The Chamberlin Rock speaks!

September 24, 2022 • 12:30 pm

You may remember the 42-ton rock, called “Chamberlin rock,” that once occupied a prominent site on campus at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  Here’s a photo from a post I did on the kerfuffle about this boulder a bit more than a year ago:

Photo: Wisconsin State Journal archives

Somehow it was discovered that the rock had, just one time 97 years ago, been described using the n-word, and apparently that’s the only time the rock was given that name. Here’s that appearance in a local paper, The Wisconsin State Journal.  University archivists have never been able to find another mention of that racist monicker:

After this discovery from 1925, the Black Students Union deemed the rock’s presence offensive and harmful, and at great expense the University had the rock moved to an unobtrusive location.  John McWhorter wrote one of his first columns on the rock and the objections to it, a form of “activism” that he called he said was really “playacting”. It was a superb column, and you can read it by clicking on the screenshot.

At the time I was afraid McWhorter was going to give up his criticism of woke activism when he joined the NYT, but this column (along with the one on affirmative action from yesterday) show that my fears were unfounded. He’s still “heterodox.”

A quote from his piece on the rock.

Let us remember: The point here is treating a rock as psychologically damaging because of something someone dug up written about it at a time when people lived without antibiotics, television or McDonald’s. And yes, people often called big rocks and other things that ugly name in those days. But by that logic, we should be lifting away thousands of rocks nationwide. Note the perfect absurdity of an idea that America is “coming to terms” with racism by having cranes laboring all over the country moving boulders to different spots. Then I assume we must also refrain from consuming what many consider the most luscious of nuts, the Brazil — because they have been described with a similar word as the rock. Let us raze stands of Brazil nuts worldwide as a gesture of antiracism? Nay, I shall continue to savor their exquisiteness and shall wince not.

My message here is not that the students should have just hit the books and kept their chinny chins up. Black America has problems that cannot be solved via personal initiative alone, and young people eager to help change the world are to be lauded for addressing them. If the Black students who had that rock pulled away do tutoring with Black kids in Madison’s more challenged public schools or get behind police reform efforts in the same city, then they deserve all due support. (I’d even consider giving them school credit for it.)

But the rock episode was settling for performance art and calling it antiracism. Kabuki as civil rights — it’s fake, it’s self-involved, and it helps no one. Yes, racism persists in our society in many ways, and administrators serving up craven condescension as antiracism are fine examples of it.

To many people, this column was one of the first to bring the notion of “performative activism” to the consciousness of many Americans. And of course now we see it daily. A lot of activism, of course, is sincere activism, and I see instances of that all the time. Some of my best friends from college are dedicated to true “social justice”, and have spent their lives doing social work, teaching English to immigrants, deliberately teaching in minority schools, and so on. But what distinguishes “wokeness” from genuine social justice advocates is that the woke are engaged in a performance—usually involved in showing what good people they are, and what a good tribe they belong to. .

But I digress. The reason I recounted this story is that Chamberlin rock has now itself written a column about its fate, a piece published in the local Madison Magazine. It’s surprisingly antiwoke for a magazine like this, but also funny. Click to read it. The intro to the rock’s sad tale is this:

This month’s magazine features a thoughtful piece by editor Andrea Behling regarding the issue of historical monuments. As a white male I am clearly overrepresented by statues, so I have turned the column over to the 2021 object of controversy on the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus formerly known by most as Chamberlin Rock.

Take it away, Chamberlin.

The title, of course, comes from the Simon and Garfunkel song.

The rock speaks:

Hi folks,

. . . . . Nearly 100 years ago, some ignorant men gave me a nickname that was racist.

They were racists in a casual way, because most white men of that time thought they were kings, and all others — women, people of color, gay men and women — were lesser beings. That is how it was. It was in the air they breathed.

My lawyers, if a rock could have lawyers, would argue that I was the target of said insult, not the originator of the slur. The best proof that I never uttered the offensive word is that I am a rock and cannot speak. Additionally, please note that I have never taken the chiseled form of a Confederate general and never would.

