An Open Letter to the Vassar History Department

I wrote this letter as a way to process my grief surrounding both the discovery of the bodies of Native people on Vassar’s campus and the experiences I’ve had continuously as a person of color here. Though I originally intended to only circulate this letter within the History Department, with Ivanna Guerra’s urging and support, I decided to share it with a larger audience in the hope that more people may find something within my thoughts that resonates.

Dear Vassar History Department,

Hello. Nice to meet you, if we haven’t met before. My name is Nika McKechnie, and I am a history major.

In a lot of ways, I’m like a lot of you. I grew up in New York City, I’m a double major because I couldn’t decide which department to pick, I’m trying to not eat meat right now but I’m definitely iron deficient because of it (why are so many Vassar students iron deficient?).

But in a really important way, I’m not like a lot of you. It’s something that I notice every time I walk into a class: I wait for all of the students to take their seats before I do my count. Okay, I’m one of three, I think in one class. Oh, here I’m one of two, I think in another.

Wow, the only one? Really?

Sometimes I get more specific and count that, in a room of 20-something people, two-thirds are blonde. Maybe if I were a STEM major, I’d try to calculate the statistical odds of so many blondes registering for the same class.

Of course, I also wonder if the other students are doing a similar count. Even if they don’t, I know that I stand out to them.

There are a few things that I’ve learned as a history major of color. First of all, the Swift second floor bathroom is pretty good to cry in, but I would recommend walking up to the third floor instead, because it’s less likely that a classmate will come knock on the door, wondering why you’re taking so long. Secondly, I’m not the only one feeling this way, but it’s so scary to be vulnerable enough to find out that other people actually understand me. That is the loneliest feeling in the world. Third, I’ve learned that all history majors don’t see story like I do.

I became a history major because of my love and reverence for story. I think that is my Native inheritance, knowing the responsibility and the power of being a storyteller. It seems like so many historians and students of history don’t see that what we do is storytelling, like they see academic history as objective and storytelling as not. But it’s right there in the name: history.

I know what it is to tell a story, and what it is to have your story told for you. I know how it feels to have a chorus of ancestors in my blood and bones and tears, moving my body to story. I know the shrieks that shake every inch of me when that story is ripped away. I know what it is like to have myself written into a story by someone I’ve never met, to have the same done to my mother, to my grandfather, to my ohana, to my āina. I’ve been told that my ʻōlelo is dead by the people who killed it, and then I’ve been forced to watch them write my stories in their own.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why other people become history majors. I think that if we study history without emotionality and without connection to it, there is no point to studying history at all. But I also don’t know how we make space for that in academia, because there is such a stigma against emotionality. People want there to be some objectivity to this study, and having emotions completely shatters that illusion.

I don’t know how to learn history without caring. Maybe I should rephrase and say that I don’t know how to learn history without crying because I carry so much pain and grief with me from all that I’ve learned. That is also my Native inheritance, and my Chinese inheritance, and my inheritance from all previous Vassar students who were here not because the school was built for them, but because the school finally ceded to accept their existence. It is an absolutely exhausting inheritance. The more history I learn, the more suffering I carry in my body.

But I do it for story.

I do it because it is my story, and allowing anyone to take it from me is the deepest violation. I wish there were more of us in the History Department, telling our stories not for the academic benefit or enrichment of white people, but because it is our inheritance, and it is our right, and it is our joy and our humanity and our ancestry.

So, let me change this letter.

Dear Vassar History Majors of Color,

My name is Nika McKechnie, and I am a storyteller, and I am a history teller, and though I have felt it before, I know that I am not alone. It would be my honor to learn with you, to mourn with you and to grow with you. It is so nice to finally meet you.

—Nika McKechnie ’21

One Comment

  1. Thank you for writing this. A history major at Vassar (way back in history), I believe you are right to believe in and focus on the story piece of history. It is the part that counts. I ache for your isolation and your grief, and I also celebrate your courage.

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