The Center for the Humanities is proud to lead a College-wide, multi-year initiative to select 12 names to inscribe in the Humanities and Social Studies Center atrium, a centrally located shared public space on campus. We will partner with members from across the College community to connect “Inscriptions for the Future” to our curriculum, co-curriculum, and our broader public life. To paraphrase Shanna Benjamin, who gave the project’s inaugural lecture, these are inscriptions for our future.
Inscribing Our Past, Present, and Future
In 1905, Iowa College, which became Grinnell College in 1909, opened Carnegie Library. The building had eleven names inscribed into its limestone frieze just below the roofline, many of them featured on or in other Carnegie libraries from the same era. Caesar. Isaiah. Emerson. Shakespeare. Dante. Homer. Plato. Michelangelo. Darwin. Goethe. Galileo.
Together, these names tell a story. They construct a particular historical, social, cultural, and political story about what Andrew Carnegie, the project’s patron, referred to as human civilization. For over a century, these names remained the only names gracing the walls of our academic buildings. This changed in February 2020.
That month, President Raynard Kington unveiled Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison as the first person whose name the College inscribed, in stone, in an academic building since Carnegie Library opened. It is fitting that Carnegie Library, which became Carnegie Hall many years ago, has now become part of the Humanities and Social Studies Center, into whose walls we have inscribed “Morrison.”
In the coming years, the Grinnell College community will have a special opportunity to select additional names for inscription in the atrium of the Humanities and Social Studies Center. These names will represent who we are today and who we aspire to be — names of people who embody our institution’s commitment to social responsibility, building inclusive and sustainable community, and pursuing knowledge in the service of these ends.
The inscription project’s name comes from Shanna Benjamin’s February 2020 inaugural lecture, “Inscriptions for the Future: Toni Morrison and Black Feminist Beginnings.” Morrison and Morrison’s inscription encapsulate the goals of the project perfectly.
According to Benjamin, “Before Toni Morrison became the first black woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, before Beloved, before The Oprah Winfrey Show and its book club, Morrison was a relative unknown to the general public, overlooked and undervalued as a black woman in American letters.” However, “For black women in the academy, for black writers touched by her editorial prowess, and among those within literary sister circles who debated Morrison’s treatment of black beauty, slavery, and the white gaze, her value was never in question.”
The goal of the Inscriptions for the Future project is to identify people whose value may have been overlooked by dominant segments of societies during their lifetimes, but whose value was never in question to others, and to inscribe a selection of their names in the walls of HSSC. Through a collective nomination process and a representative selection process, the Center’s goal is to have our community inscribe names in the HSSC atrium that will help create truly shared public space.