I have lived in Wisconsin longer than any of you. I’m a big fan of your state. At 42 tons, you could say that I am your biggest fan. I would have enlisted to fight with the Wisconsin Union soldiers in the Civil War, but given my size it would be impossible for me to fit into a uniform. The university used $50,000 in private donations to move me just 14 miles, so I can’t imagine what it would cost to move me to a Virginia battlefield to fight alongside the 12,000 Wisconsin men who died fighting to free Black men, women and children.

After the university relocated me to a site near Lake Kegonsa, I was happy for the whole thing to blow over. But then an associate professor at Columbia University named John McWhorter published an essay about me in The New York Times.

I sense the rock didn’t like that extra attention, for it doesn’t harshly criticize the students who got it moved. (Remember, according to panpsychists, rocks have consciousness!) But in the end Mr. C. Rock agrees with McWhorter:

. . . .McWhorter, who is Black, suggested that the UW deciding to move me was more about racial theater than the advancement of civil rights. He argued that trucking me off campus lacked intellectual rigor. He suggested that the students would have been more productive using their efforts to better the future, not trying to rectify an obscure event from the distant past.

I respect the students who call for my removal for their passion.

I surely think folks should build a lot more statues of heroes who aren’t white men, because heroes come in all colors and genders. But I side with professor McWhorter when he argues that discussions regarding monuments and history require fact and intellectual rigor. Sinful emblems of the past should be corrected. But uninformed impulse wastes political capital and distracts from the hope of a better future. A better future that requires humans to be brought together, not torn apart.

Some of you will have to request forgiveness. Some of you will have to grant it. That is when hope arrives.

One last thing.
When I was on campus, the Bascom Hall statue of Abraham Lincoln was my neighbor. I miss him. I don’t think you should take his statue down.
Over my 2 billion years, I have seen a lot of you humans come and go.
He was one of the good ones.

The Chamberlin Rock

Somehow, knowing that the rock not only has consciousness, but political and ideological opinions, it makes me ineffably sad to think of how it felt during its four-hour relocation to a new home:

(Photo and caption from The University of Wisconsin News.) A contracted crew working for UW-Madison removes Chamberlin Rock, a two-billion year-old glacial erratic, from Observatory Hill at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on August 6, 2021. The rock is named after Thomas Chamberlin, a geologist who worked as university president from 1887 to 1892. However, the rock was known by a racial slur for several years after it was unearthed and installed. The UW Black Student Union led the way for removing the rock from campus, saying it had caused harm to the Black community over the years. The rock will be placed on university-owned land southeast of Madison near Lake Kegonsa. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

There’s more in the column, so have a look.

h/t: Eric

22 thoughts on “The Chamberlin Rock speaks!

  1. Bad rock! Take THAT, you evil chunk of Canadian Precambrian gneiss that crossed the border without papers hidden in a glacier only to take up unwanted residence in our beloved Wisconsin. Be gone! Go where I don’t have to look at you!

    There, I feel better.

    So stupid.

    1. You are so right. That rock IS an illegal immigrant. The fact it was subjected to forcible removal is a terrible injustice. That’s the behavior we expect of racist rightoids, and not progressive citizens. For shame, Wisconsin.

  2. No “wokester” could possibly answer, in a cogent and rational manner, the following questions: 1)What of any value was accomplished by the removal of the “offensive” rock? and 2) Could not the money squandered (not a small sum) on such a project have been spent more sensibly?

  3. The last paragraph in the article by T.C. Rock – the one about Lincoln – brought a totally unexpected tear to my eye.

    It also raised a question in my mind. If Lincoln isn’t a “good” man, is anybody? The vast majority of historical figures don’t hold a candle to Lincoln, in terms of character and the good he did. There’s no one better to replace Lincoln with. On the other hand, there are a lot worse.

  4. As a UW Madison grad, 1990, I have no recollection of the rock or anybody talking about it. Of course, my memory is about as reliable as a rusty bucket.

    Re brazil nuts, to quote a Brazilian character in The Simpsons: “We just call them nuts”.

  5. And I think it was never even a ‘nickname’ for that particular rock. It’s pretty clear from the context in the original article that the offensive term was generic at the time and place for any rock of decent size unearthed in a field. This was just a spectacular example that made the paper.
    Here in the Mojave desert there is a cactus common in rocky areas that used to have the same offensive name. There are field guides still in print from the 30s and 40s that use it as the species common name. Nobody calls them that any more of course, but the point is you wouldn’t take it out on some random individual cactus.

