Back in the 1990s, I worked in a New Orleans suburb whose main road was named after a notoriously racist local jurist. At a certain point, government leaders decided that “Judge Perez Drive” was a blot on the local reputation. So after some debate, they found a different Judge Perez with a less problematic past and changed the name . . . to “Judge Perez Drive.”
It was the most elegant solution I’ve seen yet to the problem of language and history, the conflict between old artifacts and new standards. And those conflicts keep coming. Sometimes they’re big, like Princeton’s recent debate over whether Woodrow Wilson, president and racist, deserved to have his name on a graduate school.
And sometimes they’re small, like Harvard’s new contest to change the last line of its alma mater, “Fair Harvard” — a 19th-century song that urges graduates to carry on “Till the stock of the Puritans die.”
Puritan stock! If the line were blatantly racist, this would be an easy call. But while it does smack vaguely of eugenics, it’s more likely a relic of a tone-deaf culture. In the context of college campuses today, where everyone is hunting for offense, the song might seem the ultimate microaggression. The FoxNews.com headline, predictably, was “Harvard Changing Anthem Lyrics Because ‘Puritan’ Isn’t ‘Inclusive.’ ”
It’s fun to scoff at snowflakes. But it’s precisely the small-bore nature of the “Fair Harvard” problem that makes it worth a closer look. In the absence of easy fixes, these symbolic little puzzles might be the best way to square the present and the past.
I think of alma maters the way I think of the Pledge of Allegiance: At a certain point, they’re just collections of syllables. “And-to-the-Re-pub-lic-for-which-it-stands.” How many schoolchildren have wondered what a “witchit” is?
Still, the sounds find a way to lodge in your hippocampus. When I heard the Harvard news, the song came rushing back to me, as pretentious and fusty as ever: “Fair Harvard! thy sons to thy Jubilee throng. . . . ” But the lyrics I remembered were outdated. Harvard changed them in 1998, to account for the fact that the university also had daughters. It was a simple tweak — replacing “thy sons to” with “we join in” — and the world moved on.
Two decades later, these issues fall on the plate of professor Danielle S. Allen, co-chair of Harvard’s Presidential Task Force on Inclusion and Belonging. Yes, the group’s name is as much an artifact of 2017 as “Fair Harvard” is an artifact of 1836. But as Allen tells me, the task force is intended to impose some order on a series of ongoing battles. Last year alone, Harvard retired a law school shield that was modeled on a slaveholding family’s crest and changed the term for leaders of its undergraduate houses from the eyebrow-raising “master” to the blandly safe “faculty dean.”
The task force is collecting feedback and will issue a report next spring, Allen says. But members didn’t want to wait to act, and the alma mater seemed a good place to start: It’s “not something that’s on people’s minds on a daily basis, but we use it to start and finish the year, so it’s an important ritual moment.”
And well before our current age of political correctness, she points out, people were calling out that “Puritans” line. W.E.B. DuBois mentioned it in his autobiography. “I was in Harvard, but not of it,” he wrote, “and realized all the irony of my singing ‘Fair Harvard.’ I sang it because I liked the music, and not from any pride in the Pilgrims.”
DuBois clearly enjoyed the melody more than I do. He also had a sense of perspective — sometimes there are bigger fights to fight. Indeed, the risk of taking an inventory of woes is that it’s hard to know where to stop. On a website that Allen’s task force set up for suggestions, one graduate student took aim at the famous John Harvard statute in Harvard Yard: “There are fewer, more blatantly clear symbols of the hegemony of a white patriarchy than a fictitious white man sitting on a throne.”
At a university that opened in 1636, excising tributes to dead white men would take awhile. It also might erase some striking history: Allen points out James Otis, memorialized in a marble statue in Sanders Theatre, was a prominent abolitionist in the 1760s.
The key is to take things case by case and have a framework for decisions. Allen’s seems as sensible as any. “We start from a presumption against changing things,” she says. Then they’ll categorize: what to replace, what to adapt, what to expand on. Harvard can add public art, she says, that celebrates other backgrounds. John Harvard — who, as students and tourists know, isn’t actually John Harvard — will stay.
That’s good news; removing fake John Harvard would be big. He’s a landmark. He’s tradition. He’s concrete (or, technically, bronze). “Fair Harvard,” on the other hand, is hardly etched in stone. A few new words won’t change the fact that it’s a vestigial nod to an earlier era. After all, it’s not going to be climbing the Billboard charts any time soon.
There’s something appealing about the idea of taking the song off the shelf, dusting it a bit, and fixing one egregious crack. It’s just a bunch of syllables. A few of them can change.Joanna Weiss is a writer based in Boston. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Twitter @BostonGlobeMag.