Tuesday, February 18, 2014
When some years ago, the State of Virginia voted to change its state song, Carry Me Back to Old Virginny, after decades of controversy about the song's romanticized view of slavery (the song, incidently, was written by black composer James Allen Bland in 1878), observers joked that it takes three Virginians to change a light bulb - "one to screw in the new bulb and two others to wax nostalgic about the old bulb and how nice it was." Recent names changes to schools across the deep south remind me of Virginia's vacillation over its (now retired) state song. There are dozens of schools throughout the south named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Nathan Forrest, and other fighters for the Confederacy. Attempts to change those names are being met with some antagonism, despite the fact that many of the objectors do not even send their children to the affected public schools.
Some are taking slow steps to change, such as Nathan B. Forrest High School in Jacksonville, FL. Last December, the Duval County School Board in Jacksonville, FL voted unanimously to rename Nathan B. Forrest High School, saying that it voted for the change because of the polarizing connection with the nation's racial history. Forrest's name is particularly divisive as the Confederate Civil War general was also a slave trader and later a founder and first grand dragon of the Imperial Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. The school board cited the makeup of the school as a contributing factor to change the name, as the high school's racial makeup is 22.9% White non-Hispanic, 61.6% Black non-Hispanic, 8.7% Hispanic, 2.6% Asian, 3.9% Multi Racial. 0.3% Native American.I find my thoughts surprisingly complex about the issues--not about the rightness of such efforts to change the names, but why we as Southerners feel that it costs us so much to do so. In fact, the majority of the faculty of Jacksonville's Forrest High School opposed the name change and were only persuaded when the school board promised that the economic costs to change would be minimal. I have to acknowledge that the Confederacy's legacy is deep and meaningful to my fellow Southerners. I after all, teach their kids and still there are ample numbers of Robert E. Lees [insert last name] and Nathan B. Forrests [insert last name] in my environment. I cannot find such names objectionable, and I have no right to do so. This is America, and more importantly for where I am, this is Southern turf. Name your kid whatever you want. But I do recognize that institutions are different than individual choice. We Southerners, however, seem to see little parallel between the names of these schools and other historical examples that most would find repugnant--such as an Erwin Rommel High School or an Albert Speer Magnet Program. To make that connection so would be a recognition of what the Civil War and our continuing commitment to "Southern heritage" has cost us. So I try to listen to the reasons we have as Southerners for maintaining these schools' names -- and what I am hearing normally centers around outside-agitator conspiracy theories to tear down Southern heritage. Of course, many of these schools' names are not a celebration of post-Reconstruction Southern heritage, but are of more recent vintage. Many of these schools were renamed during the Civil Rights Era as an objection to desegregation and a warning shot for integrating students: you are on our turf now. The interesting thing about that historical footnote is that I doubt knowing it would make little difference to us. In this context, we simply do not see change as growth, we are viewing it as a taking.