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  • Eric Santomauro-Stenzel

Hamilton Barstool Post Mocking Decontextualized Poem on Slavery Sparks Discussions on Racism

Post since deleted; Barstool staff do not respond to criticisms

Content warnings: racism, misogyny, sexual assault, violence

Hamilton College’s Barstool Sports affiliate, @barstoolconts on Instagram, has come under fire for a post mocking a poem on slavery. On February 17th, @barstoolconts posted an excerpt of a book-length poem, Zong!, from a class on Caribbean literature (LIT/AFRST-216) titled “Zong! #1” by M. NourbeSe Philip, an award-winning Tobagonian Black woman poet now living in Canada. The caption on the Instagram post read, “a reading from caribbean lit, gotta love that liberal arts education right?”, appearing to mock the composition of the poem and potentially liberal arts education as a whole. Philip explains in a prose chapter at the end of the book that the poem is about the 1781 massacre of 150 enslaved Africans the captain threw overboard a slave ship, the Zong, so that he could make an insurance claim on the “loss” of his “property” and the legal battle over the claim that followed.

Instagram post from @barstoolconts. Screenshot taken February 17th, 2022.

@barstoolconts deleted the post later the same day following numerous students saying or implying the post was racist, or at least racially-insensitive, in the comments and across social media including Instagram, Twitter, and Jodel, with some calling for its deletion. The page did not issue a statement regarding the deletion.

Barstool Sports is a national company that posts college-related content across the internet. The company is known for social media posts about college parties, sports, memes, and images of conventionally attractive college-aged women in a series entitled “Smokeshow of the Day.” They also put up podcasts and blogs and have an expansive online merchandise store.

Barstool Sports has campus affiliate accounts across the country that are officially tied to the company and managed by students at their respective schools hired to be “Viceroys.” A “Viceroy” is the term for “a ruler exercising authority in a colony on behalf of a sovereign.” Hamilton’s affiliate has nearly 2,400 followers on Instagram, more than Student Assembly, the Spectator, the Campus Activities Board (CAB), or any other student organization. It is the third largest Instagram account about Hamilton College, following only @hamiltoncollege and @hamiltoncollegeathletics. The account is not officially associated with Hamilton College but does use college colors and iconography. Its posts often receive upwards of 300, 400, and 500 likes. According to her LinkedIn profile as of publishing time, Olivia DiTomasso ‘24 has been the @barstoolconts Viceroy since December 2020. The course roster shows she is not a student in the class. Neither @barstoolconts nor DiTomasso responded to multiple requests for comment. Barstool’s website describes the Viceroy as, “Somebody to rule a campus in the name of the king. Or in other words run our campus accounts and post the best stuff from campus on snapchat, instagram, twitter, etc in the name of the Stool.” Viceroys are compensated via “college credit, free merchandise, and cash.” @barstoolconts has regularly advertised Barstool Sports merchandise on its story and in posts this semester, including a $35 long-sleeve tee and $48 sweatshirt.

Barstool Sports’s Kyle Macchi, who is the Director of the Barstool Sports National College Viceroy Program responsible for overseeing campus affiliates like Hamilton’s, also did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Barstool Sports makes name, image, and likeness deals with varsity athletes, called “Barstool Athletes,” which permit them to use student athletes’ images for marketing purposes in exchange for merchandise. The Monitor requested interviews with three current and former Barstool Athletes at Hamilton College; one did not respond, one declined, and one was not available for comment until after publishing time. The Monitor was not able to determine by publishing time how @barstoolconts obtained the image of “Zong! #1” or if those who manage the account were aware of the poem’s subject and context, and will continue following this story for updates and potential comment from Barstool Sports associates.

Nationally, Barstool Sports and its omnipresent-in-marketing founder/Chief of Content, David “El Presidente” Portnoy, have been the subject of dozens of controversies over the years relating to allegations of sexual assault, misogyny, and rampant racism within the company and its published content. These criticisms have also been made of numerous campus affiliates; in one instance, Boston University’s student newspaper editors wrote that, “The bottom line is that the Barstool BU page — whether it means to or not — is complicit in the racist and misogynistic culture enforced by Barstool Sports and its founder David Portnoy by carrying the corporation’s name.” A sexual assault suvivivor advocacy group at BU has sought to shut the page down. Little has been written about Barstool Sports at Hamilton, but three years before @barstoolconts was created in March 2020, the Spectator’s Sports Editor described Barstool Sports as an organization that “makes its profit making fun of other sports team[s] and objectifying women."

