On the Question of Sabrina
Dear Amherst community,
Following recent discussions on the lack of Amherst traditions and school spirit, I’m writing today to speak with you candidly on the question of one of the oldest pieces of Amherst folklore, the Sabrina, and on what she means (and what she could mean) to the Amherst community.
For those among you unaware of this history, Sabrina is a 300lb bronze statue of a nymph donated to Amherst College in 1857. Left undisturbed for only a few years, the then all-male campus soon began playing pranks on the nude statue, eventually causing the administration to remove her from her repose behind the Octagon and hide her in a nearby barn. It wasn’t until 1891, when students discovered her hiding spot, that a long period of interclass rivalry began, as the odd- and even- classes competed for her possession. Over the years, the tradition has prompted much commotion among the students, though usually at the cost of Sabrina herself. Among these include being thrown down the college well, a car chase where gun fire left her (as well as a number of students) wounded, being dangled out of a helicopter over a football game, a decapitation by rival Williams students and a loosening of the reattached head by Prince Albert Grimaldi ’77, who accidentally dropped her out of a car and whom the students enlisted at the last minute so they could claim diplomatic immunity if necessary. In the 1990s, the statue was returned to the college until the Class of 2008 liberated her from a campus basement. While in their care, the statue was completely recast and reattached to a new hand and foot. Her first public appearance in five years was during last year’s Reunion activities, where she promptly transferred into the care of the Class of 2014.
Having worked in Archives & Special Collections for three years now, I’ve come across a fair share of material depicting the misogynistic attitudes towards Sabrina; she is traditionally treated as a poor, defenseless nymph who suffers various damages and is the prize of whoever has her in their possession. The heyday of the Sabrina tradition (1880s-1930s) reeks of this attitude and perhaps it may even remain among some of the older Amherst alumni. However, from the perspective of current students, I believe there is another side to this story.
Over the past ten years, Sabrina has made very few appearances on our campus. Knowledge of the statue and its history has diminished significantly, with few students even aware of Sabrina’s existence today. In this context, current students no longer harbor the same sentiments towards the statue as our predecessors. In addition, the Class of 2008’s recent efforts in restoring the statue to its full original glory (she looks as good as new!) means any traces of her previous mistreatments are now healed; she has been completely recast. I believe we can do something similar in our beholding of her. Sabrina’s cultural meaning at this moment is malleable and ripe for re-imagination.
Seizing this opportunity to remake the Sabrina tradition is of the greatest importance. Well-endowed with resources, reputation and quick minds, Amherst College nonetheless suffers from an acute sense of social dislocation. Our sports teams or a cappella groups do not command universal support from the students, and our mascot (rightly) divides the community. Reaching to the College’s past for common meaning, students find it tainted by racism and misogyny. In short, students today lack a shared cultural connection to their college.
This dislocation entails bracing consequences for Amherst. Social mixing across established groups is perceived as a rarity, and we often do not look each other in the eye. Students are leaving Amherst expressing skepticism that social cohesion is compatible with diversity. I’ve heard several of my fellow seniors already declaring an aversion to “giving back” based on their lack of identification with this place. Left unchecked, these attitudes will do untold damage to this institution and, by extension, the commitment to diversity it has adopted.
Though no panacea, re-establishing a shared Sabrina tradition is a small step in the right direction — but only if orchestrated appropriately. The statue is deeply rooted in Amherst’s history and is objectionable only for the reactions she once elicited in the students, not for what she actually is. Largely forgotten by recent students, her meaning is now poised for re-articulation. Rather than “sweeping it under the rug” or bringing it to light only for public castigation, we have a chance to reclaim this history for our collective good.
Were Sabrina to present herself again — this time speaking in her own voice and degraded by none — she could become a vital cultural touchstone for our college. Connecting us with the past in a form adapted and updated to the present, the shared cultural experiences she could foster would be of inestimable value. As a woman who has also endured Amherst male misogyny and sexual misconduct, I can say that seeing Sabrina herself rise up as a survivor of the same would only be refreshing and empowering. Lord Jeff, sadly, is in no position to receive this kind of rehabilitation.
I am not proposing that we change our mascot to Sabrina — that would only degrade her further. But I do think Amherst students desperately need something to rally around. I believe that — only if re-introduced carefully — Sabrina can become an important part of our college’s future rather than an anachronism incompatible with what we wish Amherst to be. To continue hiding her from the students and from our history would only be doing her (and the Amherst community) more injustice. But if we take this chance to reclaim and re-imagine our image of Sabrina into a strong and independent female, I could only see it benefiting the campus with a new, (literally) recast tradition and a new female role model for Amherst (of which there are, sadly, historically few) appropriate and relevant to recent campus issues. In Craig Campbell ‘15’s recent “AC Voice” article on “Typical Amherst,” he claims the Amherst Apathy we keep citing is a myth because our school spirit takes the form of being deeply involved with issues inherent to our campus and history. In that line of thought, I would add that to continue sweeping Sabrina and her history under the rug would be to perpetuate campus apathy, while re-imagining her as a strong, independent female expresses the dedication to current issues reflective of our school spirit.
In order to do this re-imagining, we will need to update the way we think and speak of the Sabrina. Many have asked me if I “have” the Sabrina statue — no, I don’t “have” her. I do not want to claim “possession” of her. She stands on her own right — it is merely an honor to provide housing for her powerful presence. Instead of “stealing” her from each other, it should work something like this: when it is time for the Class of 2014 to pass her on to the next class, she will be left in a neutral place so that the honor of housing and caring for her next is equally available to both odds and evens. Competing for the honor of caring for Sabrina, rather than taking her hostage as a “prize,” grants her the respect she needs and deserves after decades of mistreatment. Furthermore, whenever she makes an appearance, she will not be dragged around back and forth or ridiculed by being clothed or decorated — she will rather be celebrated for standing up on her own and gracing the students with her presence. If we are the Sabrina Guardians, it is not that we act as her prison guards, but that we act as protectors of her rights and safety from further damage.
Ultimately, it is up to the students to create a sense of shared meaning here. I hope that you will join me in updating how we think of the Sabrina, and that if she is to make an appearance again, you will see her with the respect to which she has a right. The way we regard our traditions is reflective of the way we regard each other — if we think and speak of Sabrina with care and respect, I would hope the same would translate into the way we interact with one another on campus.
Maria Kirigin ’14