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The Wisconsin Boulder Affair

Students at the University of Wisconsin struck a resounding blow against racism with their successful campaign to remove a 42-ton boulder that in the 1920s was referred to by a racial epithet. The epithet at issue is a derogatory term commonly used during that period to refer to any large, dark rock. University historians documented a single use of the word in print in a 1925 article about the boulder in the Wisconsin State Journal. The name is without question offensive and unacceptable. It was never an official designation for the boulder.

The boulder is a rare, large example of a pre-Cambrian era glacial erratic that experts say is likely over 2 billion years old. It was carried by glaciers from as far north as Canada and dumped on Observatory Hill along with billions of tons of other debris when ice receded from the state about 12,000 years ago. (AP, Univ of Wis moves rock)

Formerly known as Chamberlain Rock, the boulder was named after Thomas Chamberlain, a professor of sciences with a love for geology who served as university president 1887–1892. Chamberlain has not been accused of racism or being associated with racism. Nonetheless, during 2020's summer of reckoning the Wisconsin Black Student Union and the Native American student organization Wunk Sheek determined that the rock named for him is a racist monument and rose up in high dudgeon to demand that it be removed from campus. The university chancellor approved removal of Chamberlain Rock in January. The Wisconsin Historical Society also had to sign off because the boulder was within fifteen feet of a Native American burial site and did so after determining that no remains would be disturbed.

The big rock is being moved to university-owned land south of Madison, where it will continue to be used for educational purposes. Private donations covered the cost of removal. Chamberlain's name has been removed from the boulder, which will henceforth be known simply as a glacial erratic. The university plans to erect a plaque in Chamberlain Hall, home of the Physics Department, to honor the former university president.

Campus officials explained the dangers that had been avoided by the removal of the Chamberlin rock. “Students and the general public will no longer casually encounter the rock,” one university official explained, “but it will remain available to those specifically seeking it out for teaching and learning purposes." (Note the staggering assumptions of fragility here—that students who might “casually come upon” the rock would be traumatized and victimized by the systemic racism represented by a 2 billion year old boulder.) (Sykes, Rock of Outrages)

The student representative on Madison City Council said, "This moment is about the students, past and present, that relentlessly advocated for the removal of this racist monument. Now is a moment for all of us BIPOC students to breathe a sigh of relief, to be proud of our endurance, and to begin healing."

A web search did not turn up information about the campaign to remove the boulder that went beyond an Associated Press article reprinted by a number of news outlets. It would be interesting and perhaps worthwhile to know how the boulder's checkered past came to the attention of student activists. Is the racist epithet still used by campus blockheads? Or did it pass away after the 1920s as the AP's report implies? Is it the stuff of campus lore? Did some enterprising crusader find the story while scouring the internet for a cause célèbre to rally around during the heated summer of 2020?

Students articulated their case on a poster that denounced the rock as a symbol of anti-blackness. The list of grievances goes like this:

  • Chamberlain Rock sits on Observatory Drive on the UW-Madison campus;

  • the rock was originally named and called "[objectionable word deleted] Rock";

  • in several English-speaking countries the offensive word is the former name for several things thought to resemble the head of a black person (per Wikipedia); and

  • students, some of them black, in geology classes were assigned to find and take a picture of the rock.

It is not much of a case. Nothing indicates that the name was ever in any manner or fashion official or sanctioned by the university or any other authority. There is no suggestion that the geology assignments had anything to do with race. It was a monument only in reference to Thomas Chamberlain for his contributions to the school. Citation of Wikipedia as the sole reference is indicative of the depth of research and scholarship that went into the effort.

Charlie Sykes aptly terms the episode "a vignette of academic self-parody that really deserved better treatment than the usual heavy-breathing on Fox News." It is almost tempting to speculate that the boulder affair was a false-flag operation designed to make liberals and progressives appear goofy, something our liberals and progressives have amply demonstrated time and again that they can handle quite capably on their own.

The fact that one hundred years ago the glacial erratic was known informally by a name that is unacceptable today does not make it a racist monument. The inability or unwillingness to distinguish between glacial debris known at one time by a name that would be used today only by a blockhead and monuments honoring people who fought to preserve slavery erected as affirmations of white supremacy is unfortunately typical of contemporary discourse.

Students have clashed with university officials and civil authorities over grievances genuine and perceived for as long as there have been universities. Since the Middle Ages this has been as much part of student life as drunkenness, brawling, whoring, and, yes, study. The kowtowing of university officials may not have always been as pronounced as it is in today's environment but it too is not without precedent.

I have no doubt that the student activists were terribly earnest, as I was terribly earnest fifty years ago when I stood in the cold outside the student union passing out flyers promoting antiwar rallies. Trying to do something that might mean something. That some students having learned of the boulder's heritage might find its presence painful is all too believable in a culture where a generation or several have been socially conditioned to be traumatized by such things.

I call myself a poet. As such I think I have some understanding of the significance of symbols and symbolic gestures. How the rock is a symbol of systemic racism is beyond me. Be that as it may, the rock became a target of performative outrage. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Near mania for victimization, susceptibility to trauma and pain, obsession with uncovering past crimes however obscure, trifling, or dubious, and compulsion to condemn and purge are hallmarks of American culture in the 21st century.

The boulder affair is troubling in ways I hope I have thrown some light on here without making too much of it. Follies of this sort should not be overblown. Neither should they be left unacknowledged to serve as fodder for propaganda and disinformation spewed by Fox News polemicists and right-wing websites.


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