I can’t tell if it’s a sign that I’m a good comedian or a bad comedian that a joke I wrote on Facebook yesterday could cause a little dust up.
Not a big dust up. Not enough to go viral, or anything. Just enough to get my heart rate up and for me to check my feed every five to ten minutes to see if someone else had commented.
The joke was about neighborhoods that have the word “Plantation.” You know, Edgewood Plantation or Sawgrass Plantation or Seaside Plantation. I am making these names up as I go, but I’m sure you can see them in various towns, dotting our southern landscape.
I was responding to an article I had seen about the names of these neighborhoods upsetting people of color. The reason they gave is that to see the word Plantation— which were labor camps to their ancestors, who faced unspeakable violence, rape, oppression, and the selling off of their their families members, to see that word be so stripped of its historic and contextual meaning that someone could use it to name a neighborhood, is pretty freaking upsetting!!!
Is it the greatest crime perpetrated against humanity? Probably not. Is it a valid criticism, which instead of brushing aside white people should try to view with some measure of empathy, with some attempt to put ourselves in the shoes of our fellow citizens? Absolutely.
The joke I made was that people who were against changing the names should not be allowed to use heritage as a reason to be against it. This is what I wrote:
“You can't claim "heritage" when you're talking about a group of houses that were built in the 1980's. If ALF was on Prime Time when a neighborhood was being finalized, there's nothing historic about it.”
Then I finished it up with this:
“We should just slap the word Mill on the end of these neighborhoods and call it a day. Hudson Mill. Dirt Road Mill. "Less Than 20 Minutes to Downtown" Mill. See? Golden!”
Here are the two most common complaints I received. Number one, renaming these neighborhoods, and by extension remaining schools and tearing down statues, is denying our history, and that if we erase history then we are doomed to repeat it. Well, I thought my Alf joke was a pretty brutal take down of that first point, but apparently not.
People are talking about changing names of schools and neighborhoods and taking down Confederate Statues. This will in no way, shape, or form erase it from history. No one is suggesting that we stop teaching the Civil War in schools. No one is suggesting that we cease discussing the institution of slavery and the economic underpinnings of the colonies and the first thirteen states. No one is suggesting that we stop talking about Triangle Trade or the explosion of slavery that happened after the cotton gin. Literally. No one. We’re talking about not honoring people and places and things, in public spaces, that stood in open hostility to the principles of this country. I know a ton about WWII and the Third Reich, we don’t name neighborhoods after any of those clowns.
The second complaint I got, and one I hear other people getting all the time, is that we should not talk about these issues and instead focus on bringing people together. I would buy that argument, if I really thought you wanted to bring people together. That’s the same logic as people who say, “Racism isn’t a problem in this country, it’s talking about racism that is the problem.”
Here’s an example:
I went to Wade Hampton High School. I teach at the Fine Arts Center (F.A.C), which is an arts high school for Greenville Country. It’s located on the same property as Wade Hampton High School. This is really awkward for me, because I teach on the same plot of land where I went to high school. I really thought I was going to get farther away than this!
All students accepted into the F.A.C., no matter what school they are zoned to attend, have the opportunity to attend Wade Hampton. This cuts down on the driving a student has to do during the day. Most of my students and their families take advantage of this opportunity and attend Wade Hampton. Wade Hampton was named after the Confederate Southern General Wade Hampton III. He was also a governor of South Carolina, as well as one off its largest slave owners. A couple of years ago, a student started a petition to change the name of Wade Hampton. It got a little buzz, but nothing ever came of it. This year, I was teaching a section on interview theatre, and we decided to have our topic be the name change. We came up with five questions, and asked those same questions to a group of people from all ages and races and political persuasions. The only stipulation is that you had to either attend the school, work at the school, have graduated from the school, or be the parent of a student who went there. We then took those answers, transcribed them verbatim, and created a piece of theatre with their answers. Well, we created a podcast, because live theatre died March 15 of 2020.
It was incredible to hear the answers of the black students. To be fair, some of them didn’t care. Black people are not a monolith. But some of them described what it was like entering a building with the name of someone who fought for the right own them. How disheartening it was start their day off that way. How hard was to take anything seriously after that. Or what it was like to play a sport and look down and see the name on the jersey they were wearing. How little pride it evoked. How they didn’t want to go out of their way to bring any sort of honor to a person like that.
What about bringing those people together? Do their feelings and opinions not count? I think what people are really saying with, “bring people together” is to stop making them think about things that make them uncomfortable. Because the people I hear saying those things are usually good people, people who I know if they closed their eyes for fifteen minutes and really put themselves into the shoes of a person of color, really pictured what it was like to live in a neighborhood called Plantation, or go to a school named Wade Hampton, or pass a giant monument John C. Calhoun every day of their lives, if they really did that they would change their minds pretty quickly.
Feel free to comment on this blog if you like. I might respond. I might not. I usually don’t feel like fighting. But maybe, instead of writing how much you disagree, just take five to ten minutes and really imagine what it’s like from the other side. Have a great Tuesday!
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