I got the idea to start the petition and resolution to change the name of the Von KleinSmid Center for International Relations, named after former USC President and known eugenicist Rufus B. Von KleinSmid, a couple of weeks ago at night while I stood on top of my fire escape off Magnolia Avenue. I remember that night distinctly.
It was the night I heard my friend had been murdered.
I looked at the cold pavement below. I could jump. Is this truly the only option for me? Is this the final fate of those who rage at the knowledge of their own powerlessness? At the tragic, inexplicable absurdity of the human experience that has systemized a cruel unequal world that we cannot change?
This episode was spurred by the murder of Richard, a friend of mine who lost his life to gun violence. We grew up together on the South Side of Chicago — a place with a vibrant culture, but a place marked by racist housing and redlining policies that forced people of color into ghettos and underfunded public schools. This created a cycle of poverty, disenfranchisement and violence.
His death sparked a new idea of how I saw the world, a vision that was both frightening and simplistic. That maybe black men, or better yet, people of color, might forever be chained to the nightmare of violence and tragedy. That ideals of equality are often but a cruel farce. That no matter how brave our efforts, white supremacy and its legacy makes us subservient. This bitter truth made me coil further into tragic, hopeless rage. I barely shaved and isolated myself in my room. I felt trapped, like chickens in a chicken coop, living my life while white supremacy held the ax.
That feeling of helplessness to power is not something new to me or those in a similar predicament on campus. That feeling is age-old, passed down through generations. My great grandfather was a person victimized by powers greater than his own. He was a plumber in the segregated South. Segregation did not allow him to pursue education, therefore this was an occupation into which he was forced. He was called every derogatory name in the book.
But one incident in particular showed his grit. My grandfather saw my great grandfather on his knees trying to fix a clogged toilet for one man, and the man got his head and shoved it in the toilet, laughing at him and my grandfather. But my great grandfather did not become visibly angry. Instead, he buried it deep inside. Just like in the modern day, the LGBTQ community, women, people of color and other victims of discrimination have to bury feelings of anger because if they rebelled against a society so determined to deny their humanity they would be stereotyped only further. Cruel fate had sealed him in an inescapable loop of humiliation with lacking opportunities. His life would be a prison, a hell he would never escape from.
In my conversations surrounding VKC with students on this campus, I felt the same deep seething anguish that I imagine consumed my great grandfather. Those not deemed human by VKC would have to endure the humiliation of going to class every day in a building named after him and honored by him. We have had to endure the degradation that our lives and feelings are not as important as this historic statue; of this powerful ghost, and maybe never will be.
When the petition to change the name of VKC went live, death threats began pouring into my inboxes. The hardest part of the whole ordeal was telling my mother I might not make it to spring break.
But my mother told me not to pay them any mind, and actually told me a story about my great grandfather. She did not describe him as a defeated man, living in a hole like the protagonist of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. No, I was wrong. Actually, he was a dreamer. He would work double shifts so that my grandfather would be able to afford college. My grandfather would rise up in higher education, and defy all odds to become a professor here at USC. Just a generation ago, this would have been unimaginable. It was my great grandfather who dared to dream, a man not imprisoned by his circumstances, but rather, a man who never gave up, a man who had hope.
This hope is not particular to my grandfather, or any one person. It is something I believe is a part of the DNA of all Americans. Just as legacies of discrimination were passed down to too many of us, so was hope. It was the hope in the face of enormous power that forced a small band of patriots to defeat the mighty British empire. It was hope that inspired our army to storm the beaches of D-Day in the face of certain death. It was hope that got women marching in the streets demanding the right to vote. It was hope that led Martin Luther King Jr. to the Lincoln Memorial and inspired a nation to dream of the impossible. It was hope that got me off that fire escape and fighting for this resolution. It was hope that we could dare to challenge the all-powerful conventions of the world and make the impossible possible.
I understand that the chances of change happening soon are distant, and maybe this will never change. But our human history gives us all the reason in the world to hope that it can. To believe in our abilities to change the world. While Tuesday’s vote in the USG Senate to change the name of VKC might be symbolic, don’t doubt the power of symbols. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and patriots in Philadelphia writing our Constitution were once just words and symbols. Words and symbols that would go on to transform the world.