Homer. Herodotus. Sophocles. Plato. Aristotle. Demosthenes. Cicero. Vergil.
Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male. Male.
These are the author’s names chiseled into the stone facade of Columbia University’s Butler Library. In case it hasn’t become clear yet, every single one of them is a man.
For three decades, students at Columbia have been making bold statements about the lack of inclusivity the inscription communicates – and they’ve been doing it right on the building itself.
It all began on commencement day in 1989 when Laura Hotchkiss Brown and four friends unfurled a banner across the face of Butler Library. But almost immediately, it was removed by campus security.
The banner would appear later in the fall of the same year, and then again for a single day in 1994 to commemorate Women’s History Month.
This week, a new banner for the 21st century has been stretched across the face of Butler Library.
It won’t stay for a day or a couple of minutes, but for the entire fall semester as part of a student-led exhibit supported by Columbia University Libraries.
In an op-ed for the Columbia Spectator, representatives of the Butler Banner Project explained that the names displayed prominently on historic campus buildings are more than just tributes to donors or revered figures.
“They are constant yet subtle reminders of the values of their respective institutions,” they write. “Every time someone walks past Butler, they see the names of eight white men and internalize that these are the writers and thinkers that Columbia deems deserving of cultural admiration.”
The new 140-foot banner emblazons the last names of Toni Morrison, Diana Chang, Zora Neale Hurston, Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, Leslie Marmon Silko, Gloria E Anzaldúa and A. Revathi across the face of Butler Library and directly above the original names.
An updated tribute to the past.
Today’s project nods to past iterations of the banner.
The original 1989 banner included the last names of Sappho, Marie de France, Christine de Pizan, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, Brontë (meant to represent all three Brontë sisters), Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf.
As the years passed, students’ thoughts on the women with the biggest influence on literature had evolved.
For the 1994 interpretation, the names of Sappho, Murasaki Shikibu, Mirabai, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Simone de Beauvoir, Toni Morrison, Leslie Marmon Silko and Sandra Cisneros graced the northern face of the library.
The names featured on today’s banner were selected by a small committee of Columbia and Barnard College students. A survey was also sent out to the Columbia College student body.
The selected authors offer a glimpse into a world of female identifying authors who have not been traditionally featured in literary canon or school curriculum.
Their work delves into the topics of black feminism, motherhood, the alienation of Native Americans, the culture of language, and many more topics.
Sarah Witte, the research collections and services librarian for women & gender studies, was a librarian at Columbia when the first banner was hung in 1989.
“I think some people don’t realize that they’re just looking at men’s names on things,” Witte told CNN. “So when women’s names are there, that really challenges or reminds them or affirms that, yes, women writers’ voices are as important.”
More than just a banner.
The striking visual of the banner is displayed as part of an ongoing exhibit curated by students and displayed inside the library.
The exhibit includes a piece of the original 1989 banner, as well as display cases featuring each of the eight banner authors, letters exchanged between former university president Nicholas Murray Butler and the architect of the building and materials from the 2019 project.
In addition to the exhibit, the students have organized a lineup of supporting events which will include a speaker series, a Radical Black Women of Harlem walking tour, an open mic night, Wikipedia Edit-a-Thons, a book club and a screening of “The Pieces I Am,” a documentary about the late Toni Morrison.
The banner and exhibit are displayed with the hopes of sparking conversations and highlighting the voices of people who have historically been excluded from school curriculums.
“We hope that this invites curiosity and inspires inquiry around the women who are on the banner, around questions about representation in the curriculum, and the way in which our collections support the curriculum and expand the notion of different voices,” Barbara A. Rockenbach, the associate university librarian for research & learning at Butler Library, told CNN.
According to librarians at Butler Library, the banner has received an overwhelmingly positive reception.
They have often overheard groups of students standing together in front of the building, discussing it and questioning the reason for its placement.
“People are questioning it and they should,” Rockenbach says. “We want people to consider who else is missing from that banner. So, we’re excited that there’s positive reception, but we’re also excited that people will disagree and that there’ll be a debate.”
In addition to questioning the placement of the banner itself, student leaders hope the project will lead students to question the foundational texts that colleges use to teach their students.
“We read literature to understand the human experience, and hopefully, by reading the themes and experiences of these writers, students will begin to see all that is left out of the Western canon,” said Radhika Mehta, a Columbia student and Butler Banner Project lead, told CNN in an email.
The banner and exhibit will be on display until December 16, but the Butler librarians suspect that this will not be the last time the public will see it.