Connecticut college with the aid of New Haven Promise.—Eds.

Remembering Stanley Flink

I was not very surprised but very sad to learn that my old friend, Stanley Flink ’45W, had died (Milestones, March/April). We met on a little island in Casco Bay, where Stan and his wife Joy and my family spent a few weeks every year for about 20 years. Stan was full of life and good humor.  He was also a wonderful raconteur and a good tennis player, and all of us, islanders and renters alike, loved him. And what a wonderful exit, writing such an erudite letter to the class in his last column.

Rest in peace, dear friend!
Denny Olmsted ’66
Napa, CA

I was very sad to read of the passing of Stanley Flink ’45W. Although we never met, I felt as if I knew him through his beautifully literate, moving class notes in the magazine. My very dear family friend, Joel Freeman, was one of his classmates.
Nathan M. Wise ’72
Old Saybrook, CT

A letter writer in our March/April issue referred to the 1963 Yale Band tour as its “first European tour.” In fact, the band went to Europe for the first time in 1959.

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