Corey Menafee was a custodial services worker at Yale University until June 1, when he showed up for work and, on the spur of the moment, shattered a piece of his institution’s legacy of systemic racism and enslavement. With the handle of his broom, he broke a stained glass window depicting two enslaved black people, which ornamented the wood-paneled dining hall of Calhoun College — a dormitory built in the 1930s and named for a famous advocate of slavery, John C. Calhoun. Menafee lost his job and faced felony charges for destroying university property. He was also catapulted into the national spotlight for his act of civil disobedience, and, to his astonishment, sparked a groundswell of support across the Yale community and nationwide. The political eruption is not wholly surprising; The backdrop to the shattered glass was a summer of protests from the movement for black lives and rising unrest over racial violence and police brutality, along with a campus-wide debate by Yale students and faculty over how to address symbols of racism and slavery built into the university’s architecture.
Those social struggles are much larger than Menafee’s single act, but the breaking of a window became a visual touchstone for a national identity struggle.
What brought Menafee to the breaking point, and how is he handling the fall-out? In These Times spoke with him on July 16, shortly after Yale announced that it would not press charges and promised it would address the window and other such visual symbols, as part of a university-wide plan to grapple with the controversial facets of its cultural history. (Full disclosure: The author is a Yale alumna and former resident of Calhoun.) Since this interview was conducted, Yale has offered Menafee his job back.
Walk me through the events leading up to the incident.
A week and a half before, I had a conversation with a Yale alum who was showing his young daughter around. We struck up a conversation about all the controversy surrounding the name of John Calhoun and a lot of disturbing images all around this building. He pointed out that particular image [in the window] that I shattered.
Ever since he pointed that image out to me, it didn’t sit well. It bothered me. So, moving along to the day of the incident: I got tired of seeing that image. I was working. I was cleaning up, and we had our little ten-minute break in the morning. And, I don’t know, something inside me was like “That thing has to come down. I’m tired of looking at it.” So I consequently went and retrieved the broom handle and smashed the image.
Immediately after I did shatter the image, [one of my bosses] approached me like “What are you doing? You know you just destroyed Yale’s property? Are you crazy?” I said, “Well, it looks a lot better now.” I walked away and I proceeded to go to the locker rooms, our male locker rooms, and I just simply shaved myself. I shaved my face, because I knew what was coming next, which would be a bunch of questioning and interrogation from law enforcement and HR and those type of things. I could foresee all that was going to happen. So I just wanted to make sure I was clean-shaven for them, because in my experience, people deal with you better when you’re clean-shaven than when you’re all scruffy.
So was it an impulsive thing? How long did you think about it before you actually did it?
It wasn’t something that I would get disgusted by every day. I would liken it to how like, if someone’s behind you staring at you, and you can’t see them or hear them, you can just feel them staring. It was more like that. In my subconscious I was just aware that it was there now. It was bothering me, you know what I mean?
At the time, I was just trying to make sure I do a good job [at] my job. I wasn’t trying to get too concerned with the politics. And even when I shattered the image it wasn’t to try to be an activist or anything like that. I was just tired of looking at it. That’s the only way I can explain it.
When you finally did it, did you think the public’s reaction would be this big?
I had no way of knowing how anyone else felt about it. It’s not like I had discussions with people about it or anything like that. No way I could perceive or predict the type of support from the community — and just around the world, period — I had no idea that people really cared that much about that. No, I wasn’t prepared.
You know, when I went to bed the night before my court date, all I knew was, the next morning I had to get up and go to court. I had no idea that so many people were going to be there supporting me. I didn’t even know people knew about my case at that time.
Do you regret it?
You know, when you do something like that, there is a moment of sobriety where you’re like “Uh-oh.” Like, you know, you can’t take it back.
So that question has a two-sided answer. I do regret it in a sense, yes, because, as an intellectual, grown adult, who is able to reason and think, you should never resort to physical action in those type of matters. You should sit down and you have conversations, and use your written word, and communicate to the different entities around you your discontent. You don’t just go ahead and smash someone else’s property. I don’t suggest that; I don’t promote that, I do regret that.
However, with that said, the reactions – there’s a plethora of other people who felt the same way. That feeling is not just something that I felt. In that respect, I don’t regret it. I guess I could have just went about it in a different way.
Yale has announced that they’re planning a redesign. It looks like the lasting legacy of that smashed window will be that it’s replaced with something in a thoughtful way, or so the university says. Are you hopeful about that?
Yes, I’m hopeful that they’ll replace it with something that’s a little bit more culturally sensitive and uplifting. Yale University’s motto is lux et veritas, which is Latin for “truth and enlightenment.” If you truly believe in your motto and you want to enlighten people, then why would you want to cast a shadow of oppression over one of your buildings, one of your colleges?
Have you participated in the racial justice movement — or, after what happened, do you plan to?
Right now, my primary concern is settling my legal matters. Afterwards, I may or may not pursue those type of adventures. But right now, it’s getting my charges dropped [pending a court date next week] and my record clean.
What do you think about the public’s response? Why do you think it was such a powerful story to people?
Well, I really can’t comment on where we are as a society — that’s not my place to say. People are tired of being victims of not only racial inequalities but also religious and sexual inequalities. People are standing up for themselves and not gonna take it anymore. And there’s resistance from powers that want to keep it the ways things are — conservatives. And that’s just the natural power struggle that exists all over the world.
Do you think your action on the window helps move that struggle forward a little bit?
I don’t know — it may or may not. I can’t foresee all that. All I know is that I was tired of looking at it and I broke it.
What’s the one thing you want people to take away from this incident?
I just want people to remember that, if you do have a problem with something, it’s always better to communicate that verbally and peacefully with the powers that be and the different entities that are involved. I don’t suggest anyone damage anyone else’s property based on how they feel about it. What I did is not something that I would encourage other people to do.
At the same time, you also understand why things like this happen?
Yeah. If people don’t stand up and take a stance on things they don’t think are right, they’re never going to change.
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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.