Sunday, June 28, 2015

Re-Naming as Decolonization

Very worthwhile read by Dr. Jessica Namakkal that speaks to the importance of names, naming, and this truly historic opportunity for a "decolonial reckoning," as follows:
In contrast to the many countries once ruled by European imperial
power, the United States has never had a decolonial reckoning as a
nation, despite calls from movements such as the American Indian
Movement and Idle No More, amongst others. Today there are
numerous indigenous, African-American,and Latin@ activists and
groups working to dismantle colonial language, but are held up not
only by conservative groups who actively promote maintaining white
supremacy, but also by mainstream and even left-of-center Liberals
nostalgic for the past who are certain they can improve the conditions
of the “wretched of the earth” while maintaining the status quo.

What we all have to realize—as Dr. Namakkal indicates—is that naming is claiming, and also that the (re)naming of the world continues into the present and that if looked at closely and critically, reveals extant social relations of power and privilege and how these are inflected by race/ethnicity, social class, gender, and heterosexual normativity.

Naming is not only about "who" is doing the naming, but also the world that gets constructed or reinscribed in the process.  These reinscriptions stubbornly adhere to old and enduring myths related to racial superiority—otherwise termed, "white supremacy," individualism, and meritocracy—while systematically silent on majority-minority relations and the unearned privileges of the dominant class.

Must we rename and go down this so-called, "slippery slope" of interrogating our history to make a possible dent in the symbolic violence associated with the specific names that track back to slavery, conquest, colonization, and imperialism? I agree with Dr. Namakkal that this is indeed our historic opportunity if we are to actually have this "reckoning," the absence of which will have been an opportunity squandered.  Yet this is much more than a geographic re-naming of the land and the re-calling of its tawdry, frequently blood-soaked, history.  Rather this is our historic opportunity to bring back into existence the heretofore muted voices, stories, and testimonies of the subaltern to restore our nation with a fresh spirit of respect, dignity, and inclusion that brings together the fragments of an imperial and colonial legacy that has systematically negated this conversation as one of its defining features.

As Paolo Freire wisely admonished in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, to name or rename requires dialogue and must occur between parties open to listening—most particularly to the historically marginalized Other.  This denial of the right to speak on such matters is part of the dehumanizing oppression to which President Obama spoke in Friday's eulogy.  

Do read this piece in its entirety. Also read and savor the president's exquisite, divinely-inspired eulogy that I also posted to this blog.  

Sí se puede!  Yes we can! And it's going to take a whole heck of a lot of work and really good thinking and a right heart, so we'd best get on with it.

Angela Valenzuela 
Early Texas Flag

Early Texas Flag

Making History, Not Erasing It

There has been an important hashtag — #knowtheirnames
— circulating through social media recently that encourages us all to
say out loud and remember the names of those murdered by a white
supremacist in Charleston on June 17, 2015. Just a few months ago, the Guardian launched an interactive project, “The Counted,”
that names all of the victims of police violence in the United States
in 2015, with a running toll in the left-hand corner (the toll was at
528 as I sat down to write these words). Saying the names of people who
have lost their lives to white supremacy is something we need to remind
ourselves to do, while at the same time large segments of the population
generally have no problem with swimming in a lake named after proponents of slavery and Native American genocide, entering buildings named after Ku Klux Klan leaders
to earn our college degrees, or spending and earning money with the
faces of slave owners on them. The names of the people responsible for
the deaths and oppression of large numbers of Americans are often on our
lips and at our fingertips in the United States.

Popular arguments in the South, where I live now, are that buildings
named after former Klan leaders and Confederates reflect the history of
the South and re-naming them would “erase” or “sanitize” the past. As a
scholar who studies and teaches history, I often hear students (as well
as fellow academics) write off these contested names, excusing the
benefactor because “everyone was racist then,” “everyone owned slaves
then,” or, in the context of 20th-century Europe “everyone
was anti-Semitic.” Of course, this is categorically untrue once you take
into account the enslaved, the Jewish targets of 20th-century
Fascism, and the many allies who fought for the abolition of slavery
and for the National Socialists in Germany to be stopped. History has
the power to establish the status quo, but it also the duty of
historians to expose the cracks in the monotonous façade.

While a lot of media attention has focused on South Carolina and the
reckoning with the confederate flag in the past few days, the
controversy over re-naming has made it to the “great white North”.
Recently, in my home state of Minnesota, there has been a call to rename
Lake Calhoun, one of the chain of lakes that is at the center of some
of the most expensive property in Minneapolis, as well as a public space
that attracts thousands of visitors to its beaches and running trails.
Before white colonialists settled the land, the Dakota people called
this body of water Mde Maka Ska, or White Earth Lake. In the early 19th
century, it was re-named for John Caldwell Calhoun (1782-1850), a man
who promoted slavery, owned slaves, and was as U.S. Congressman from
South Carolina, Secretary of War, as well as the seventh Vice-President
of the United States, under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew
Jackson. Calhoun supported the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, and was himself a
slave owner. As Jon Schwarz of the Intercept has pointed out,
the names and voices of the many slaves Calhoun owned, abused, and
profited from have remained “voiceless” in the history of the United
States, while Calhoun is remembered throughout the country, from this
lake in Minneapolis, to a statue in Marion Square in Charleston, S.C.,
not far from the Emmanuel AME Church that was attacked. Following the
massacre, the Calhoun was spray painted with the slogan “Black Lives

The terrorist act in Charleston that left Sharonda Coleman-Singleton,
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Cynthia Hurd, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson,
Ethel Lee Lance, Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, Rev. Depayne Middleton-Doctor,
and Susie Jackson dead, opened the eyes of many Minnesotans for the
first time to who John C. Calhoun was – leaving many confused as to why
there was a Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis. In the wake of Charleston, a
petition was started by Minneapolis resident Mike Spangenberg to rename
Lake Calhoun: according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, the petition had over 2500
signatures by the end of the day on June 23rd.

