The Need to Meet

The Yale Daily News building and the Afro-American Cultural Center share a walkway. The walk between the two takes fifty-six seconds. At second thirteen, you can no longer hear the grumbles of exhausted reporters, or the sounds of street traffic. At twenty-seven seconds in, asphalt becomes sidewalk beneath your feet. You step underneath a stone archway at second thirty, and a slight pivot to the right must be executed at second thirty-four, the point at which the addresses change from York Street to Park. A few more steps, then look: The cultural center, also known as the House, is on your left.

Last year I lived on Edgewood Avenue, across the street from the Af-Am side of the walkway. Every night, during my stint as Managing Editor of the News, I made the walk between the two fortresses. It was an uncomfortable walk. I’m a half-black woman, but I had never actually been inside of the House. It had started almost as an accident: I was busy, I had plenty of black friends who I met in other ways, and I had never really connected with the peer liaison I was assigned when I matriculated. But my association with the News eventually made me feel unwelcome at the House. Somehow, I had almost become less black.

My first visit to the House was in November of 2015, less than two months after I had become a News editor. Risë Nelson, the House’s director, had sent the paper’s senior editors an email with the subject line “Need to Meet.” She alleged that the News’ reporting was potentially dangerous to communities of color, explaining that our coverage of the recent protests over racial discrimination on campus had been poorly sourced and disengaged, and “many underrepresented students, faculty and administrators are unwilling to speak with the YDN.” And when we quoted her in the paper, we consistently neglected to include an umlaut over the “e” in her first name.

The News and the Af-Am House have been neighbors since 1970, when the House moved to its current location at 211 Park. The relationship between the News and the black community has historically been turbulent, but the headquarters of both groups are connected by the red brick that lies between them. There are no gaps, no pauses in the hundred-foot wall extending from 202 York to 211 Park. If a bomb detonates in one building, violent tremors rock the other. This is how it has always been.

Two years ago, the bomb was Rodney Cohen, Assistant Dean of Yale College and the center’s former director. During his time as director, students insisted that Cohen had failed the House: he was consistently absent, and he mismanaged resources. They had lodged complaints against Cohen in 2010, when they requested that he complete more training or risk removal from his post. Four years later, 147 students signed a sixty-nine-page petition of grievances against Cohen.

But most of the time we don’t pay attention. We don’t cover the less obvious things: the events, conferences, and rallies—stories that still deserve to be told.

In February 2015, the Yale Daily News wrote a “News’ View” calling for Cohen’s removal, but it was too late. His poor leadership had gone uncovered by campus publications for years, contributing to the most common criticism the News receives from communities of color: we pester them, ask them questions, and give them attention when something terrible has happened that we simply consider “news.” But most of the time we don’t pay attention. We don’t cover the less obvious things: the events, conferences, and rallies—stories that still deserve to be told.

I spent 2014 reporting on admissions and financial aid for the News, and I was fairly removed from the Dean Cohen situation. It wasn’t on my “beat,” and I had also never stepped foot inside the House. All of my free time was spent doing things for the News or thinking about doing things for the News. I watched my fellow reporters struggle to cover the situation with Dean Cohen, and I overheard students taking issue with their coverage. But at that point, it was still their coverage: articles written and edited by other people. I did not consider myself complicit. I covered the Office of Undergraduate Admissions.

Last November, when I was on the editorial board, students of color confronted former Silliman Head of College Nicholas Christakis in the Silliman courtyard and stood on cross campus telling stories of discrimination and abuse to Dean Jonathan Holloway. Criticisms of News coverage arose again, and this time I felt responsible for every single thing that was printed in the paper. Students condemned us for not including their side of the story while simultaneously declining our requests for comment. Communities of color said we were too gentle toward SAE (the frat now known as Leo) and Nicholas and Erika Christakis. In a Washington Post op-ed last month, Erika Christakis claimed the News misrepresented what happened last year in a way that indicated our bias and pushed she and her husband out of their administrative positions. When both sides claim you’re biased against them, whom could you possibly be biased toward?

