This past month, it feels like we’ve finally reached a point of no return when it comes to addressing systemic racism in the United States. Breaking down these inherently racist structures is a layered process that won’t happen overnight, and it’s a process that requires each of us to examine our lives—our words, actions, people we support, spaces we inhabit—and determine how we can do better.
This also means rethinking names of things like schools, roads, and bridges. It can seem inconsequential—just something someone decided, and now that’s what it’s called—but naming a building or a park after someone is meant to honor them, and it’s a way to ensure someone’s legacy lasts after they’re gone. With the renewed focus on racial injustice throughout our history, it’s time to think critically about whose names we are honoring, and whether they should be honored.
Although they are an immediate focus, the naming issue doesn’t begin and end with Confederate generals or known KKK members. This is also an important time to reexamine names and images that serve to romanticize or uphold problematic tropes and ideals from the past. Like we saw with HBO Max’s recent decision to temporarily pull Gone With The Wind from its streaming platform because of the way it portrays slavery, this is an important turning point when it comes to how we address racism in our society.
Lots Of Schools
In southern states, there are many schools at all levels named after Confederate figures like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Stonewall Jackson, but there are also plenty of schools named for racists you’ve never heard of. In Raleigh, North Carolina, the school board voted to rename Daniels Middle School, named for a known white supremacist. The school’s new name, Oberlin Middle School, honors a community founded by freed slaves. Other schools in states including Virginia, Florida, and North Carolina have begun similar renaming processes.
These issues aren’t limited to the south, though. In Berkeley, California, new names will be given to two schools named after Presidents Washington and Jefferson. While these two men are still commonly celebrated as Founding Fathers, both built their successes on enslaved labor. In the Berkeley school board’s resolution, they acknowledged the achievements of both men, but refused to continue to honor “unrepentant slaveholders.”
A Whole Neighborhood In Denver
The recent national conversation regarding racism and social injustice has been a catalyst for change across the country. After much reflection, the Master Community Association (MCA) is taking steps to remove the name “Stapleton” from the community.https://t.co/OL3MBbg2lv
— StapletonDenver (@StapletonDenver) June 17, 2020
This week, Denver’s Stapleton neighborhood, home to roughly 25,000 people, begins the process to officially change its name. It’s currently named for five-term Denver Mayor Benjamin F. Stapleton, who also happened to be a high-ranking member of the Ku Klux Klan. WTF. Stapleton died in 1950, but in 2018 his great-grandson, a candidate for Governor, was accused of paying off a Colorado history museum to remove mentions of white supremacist ties from an exhibit about Stapleton.
The process for officially changing the name sounds convoluted, but the developers who have the final decision have said they support a name change. A new name for the neighborhood hasn’t been decided on yet, but local Black Lives Matter organizers have suggested renaming in honor of Dr. Joseph H.P. Westbrook, a Denver civil rights leader who was able to infiltrate KKK meetings and use their information against them.
This might come as a surprise if you’ve never lived in the south, but they named pretty much everything after racists, including roads. Southern cities are full of Confederate street names, most of which weren’t put in place until decades after the Civil War ended. While many major cities haven’t yet announced any action on these street names, Atlanta and Sandy Springs, Georgia are in the process of renaming two streets that are likely named after Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, who went on to become the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. While there’s no historical proof that Lake Forrest Drive and Forrest Lake Drive are named for him, the City Councils are voting to remove one R from the names just in case. That seems more symbolic than anything, but still better to eliminate the association.
Racism truly extends to every corner of our society, including our grocery aisles. On Wednesday, Quaker Oats announced that they will rename their Aunt Jemima brand, which has been in existence since the 1890s, and create a new logo. They said in a statement that they “recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype,” and while they have tried to “update the brand in a manner intended to be appropriate and respectful,” this is no longer enough.
And if you’re wondering “what’s so bad about pancake syrup?” get ready for this. Created by a white man, the Aunt Jemima character featured on the bottles was based off a popular minstrel song, and is built on the stereotypical “mammy”, an archetype that glorified slavery. The character of Aunt Jemima was even brought to life by Nancy Green, a woman who was born into slavery. After years of controversy, Quaker finally made the right choice today, saying that a new name will be announced soon, and the updated packaging will roll out later this year.