People in the Northern United States tend to view racism and racial
segregation as a Southern problem. There is a certain air of moral
superiority that comes with the cold air in Minnesota – a state that has
a history of progressive politics, and a pride in being well north of
the Mason-Dixon. As I’ve followed the comments on social media around
the Lake Calhoun naming question, I’ve noticed a lot of Minnesotans –
white, middle-class, educated Minnesotans – urging caution on the
question of re-naming. Some people think it doesn’t really matter who
John C. Calhoun was, and are loathe to change something that is
familiar. To these individuals, it is immoral to “erase history” by
re-naming. “Why not keep the name and use it to educate?” some have
asked. They argue that re-naming is not that significant; that energy
could be better spent other places. Others still note that it is a
“slippery slope,” and ask, “What is next – renaming Fort Snelling?”

Just as large swaths of Minnesotans had never stopped to think about
who John C. Calhoun was while enjoying the lake, many of these same
people have been oblivious to a struggle not just to re-name but also to
raze Fort Snelling and mark it solely as a site of genocide. Dakota
activists, scholars, and their allies have occupied Fort Snelling,
 led marches to Fort Snelling in protest of its imperialist history, and
published editorials calling for its removal. The indigenous people involved in this
struggle are no stranger to John C. Calhoun — Calhoun was not only a
promoter of slavery in the South, he also founded Fort Snelling, the
site of U.S. military occupation used to control the Dakota people who
lived in the Upper Mississippi River Valley, using it as an internment
camp during the US-Dakota War of 1862.

The truth is, as indigenous scholars and activists have been telling
us for at least a century, that the majority of streets, towns, lakes,
forests, schools, and other government institutions are named after
white men (and sometimes women) who achieved fame for colonizing the
land, establishing a system of white supremacy, and annihilating
indigenous people, culture, and language. The indigenous peoples of the
United States have never been allowed the opportunity to decolonize,
which stems from an inability of a great number of Americans to
recognize they are part of a colonizing class. As many important
indigenous and African-American thinkers have reminded us, communities 
of color are still under occupation in the United States today.

Language and naming are important tools of colonial control. In
colonial India, for example, British administrators controlled the
population by naming everything in English – from encouraging local
people to give their children proper English names to insisting
that English education was modern while learning in Sanskrit was outdated (as
for the hundreds of regional and vernacular languages, those weren’t
even worth thinking about, except to control local populations).
Buildings, streets, and schools were named after the heroes of colonial
conquest. After a long struggle for independence from British rule that
ended in 1947, there was a massive movement to change the names of these
institutions that had once born the names of the masters. Part of the
decolonial process meant that street names lost their British character,
giving way to a multitude of streets named after the heroes of
independence, such as M.K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. These name
changes all have, however, a particular history and politics that tell
us about both the current political moment and the historical past. The
changed street names are often printed above or on top of the old names –
traces of the colonial past are all around the subcontinent, and have
certainly not been forgotten.

India is not the only post-colonial country to engage in massive
renaming campaigns. After the fall of the USSR, statues of Communist
leaders were toppled all over Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia,
and thousands of streets named for Stalin and Lenin were either restored
to their original names or given new ones. Countries throughout Latin
America and Africa have also moved away from colonial names.

In contrast to the many countries once ruled by European imperial
power, the United States has never had a decolonial reckoning as a
nation, despite calls from movements such as the American Indian
Movement and Idle No More, amongst others. Today there are
numerous indigenous, African-American,and Latin@ activists and
groups working to dismantle colonial language, but are held up not
only by conservative groups who actively promote maintaining white
supremacy, but also by mainstream and even left-of-center Liberals
nostalgic for the past who are certain they can improve the conditions
of the “wretched of the earth” while maintaining the status quo.

People not involved in social movements led by people of color often
ask, should we really rename every one of these streets and lakes? Isn’t
that just asking too much? To this I reply – of course we should! Will
this dismantle white supremacy? Of course not, but it will create an
important note in the historical record that at this point in time a
significant number of people in the United States came to understand
that the history of this country is not in the official names we see on
government signs, but is in what is buried underneath. The year 2015
could be remembered because Wal-Mart banned the sale of confederate flag
items, South Carolina removed the confederate flag from flying in front
of the state house, activists at the University of North Carolina –
Chapel Hill fought successfully for the name change of Saunders Hall to
Carolina Hall (though their proposed name was Hurston Hall,
Carolina Hall the choice of the Board of Trustees), and all across the
United States, people removed the name “Calhoun” from monuments, lakes,
streets, buildings, and schools.

Calls for re-naming are happening all over the United States right
now – it’s not a Northern issue, a Southern issue, or a Western issue.
The United States, as a nation, is past due for a conversation about
what decolonization will look like. Re-naming never erases history; it
only makes the historical record richer. Many involved in the petition
to rename Lake Calhoun have suggested changing the name but including a
historical marker that explains the legacy of the name and the movement
that arose amongst the people of Minnesota to change it. That is, in my
opinion, one excellent way to make history.

Jessica Namakkal is Assistant Professor of the
Practice in International Comparative Studies and Women’s Studies at
Duke University in Durham, NC. She grew up in St. Paul, MN and received
her PhD in History from the University of Minnesota in 2013.

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