The insensitivity went both ways. One afternoon that November, a News editor saw someone spit on our building as they walked by. Reporters reached out to student activists who said they had been told by group leaders to never speak to the News. Comments posted on Overheard at Yale referred to the News as “trash” and “racist.” At a race teach-in at Woolsey Hall, attended by over a thousand students, speakers leading the teach-in asked News reporters in the audience to stand up and identify themselves. “This meeting is OFF THE RECORD,” the event leader announced, as two News reporters stood up in a sea of one thousand. The audience cheered.

Before our meeting with Dean Nelson, my two white, female co-editors and I gathered at the Yale Daily News building. We were going to walk to the House together, and this time I would actually go inside.

In an ideal world, I would have been an active member of both spaces. I would have been best friends with Dean Nelson, or, better yet, like a daughter to her. I would have seen the House as a source of comfort rather than as a source of unease. I would have written every headline with the utmost sensitivity. I would have known the right things to say and when to say them. And I would have felt black, truly and completely black, even though my father is white. I would have been a person of color first, and a journalist second, or figured out how to be a journalist of color, because apparently people can do that. I would have felt like an asset rather than a liability to both. Instead, I was just someone who crossed the walkway with her head down.

During that fifty-six second walk, I wondered whether Dean Nelson would be surprised to find out that I was half black. I wondered if she’d think I was racist anyway. I wondered if that would mean I was.

I sat down with other Yale Daily News staffers and editors of color, some of whom are more active at the Af-Am House than I am. They shared a similar sentiment. As Coryna Ogunseitan said, when it comes to bridging the gap between the News and the Af-Am House, “there’s no one on campus who’s comfortable in both spaces.” Ogunseitan, a senior who is half Nigerian, used to edit WEEKEND, the News’ arts and culture section. Ogunseitan said that she constantly emphasized the distinction between WEEKEND and the rest of the News during her time at the paper, because she found certain coverage printed in the rest of the YDN, especially that of SAE, to be “indefensible” in how it allowed SAE to justify itself. She also told me that she tended to downplay her connection with the News while at the House.

As Coryna Ogunseitan said, when it comes to bridging the gap between the News and the Af-Am House, “there’s no one on campus who’s comfortable in both spaces.”

While several people said their connection to the News made it difficult for them to spend time at the Af-Am House, sophomore Ellie Pritchett claimed the opposite. At the News, Pritchett always felt like people viewed her as “the activist one” who was slightly out of place. Pritchett has stopped designing pages for the News. Instead she’s serving as Editor-in-Chief of DOWN Magazine, a publication written by and for students of color at Yale.

As it turned out, Dean Nelson didn’t think I was racist. She just thought that we could do better. After the meeting, we made a concerted effort to cover more things happening at the cultural centers, stories that were unrelated to the protests. We pledged to remember her umlaut. But students of color still often decline to speak with the News.

When thinking about the two spaces now, I start with the windows. Both buildings have the same ornate glass portals to the outside. If a window from one building were to shatter, you could replace it with a window from the other. No one would notice.

Both buildings have the same winding staircase. The Af-Am House has its Founders’ Room, with paintings of famous black alumni: Sylvia Arden Boone, John Blassingame, Armstead Robinson. And the Yale Daily News has its Reporters’ Room, covered in past A1s: “Alums lock tomb after Bones taps women,” “Yale overhauls financial aid,” “BODY FOUND.”

I’ve spent most of my life trying not to think about color, maybe because it’s just too hard. One student described the News’ proximity to the Af-Am House as “a machine of whiteness operating next to a space dedicated to blackness.” But I try to dwell on how red both buildings are, constructed from the same brick.

If it’s a Monday, you can hear drums when walking past the House. And you can see students inside the building, thumbing through textbooks, inserting pods into a Keurig machine, throwing their heads back in laughter. The windows are open, the lights are on, and there are portraits of people you don’t recognize hanging on the walls. Everyone inside is black, and so are you. Second fifty-six. You keep walking.

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