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If you’ve been to a CVS any time in the last decade, you’ve probably hummed along to “Need You Now,” but you might not have put much thought into the group behind the song, Lady Antebellum. The term “Antebellum” refers to the American south before the Civil War, when slavery was still legal. It seems pretty obvious why romanticizing this period is extremely problematic, but in a statement made last week, the newly renamed Lady A suggested they had 0nly recently been made aware of the racist connotations of their name.
But with their new name choice, they unknowingly stepped into another controversy. Turns out, there was already an artist called Lady A—a Black blues musician from Seattle, who told CBS News she was “triggered” when she heard about her name being used by the group. She said “I was furious because it felt like yet another white person’s privilege was going to be allowed to take something from another Black person.” But this week, both Lady As connected with each other for a much-needed conversation, and agreed that they will both keep the Lady A name.
Other Food Brands
In the wake of Quaker’s announcement about Aunt Jemima, several other food companies have announced that they will reevaluate their branding and packaging. On Wednesday, ConAgra Foods released a statement saying that they “have begun a complete brand and packaging review” of their Mrs. Butterworth’s brand, acknowledging that “our packaging may be interpreted in a way that is wholly inconsistent with our values.” Much like Aunt Jemima, the Mrs. Butterworth’s imagery is also reminiscent of the stereotypical “mammy” character.
Also on Wednesday, Cream of Wheat parent company B&G Foods announced they “are initiating an immediate review of the Cream of Wheat brand packaging.” Cream of Wheat’s Black mascot is based on an image of chef Frank L. White, but the character has historically been called Rastus, another racially insensitive minstrel show character. The brand has long been criticized for their mascot’s origins, and like these other companies, they’re finally taking the concerns seriously.
And finally, Mars, the parent company of Uncle Ben’s, is also saying they will update their brand as part of their efforts to “put an end to racial bias and injustices.” They acknowledged in a statement that one of the ways they can do this is “evolving the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.” Since 1946, the Uncle Ben’s packaging has featured a black man, and according to The New York Times, the name is reminiscent of how “white Southerners once used ‘uncle’ and ‘aunt’ as honorifics for older [Black people] because they refused to say ‘Mr.’ and ‘Mrs.'”
Somehow, the smallest state in the country also might be the most problematic? This was news to me, but Rhode Island’s official name is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Yes, really. Besides being way too long, the name is a painful reminder of the state’s history. Rhode Island had major connections to the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and according to Brown University, had “more enslaved people per capita than any other New England state.”
While voters must approve an official name change in November’s election, state officials have begun the process of getting rid of the plantation reference. This week, Governor Gina Raimondo issued an executive order stating that all official communications will only say “State of Rhode Island,” and promising that “all agencies under the governor will eliminate the word from stationery, electronic letterhead and all other official correspondence, including paystubs.” The state’s General Assembly announced they will do the same.
The Dixie Chicks
The second Lady Antebellum announced their recent name change, people started asking questions about other questionable names in the music industry, with The Dixie Chicks being the most obvious one. Dixie is an antiquated nickname for the Confederacy-era South, and I think we all know why it’s problematic to look back fondly on that era. This week, the group quietly changed their name, updating their social media accounts and releasing a new music video as “The Chicks.” A representative confirmed the name change, but so far, they haven’t made any public statement about the new name. The top-selling all-female group of all time, this name change is a big deal, especially with next month marking the release of their first new album in 14 years.
All of these changes are positive, but there’s a lot of work left to do. I went to school at Tulane University in New Orleans, and just this week I learned that there are at least half a dozen campus buildings still named after known Confederate and white supremacist figures. I graduated just a few years ago, so why was no one talking about this? As much as it seems like common sense to remove Confederate statues and racially insensitive names, there are still plenty of people who oppose these actions, and the larger societal changes that they indicate. Renaming these things is the first step, but the conversations about and work to combat racial injustice and inequality within these institutions is even more important, and more difficult.
Images: Mark Dozier / Shutterstock; stapletondenver / Twitter; ladya / Instagram