Thinking Aloud: The Meaning of the Asterisk

Barry Bonds has an asterisk next to his name because he used muscle-enhancing steroids. President Clinton earned an asterisk because he used another human as a humidor. Will Smith applied for his when he slapped Chris Rock. An asterisk after your name signifies some notable exception, usually bad. I have questions.

How are asterisks assigned? How long do asterisks persist? Do asterisks spill over onto your family? Do asterisks apply just to you, or do they extend to your work, or what may follow from it?

As I thought about this punctuated means of expressing the Scarlet A, I realized that its application and meaning, especially today, can be layered, nuanced, and even selectively employed.

Adolph Hitler has a permanent asterisk, although my friend pointed out that what I took as the universal meaning of that particular asterisk might not be held by others. Other people’s asterisks seem to wax and wane with changing geography. Teddy Roosevelt’s statue at New York’s Museum of Natural History was placed to honor his work as an “author of works on natural history” and being “a devoted naturalist,” along with the financial contribution of his father to the Museum's founding. In June 2021, the statue was removed from the Museum's entrance and will be relocated to his Presidential Library in Medora, North Dakota. [1]

Others acquired an asterisk as our cultural values have changed. The statutes of the Confederates all gained theirs in the last few years, although careful consideration of why those figures were erected at the time might have gotten them an asterisk sooner. Specifically, I am thinking of General Nathan Bedford Forrest, “responsible for the massacre of Black Union troops stationed at Fort Pillow, Tennessee, in April 1864, and … the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.”

When his statue was dedicated in Memphis in 1905, he was eulogized as having “fought like a knight-errant for the cause he believed to be that of justice and right.” General Forrest received a huge asterisk; the park where the statue was placed, Forrest Park, was renamed in 2013. His statue was removed in 2017. His wife’s and his remains were re-interred in the National Confederate Museum 200 miles away.

Our Gang, The Little Rascals, got an asterisk for their racial depiction of children, including Buckwheat, played by Billie Thomas, Jr. Those stereotypes did extend to the other cast members, including a “fat” kid, a “bully,” and a “blond girl.” It is an urban legend that Bill Cosby, who achieved his own asterisk, bought the series and “canceled” their viewing. [2]

Some individuals get an asterisk, but that doesn’t necessarily apply to their money. The Sacklers, the face of the “opioid crisis,” got an asterisk, as did some of their money. Tufts University and Louvre took their name down from buildings, Harvard and the Smithsonian were “legally bound” to keep their name on buildings, Columbia, Yale, the Tate, and our National Portrait Gallery will no longer take additional Sackler money—I guess the old money is not tainted with that asterisk.

On the other hand, some individuals and the institutions they fund never get an asterisk, or if they do, it is so faint that it can’t be seen. Stanford University, founded through the largess of Leland Stanford, Sr, and his wife, is a prime example. Leland Stanford, Sr.'s business interests made him either “a robber baron” or a “disruptor” (in the Silicon Valley sense of disruptor), but he was undoubtedly a racist.

“To my mind it is clear, that the settlement among us of an inferior race is to be discouraged by every legitimate means. Asia, with her numberless millions, sends to our shores the dregs of her population.”

I suppose some might point to the fact that “as a gentleman farmer and railroad magnate, he was just as consistently an employer of large numbers of Chinese Laborers.” No asterisk for him; if you look at his entry in Wikipedia, being a robber baron doesn’t show up until the end of the first paragraph, and his views on race are far down the page under "politics," just before "Stanford University" and “Legacy and Honors.”

Stanford University has its own faint asterisk. Its first President, chosen by the Stanfords, was David Starr Jordan, a fish biologist and budding social Darwinist. Perhaps you remember Jordan from his book, “Blood of a Nation: A Study in the Decay of Races by the Survival of the Unfit,” perhaps not. He has an asterisk, but he is lost in a small tidal pool of the asterisk river. Jordan recruited like-minded academics, who, in their turn, influenced us in countless ways, including the Stanford-Binet test of intelligence and the Scholastic Aptitude Tests (SAT). After a public shaming by its students, Stanford elected to remove Jordan’s name from its buildings.

Interestingly, the money Stanford built upon is not as tainted as the objects created by the Sacklers—perhaps asterisks fade with time. Hitler’s permanent asterisk argues against that always being true.

Finally, some people and institutions are Teflon when it comes to asterisks. Now I am thinking of another of our great universities, Harvard. We won’t consider its earliest history, which has faded with time. Consider napalm, and who comes to mind? Dow Chemical, who manufactured napalm for the War in Vietnam—they get the asterisk. But napalm was invented by two faculty members at Harvard in 1942, ironically, on Valentine’s Day, and tested on Harvard’s soccer field on July 4th. Harvard and its scientists somehow deflected that asterisk. [3] Harvard dropped mention of the achievement of their faculty in 1977.


[1] Interesting factoid, 100 years earlier, the Museum of Natural History “… Henry Fairfield Osborn, the then-President of the American Museum of Natural History, welcomed participants to the Museum for the Second International Eugenics Congress.” Simply hosting an anti-eugenic conference on the anti-centennial was enough for the Museum to avoid an asterisk for themselves.

[2] A young girl initially played the Buckwheat character, Billie Thomas, who took over the role after a few episodes remaining in androgynous and ambiguous clothing. Over time the character “transitioned,” being definitively referred to as “he” one year after taking on the role and being given overalls and a striped shirt to wear ever more. Evidently, this modern-day gender fluidity is insufficient to overcome the asterisk.

[3] One of the two scientists involved, Louis Fieser, didn’t foresee its use against people, only structures. "I couldn’t foresee that this stuff was going to be used against babies and Buddhists. The person who makes a rifle … he isn’t responsible if it is used to shoot the President." Funny how history repeats.