The class, Caribbean Literature in Crucible 216, is taught by Professor Vincent Odamtten and is listed in the Literature and Africana Studies departments. Professor Odamtten, an expert in African, Caribbean, and African-American literatures, was appointed to the faculty in 1999 and is the current chair of the Africana Studies Department. The course catalog says the class covers, “A critical overview of Caribbean literatures in the light of the complex legacies that have given rise to a body of creative work that seems to constantly fashion and refashion itself. Such literary recasting helps to communicate an intricate history of genocides, survival, exile, resistance, endurance, and outward migrations.” The course syllabus and statements from students in the class show that Zong! was covered in the first weeks of the semester, weeks before the post.

In an email to a “Senior Officer” of Hamilton College, Professor Odamtten expressed his indignation about the post, saying it “got my attention and temperature coming close to a solar flare.” He expanded in the message that, “Apart from the insult to people of Caribbean descent, people of color in general, the poet who wrote the book, and other students who are serious about the course, the post displays gross ignorance and is disrespectful. The Instagram page is in the public domain and reflects poorly on Hamilton College.” Professor Odamtten said he received a swift response to his email, but by the time he did the post had already been taken down.

Kiara Nelson ‘25, a student in the class, was angered by the @barstoolconts post. “That’s so insensitive, because we spent upwards of three class periods talking about the poem and its meaning,” they said. “It was definitely minimizing the power of the poem and how it’s trying to shine light on a story that will never truly be told because it was washed away. If you’re in the class and you understand this material, and you understood the sensitivity of it, and you’re still making a joke out of it? I thought it was really poorly handled.” In response to the post’s deletion and lack of acknowledgement of the criticism she said, “they completely dismissed it.”

Julio Demb ‘23, who had not seen the post at the time it went up, is another student in the class and co-chair of the Black and Latinx Student Union. Speaking on behalf of himself (not the whole of BLSU), he said of the post, “Honestly, I didn’t have a very strong reaction.” Of the poem’s complexity, he said “I could certainly understand why someone would be like, ‘wow, this is very different from a lot of other stuff I read.’” While he said he did not feel there was anything “inherently wrong” with pointing that aspect out, he thought “it’d be better to do something that isn’t so loaded, historically speaking,” encouraging posts about other course areas instead. He added that he felt the post was “a little bit insensitive” and was glad it was taken down.

Fred Wah, a former Poet Laureate of Canada, writes that the poem, “is one of the most labor-intensive poetic texts I’ve encountered. Unfortunately many readers will prefer the work to be transparent, the reading of it to be effortless.” Professor Odamtten’s comments spoke to this same sentiment: “because a student finds something difficult, or challenging does not mean that the subject is frivolous or childish.” In the prose final chapter, “Notanda,” Philip both explains how she technically composed the book-length poem and her rationale for formatting it as she did. She says, “My intent is to use the text of the legal decision as a word store; to lock myself into this particular and peculiar discursive landscape in the belief that the story of these African men, women, and children thrown overboard in an attempt to collect insurance monies, the story that can only be told by not telling, is locked in this text. In the many silences within the Silence of the text. I would lock myself in this text in the same way men, women, and children were locked in the holds of the slave ship Zong” (191).

Nelson and Demb both thought Zong! was a valuable part of a liberal arts education. Demb explained the purpose of liberal arts education is to have a well-rounded education and “to be challenged in concrete and abstract ways.” He felt, “Zong! is a perfect example of the abstract challenges that we value within a liberal arts education.”

Joel Adade ‘22 is not in this course but has previously studied the poem and taken numerous courses in the Africana Studies Department including with Professor Odamtten. He is a Days-Massolo Center Student Ambassador, founder of ROOTS: Hamiltons Society for Students of Color in STEM, and the former Secretary for BLSU. Speaking for himself, he expressed the learnings he has gained from Africana Studies courses have been invaluable for both his academic and personal growth. However, the social experience has been less positive. “I don’t know I’d have it in me to take more classes, specifically because of what it feels like to be in those classes.” Recalling that he was often one of only a few Black students in a class and that he has noticed many non-Black students not participating or completing readings, he said, “the feeling of being in those classes, being the only Black person, having these conversations, you can’t get past the basics of anything. Sometimes you can’t even get to the basics of anything.” He said there is a perception among white students, in particular many athletes, that these courses are easy. He said of many white students in Africana Studies, “they make it an environment that I, personally, after last semester, did not want to be in ever again.”

