Balancing narratives on Dartmouth alumni

by Julia O'Sullivan | 5/3/17 2:25am

The esteemed community of devoted Dartmouth alumni is one of the most significant, frequently-touted aspects of the College. With a reported $4.5 billion endowment and a student population filled with legacy students, it is no wonder that Dartmouth prides itself on its almost 80,000 alumni from undergraduate and graduate schools combined. Alumni constantly return for events such as reunions and Homecoming, proving their love for the school.

Many alumni attribute their later successes to their time at Dartmouth. Likewise, the current Dartmouth community is very proud of its alumni. One would be hard pressed to find a student who couldn’t name a handful of successful alumni. Many students who participated in First-Year Trips recall the sanctity surrounding Robert Frost’s ashes. One of the most lauded alumni is, of course, Theodor Seuss Geisel ’25, better known as Dr. Seuss. Shonda Rhimes ’91, the head writer, producer and showrunner of “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Scandal,” is a veritable head of an empire. Millennials will also refer to Mindy Kaling ’01, writer and actress in “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” as one of the greats. Die hards will also know about her comic strip series for The Dartmouth, “Badly Drawn Girl,” about a Dartmouth student trying to navigate the perils of student housing, a capella groups, Greek life, dining options and Dick’s House. “Friday Night Lights” fans will know Connie Britton ’89, while “Saturday Night Live” fans will know Rachel Dratch ’88. Even the co-creator of “Game of Thrones,” David Benioff ’92, once graced Dartmouth’s fair halls.

However, not all Dartmouth alumni have such a clean record within the school’s “hall of fame.”

The beloved Dr. Seuss, for example, didn’t always create the classic, PG-rated children’s books for which he is known and loved. Before “The Cat in the Hat” and “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” came depictions of other races as savages. Geisel was known as a liberal, with some of his books even interpreted with politically left undertones. However, his depictions of black, Native American, Japanese and Chinese people are appalling in the modern age.

Even for a task as simple as selling insect repellant, he depicts African men as primitive figures with black skin, proportionally enormous lips and imagined tribal attire. During World War II, he produced a great deal of propaganda depicting Japanese men in an unfavorable way. One drawing even reads, “What have you done today to help save your country from them?” It portrays a grinning man, intended to be Japanese, with lines for eyes, an upturned nose and a toothy grin. Yet another depiction reads “Jap Alley” and is filled with cats who share the same facial feature as previously mentioned. Though his propaganda did not rest at Japanese people in Japan. He also drew a line of Japanese people alone the coast of the western United States, picking up TNT blocks with a caption that reads “Waiting for the Signal From Home…”

Even a booklet he created to spread awareness about malaria safety among soldiers has uncomfortable elements. He likens the infected mosquito to a calculating prostitute, a long way from his later kid-friendly illustrations that earned him such critical acclaim.

Though his propaganda work can be traced back to his career after graduating from Dartmouth, he also created questionable work as an undergraduate.

He often published his work in the Dartmouth Jack-o-Lantern, a student-run humor magazine. In 1923, he depicted a conversation between two figures, using similar strategies for his later depictions of African people. The figures are surrounded by human skulls and bones and a cauldron, while one is holding a bat and the other is wearing a crown. The crowned figure says to the other, “‘You’ve got to quit knockin’ your neighbors.’” The other responds, “‘I notice you roast a few yourself.’” The only perceivable joke here is a reference to the African people practicing tribal cannibalism, which is not exactly the kind of international acceptance that Dartmouth currently claims and encourages.

Another member of the College community who might cause similar discomfort is Nathan Lord. Though he did not attend Dartmouth, he served as the president of the College from 1828 to 1863. In 1854 he wrote “A Letter of Inquiry to Ministers of the Gospel of all Denominations, on Slavery,” arguing that slavery is justified in the Bible. He also refused to grant Abraham Lincoln an honorary Dartmouth degree.

Lord was even controversial at the time. In an 1855 issue of The Dartmouth Oestrus, a front page article discusses his harmful impacts on the school. It reads, “For a long time we have watched him closely, and so long as his eulogies on slavery were confined to the College walls, we cared not a snap; for his antiquated old lectures were read to each succeeding class, only to occasion laughter and be sneered at for a week,” and, “His ideas are about 2,000 years old, and in this age of steam, he can’t begin to keep up to the mark.”

In these situations, the Dartmouth community has and will continue to face challenges to its brand of school pride. However, the reality of the matter is that history and people are complicated, and not every Dartmouth alumnus has always had a pure heart of gold. There will always be people who cause controversy and do things we don’t agree with, and a college degree will not change this. In fact, many times throughout history the College’s own professors, and even the president as exampled above, will propagate controversial ideas.

The question then does not become whether we can erase these figures in shame to promote our illusion of a perfect community. Instead, we must make our individual voices known, as The Dartmouth Oestrus writer did, using our platforms to self-define our stances. College is not about homogenization, after all. It is a place for discussion, change and self-discovery.

Alumni will never be great simply because they attended dear old Dartmouth. They may pick up tools along the way here that contribute to their success, but it is important to keep in mind an individual’s own agency, regardless of the origin of a degree.

Though a community is only the sum of its parts, it will always be up to each part to act as positive and conscious individuals.