  6. I have a collection of pet rocks (from places visited) all colours, shapes, small enough to fit a display. I swear some of them weeped when I read them this story. To placate, I told them they could have crushed Chambelian into a load of pebbles… more anguish and wailing, it was to much I had to leave the room.

    I did learn this: (Google)
    Stone piles have been built by world cultures from nomadic to agricultural to tribal. Ancient Mongolians erected cairns, as did mountain dwellers in South America. Often, the stacks were intended to help people find their way safely around areas with little vegetation.

    Perhaps these sensitive students could/should have repurposed Chambelian.

  7. Yeah, that rock was obviously a victim of racism, not a perpetrator. The woke should be campaigning to spend a few tens of thousands of U$D to get it back to it’s rightful place. And then we’ll talk about reparations.
    But the likes of Kendi and DiAngelo are mum about this injustice.

  8. Very good. But the writer of that letter has now made themselves a target for those who cast stones. The actors of virtue theater do not like being mocked.

  9. There is a bay in a lake in Ontario that used to be nicknamed with the N word. I believe old maps actually used the name. So what to do with the bay now? Is the bay racist? Drain the bay and fill it with rocks?

    1. Just be careful what the rocks were named.

      The Chamberlin Rock is interesting. Madison lies in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin and parts of adjoining states which means it was not scraped over and dumped on by the last continental Ice Age glaciation. So if it is an igneous erratic from the Canadian Shield, it was dropped there during some previous glaciation. (Here in Southern Ontario we have lots of glacial features, including the southern-most drumlin field in Canada.)

      This AP story then, dating the rock’s arrival to the last glaciation, can’t be correct if I understand the geology of the Driftless Area. I rode an excellent Grand Fondo amateur bicycle event there in 2012, The Dairyland Dare, and got to visit 200 challenging kilometres of this fascinating region.

      And yes, I agree with Norman Gilinsky at #1 . It looks more like gneiss to me, too. As they say, “It’s not gneiss to be taken for granite.”

      1. The Driftless Area begins a bit west of Madison, so the Rock likely is from the last glaciation. Many features of the Madison area, including its lakes, are a result of the last glaciation (which in North America is called the Wisconsin Glaciation). Not far west of Madison, though, for example at Spring Green, you can see the unglaciated land forms typical of the Driftless Area, including a raggedly eroded bluff, which would have been “smoothed” over had it been in a glaciated area. Your bike tour must have been fun!


        1. Thanks! I was going by an on-Line reference that showed Madison just inside the Area. The ride was based in Dodgeville. Our group, assembled from an on-line cycling forum of steel-bike enthusiasts, converged on the Mineral Point Volunteer Fire Dept who put on a nice pre-ride feast for us. My recollection driving there was that the landscape changed beyond Madison, so I don’t doubt that you are correct and a casual refresher from the Internet is wrong. It all now hangs together in my mind.

          Thanks again.

  10. My lawyers, if a rock could have lawyers, would argue that I was the target of said insult, not the originator of the slur. The best proof that I never uttered the offensive word is that I am a rock and cannot speak.

  11. And even if that offensive nickname were, in fact, the rock’s “official” name, why not just rechristen it and call it a day? “They used to call this rock something awful. Now we will know it as the Madison Rock” or whatever.

    I know I’m the 100,000th person to say this. Still.

    1. Or spray paint. Or have a re-naming contest. Or bury it, with all those who are offending using ceremonial signing shovels, like we do with Special Pens that sign Important Documents.

      So… where did they move it? Let the location be known, so someone else can be publicly be harmed by it.

  12. What kind of statement on free speech does UW Madison have? I found guidelines on _protest_ at UW Madison, in my hasty search.

    I wonder if, had a strong Kalven Report equivalent in place, important discussion of this operation could have led to better decision making.

    Or am I wrong that there was uniformity of viewpoints on C. Rock, with none dissenting?

  13. This chronicle goes far as the following sentence includes a loaded word, surely on purpose.
    “It’s a safe bet that nobody in Wisconsin assenting to have that rock hauled off thought the demand to move it made a whit of sense.”

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