Edged Out Leading Contender: “Fighting Poets”
|Image of Emily Dickinson from Amherst Colleges Archives and Special Collections|
The long wait is over. Although the official announcement is not expected until sometime next week, sources inside the Amherst College administration revealed that, after months of controversy and speculation, they have chosen poet Emily Dickinson as their new sports mascot, replacing eighteenth-century British military leader Lord Jeffery Amherst, considered by many to be politically and morally unacceptable in this day and age. The move came as something of a surprise because, among the five finalists announced to the public, “Fighting Poets” was widely expected to get the nod. A few trustees, gathered for cocktails in the elegant and dimly lit bar of the Lord Jeffery Inn (spoiler: yes, it’s ironic, but that name isn’t changing yet), late Friday night spoke on condition of anonymity about the process that had just concluded.
A Background of Controversy
The decision arose from the intersection of longstanding concerns and recent protests. For years, Native Americans and their allies have protested both the appropriation of American Indian culture and the related use of racist stereotypes as emblems of sports teams. American campuses have been roiled in conflict for several years over histories of white supremacy as well as continuing issues of institutional racism, but it was the recent activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement that brought things to a head at Amherst.
The figure of Lord Jeffery Amherst, after whom the college’s sports team—the “Lord Jeffs”—was named, is no stranger to controversy on campus and beyond. In this case, the issue was not a symbol that appropriated Native American culture, and instead, one associated with its destruction. As almost every Amherst resident and Amherst College student soon comes to learn, Amherst sought to exterminate Native Americans (“this execrable race”) during the “French and Indian War” through an early form of biological warfare by giving them smallpox-infested blankets.
For a long time his ubiquitous emblematic presence caused the administration no discomfort. The College commissioned elegant representations of him on “collectible” Wedgwood china.
|Wedgwood plate on display in the library of Lord Jeffery Inn|
|a great way to start your day: old Amherst College dinnerware|
That dinnerware was in the meantime quietly removed, but the presence of Lord Jeff as sports mascot remained. When students of color and their allies rose up in protest in the fall of 2015, he became an obvious target.
|Amherst Uprising protest poster, Frost Library, November 2015|
A Symbol of Changing Times
The administration took the protests seriously, and President Caroline “Biddy” Martin returned to campus from her travels to meet with protesters. In January 2016, the College announced that it was giving Lord Jeff the heave-ho.
In late October, the College announced a public process to select a new mascot. By the end of the year, having received 2045 suggestions, the Mascot Committee chose 30 semifinalists. On Saint Patrick’s Day 2017, the College announced five finalists, to be winnowed through an online voting process ending March 31. They were:
- “Fighting Poets” (“celebrates multiple poets who have taught, studied or written poetry in association with the college or town of Amherst")
- “Mammoth” (a reference to fossils in the Beneski Museum)
- “Purple and White” (the College colors)
- “Valley Hawks” (“would reflect pride in the campus bird sanctuary and the college’s other connections to avian studies”)
- "Wolves" (“Known for their keen senses, intelligence and power, wolves collaborate and care for one another in packs, but they can also represent individuality and independence")
Trustee Coup? “Fighting Poets” or not “Fighting Poets”: that was the question
Some of the 2045 suggestions were easy to reject for one reason or another. For example, although “Hamsters” was considered clever by some because Hamster is an anagram of Amherst, it is also the nickname of students at nearby Hampshire College. “A’s” was unimaginative. And “Pride” was just plain mystifying. A younger left-leaning trustee provided particular insight into the deliberations. In his view, it was much like the Trump White House: characterized by chaos and infighting.
The trustees faced a dilemma. Four of the five finalist names were anything but inspiring. Until just recently, “Fighting Poets” therefore seemed to be headed for victory: it was clever, had a light touch, and referred to the college’s intellectual legacy: Emily Dickinson did not attend Amherst College--it was among the last of the Ivies to go coed (1975), and only after great resistance–but her family was associated with the founding and administration of the College, and Amherst owns the Dickinson Museum, which attracts thousands of visitors to the town. Robert Frost taught at Amherst College, and the library is named after him. And Richard Wilbur, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other awards, is an alumnus (Class of ’41).
Still, as trustees weighed the choice, doubts arose. To begin with, none was really familiar with poetry. A few thought they had encountered Frost or Dickinson in a freshman English class but could not recall much else. Some remembered having seen Richard Wilbur at a dinner and admiring his tweed jacket. “Too bad that Joyce Kilmer didn’t go to Amherst,” one elderly gentleman mused over a Bone Dry Sapphire Gin Martini. “I really liked that poem about trees. But we didn’t let girls in back then.” “Wilbur who?” asked another. “Wasn’t he the guy on that show with the talking horse?” he snorted, as he took a sip from his third Macallan 18 Year Old Sherry Oak 1992.
A more politically aware younger trustee raised doubts even about Robert Frost: the poet came from a racist white nationalist family and was named for Robert E. Lee. His official biographer described him as (in the words of a reviewer) “a nasty piece of work, cruel to his family, dismissive and contemptuous of other writers, a liar and a manipulator.” The same reviewer summarized a fictional portrait of the poet by Joyce Carol Oates as: “racist, sexist, loathsome, bullying.” “’Fighting poets’?!” the trustee asked with some exasperation. “For the Confederacy? Against women? It would be worse than ironic if, after the anti-racist protests on campus, we picked this guy. Just what kind of message are we sending?!”
