Thirty years ago, at Columbia University‘s 1989 graduation commencement ceremony, Laura Hotchkiss Brown, a graduate o the School of General Studies that year, and four of her friends hung a banner above the frieze of Butler Library where the names of many male philosophers like Aristotle and Pluto are engraved. The 1989 banner had eight names including Brontë, Dickinson, Sappho, Marie France, and Christine de Pizan. Though the students were stopped by security and the 140-foot long banner was promptly removed, the action has inspired several repeats. In 1994, a new banner appeared this time sanctioned by the university, when Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Simone de Beauvoir and Toni Morrison and others were included in a deliberate attempt to include more women of color.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the first banner and the 100th anniversary of the Columbia Univeristy’s Core Curriculum, a new banner was unveiled on October 1st and will be on display through December 16th, 2019. Dubbed the Butler Banner Project, this year’s banner is part of a larger effort to examine the absence of women of color in general from the “Western canon,” which in turn reflects what is included in the University’s Core Curriculum. Working with the support of Columbia Libraries, the students leaders including Radhika (Rads) Mehta from Columbia College, Augusta Owens of Barnard College, and Keziah Anderson of Columbia College, surveyed the student body to get their suggestions on which writers to include.

In the end, the women included are Maya Angelou, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, Diana Chang, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison, A. Revathi, Ntozake Shange, and Leslie Marmon Silko. Chang, Hurston and Shange are Columbia graduates, all are women of color. Morrison is the only one of these eight women who has work included in the Core, with Song of Solomon included since 2014.

The organizers state on the project website that all the women “come from every walk of life and write about topics ranging from queer theory to black motherhood. Women, especially those from marginalized identities, are often left out of the Western canon, along with the complex and important themes they write about….While there are countless women that we would have loved to include on the banner, we could only select eight. Our struggle to narrow down our list just highlights the importance of the many topics that are excluded from our studies through the exclusion of talented female writers and disenfranchised groups.” You can discover a series of programming at Columbia University created in conjunction with the Butler Banner Project on the project’s website, along with biographies of each of the writers.

Completed in 1934, Butler Library is the largest of Columbia University’s libraries. Originally known as South Hall, it was renamed in 1946 in honor of Nicholas Murray Butler, the school’s president from 1902 to 1945. On the sixth floor of Butler Library is located the mantel in front of which Edgar Allan Poe wrote the famous poem, “The Raven.”

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