Professor Odamtten addressed the @barstoolconts post in his class. He shared that in this case, the Administration “talked me off the ledge so to speak.” He says, as he has done before, he channeled his frustration into making this a “teachable moment” for students in the course. He did this “without naming names, and stressing the fact that such posts reveal the ignorance of the person or persons responsible.”

Nelson recalled this and had mixed feelings. While they would like someone to own up and apologize, they also felt “that will only remind people that these kind of things are posted and these things occur and there’s probably going to be no learning from it unless there’s actual conversation had with the people who run @barstoolconts or other people who would have easily said something like this.” They expressed that while an apology would be good, it does not change that the post was made, and she would feel that apology is “surface-level” and “not coming from a place of concern” because of how @barstoolconts and the submitter initially handled the situation. However, if an apology were made, she would want it to be both public on the page and in private to Professor Odamtten and LIT/AFRST-216, and would like the opportunity to see them grow as a person.

Adade responded that, “Hamilton itself has so many deep-rooted problems that I don’t know @barstoolconts or whoever submitted the post correcting this specific thing changes anything.” He lacks confidence in the sincerity of an apology, saying, “Them coming to apologize does nothing for me because I have no proof or assurance that you actually internalized what you should learn from this situation that would then apply to subsequent situations.” He maintains that, while upsetting, this incident is only a microcosm of a littany of racist issues at Hamilton, and an official response from Hamilton College would only mean something in a broader context where the school issues statements about the breadth of racist incidents that occur, which at present it rarely does. Nelson expressed similar sentiments, saying if Hamilton were to respond it would be like a “band-aid,” and that she has “seen much worse” here, raising that “you can accept diverse students, but once you don’t give them an environment where they can feel safe and feel they can grow, there’s no point in accepting them.”

Conversations about race and racism at Hamilton have been increasingly public and tense in the past few years, especially since the Black Lives Matter uprising of summer 2020 began. This semester, these issues boiled over following the publicization that numerous marginalized faculty members have resigned or will be resigning this year. These resignations are disproportionate to their cisgender, heterosexual, able-bodied white colleagues. One professor, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Mariam Durrani, has publicly written that her resignation was in part caused by a hostile environment where she and her academic work were targeted by white supremacists both affiliated and unaffiliated with Hamilton College, and the Administration’s inadequate responses to her concerns.

Professor Odamtten said his concerns have been “institutional rather than inter-personal.” Yet in discussions with his colleagues, “On the other hand, I have had a greater need to take a few deep breaths to extinguish the raging fires because of faculty who should know better.” Professor Durrani echoed these sentiments in her piece, saying there are few structures for marginalized faculty having negative experiences to address them, and said of some colleagues, “They watched me suffer while offering personal ‘I'm so sorry’-type, ‘No one takes those guys seriously’-type, and other similarly insufficient responses.” It is experiences like these that have often come to contour the realities of day-to-day life for many faculty of color. She expanded on these feelings at length in an interview with The Monitor this week.

Students, too, have expressed alarm with an environment at Hamilton College that downplays the experiences of marginalized communities and places the burden of redressing discriminatory harm disproportionately on those who have been victimized themselves. Anyi Rescalvo ‘22 and Karina Becerra ‘22, for example, have been pushing the college to ensure all graduating students with non-English language names have a native speaker pronounce their name correctly at commencement. Currently, in a tradition that has lasted over 200 years since Hamilton’s days as a religious institution, only specific positions within the College have been permitted to read names at commencement; many students with non-English names have simply submitted their anglicized names to be read aloud. In an interview with The Monitor this week, Becerra asserted, “It is to me about dignity, we go through everyday life having our names butchered, we at least deserve that respect at Commencement.” Rescalvo explained the toll this work has taken on them, saying, “We were both tired, but we also have to keep it going, not only for us and for our families, but there are other students that are going through the same thing.”

To Adade, these larger cultural patterns at Hamilton are represented in the @barstoolconts post and the reaction to it. “The fact that this post was meant to be funny, and that people found it funny, did not surprise me one bit. If those thoughts, values, and ideas are any indication of the true character of non-Black people at Hamilton, all I can say to that is: I already knew.”

Professor Odamtten, however, is not ready to let a series of racist incidents and experiences go unanswered. “I suspect, for junior faculty of color, and especially women, the aggression and disrespect from students and their colleagues is intolerable, particularly when the custodians of power are lukewarm in their response. Not everyone is in my particular position, thus informed, coordinated, and collective action or push-back seems logical.”

Updated 4/12 to include links to interviews published this week in The Monitor.

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