“Besides,” another worried, “we might just be opening ourselves up to ridicule. “What are our boys going to yell when these ‘Fighting Poets’ take to the gridiron? You know that Haverford College football cheer: ‘Kill, Quakers, Kill!’ Come on. It’s the worst of both worlds.”
Purple and White Privilege: we’re the trustees and can do pretty much what we want
A group of more traditionally minded trustees therefore tried to come up with an alternative. When asked how they could circumvent the choices developed through an open public process, one who works in corporate law replied that it was perfectly legitimate, in the spirit if not the letter of the charge: “After all, you folks in town did the same thing: you held a flag contest calling for designs based on the theme of ‘the book and the plow’—which, I’ll have you know, was the invention of an Amherst College professor—and then chose the book and three sheaves of grain—even though they’re not a plow and no one ever grew wheat in Amherst. Sauce for the gander, you know. Anyway: we’re the trustees and can do pretty much what we want.”
This trustee faction settled on the figure of John McCloy as the new mascot. He was an alumnus, a major figure in twentieth-century American law, finance, politics, and government, and served on the Warren Commission: an ideal representation of Amherst men in the service of the nation. And of course he was male. That plan fell apart when a young leftish trustee pointed out that, as Assistant Secretary of War, McCloy had played a decisive role in the notorious internment of Japanese Americans, had refused to believe stories of Nazi artocities, and then, as High Commissioner for postwar Germany, had commuted or reduced the sentences of many of the worst Nazis:
“So: you’re dumping a guy who wanted to poison Indians but didn’t actually manage to do so—and replacing him with a guy who put loyal Americans in prison—and let German war criminals out? Bright move.” Besides, he added with a wink, “Just think about the nicknames: If the Lord Jeffs are known as ‘the Jeffs,’ then the ‘John McCloys’ would be known as ‘the Johns.’ I. Don’t. Think. So. Look, if you guys aren’t going to take the need for social change seriously, why don’t you just be done with it and call the team “Purple and White Privilege?”
Ironically, although he spoke those words with bitter sarcasm, they broke the logjam. The trustees began to think in concert about how to spin or improve upon the five final options. It was thus that they hit upon the idea of casting aside the generic “fighting poets” and singling out Emily Dickinson. It was an easy choice and a unifying one. For those on the left, it was thinking outside the box and a means to underscore the College’s commitment to diversity and modern values. For the conservatives, it was a cynical, cost-free choice. The Lord Jeff mascot was a clear liability, easily thrown off the back of the sleigh to appease the wolves. Choosing a woman as emblem would also help to distract attention from damaging news reports concerning an aggressive masculine sports ethos, ranging from rape culture to racist and misogynistic e-mail exchanges. Above and beyond that, the move would secure the future of athletics at Amherst. It is an open secret that, when the trustees reluctantly accepted former President Tony Marx’s demand for emphasis on greater ethnic and racial diversity, the quid pro quo was increased financial support for the sports teams. Was it only a coincidence that, when the trustees selected the first woman president as his successor, they chose Biddy Martin, a self-described “crazed sports fan”? The choice of Emily Dickinson as mascot thus hit the trifecta, solving numerous problems at once, changing things without really changing things.
|even on March 31, search engines still show the description of the team under its old moniker|
Discreetly presented with the breaking news on Friday evening in the bar of the Lord Jeff, one professor of English sitting nearby looked up from her Chocolate Appletini and said, “Wow, that’s really disruptive!” “Transgressive, even!” chimed in her colleague from comp lit, giggling slightly as she took a sip from her squid-ink-garnished Firenze-Palermo cocktail. A member of the Hampshire College faculty known to be well versed in both academic and town politics happened to be at the bar, as well: “You know if I were conspiratorially minded—which I’m not: only idiots believe in conspiracy theories—I’d say that this was a cunning plan by the Emily Dickinson Museum to get the College finally to pay attention to its most valuable cultural resource. Everyone knows that, even though Biddy Martin was trained in literature, she has never really shown much interest in the Museum. She’s set foot there like, what: once in her life? But she always has time to go to a football game or tweet about sports.
With teams named after Emily Dickinson, she’d finally have to pay attention. It’s absolutely brilliant.” With that, he returned to his Vieux Carré and discussion of the upcoming Town Meeting with his two female companions.
Jeff, John, Dick, and Harried
Reached via telephone on Saturday, a spokeswoman for the Amherst College Office of Communications said that President Martin, on her way out of town for a full weekend of men’s tennis matches at Tufts, both women’s and men’s lacrosse at Middlebury, and women’s outdoor track and field at the Tufts Snowflake Invitational, would not be available for comment until late next week or whenever there is a break in the College’s sports schedule.
We pointed out that, although the choice of mascot was bold, there was one fly in the ointment. If the “Lord Jeffs” had been known as “the Jeffs,” then the “Emily Dickinsons” might come to be popularly referred to as "The Emilys"--or: “The Dicks.”
There was a brief but painful silence on the other end of the phone line. “Oh.” Pause. “We hadn’t thought of that. Boy, is our face red.” Another pause. “I’ll have to get back to you on that. First, I’ve got to check my calendar. Remind me: what day is this?”