Thursday, March 23, 2023
Audubon Society's Thwarted Name Change
After the Haitian enslaved people successfully revolted, France and the United States imposed and maintained severe economic sanctions against what was formerly the "jewel" of the Caribbean, including a 70 year reparations payment plan to "compensate" France for the slaves stealing themselves from slavery. The result is what one U.S. President called a "shithole" country.
Slavery is a stain and has left a stench that cannot be washed off as if merely to scrub vulgar graffiti from a building or a beloved and respected tax-exempt organization. So I really don’t care if the Audubon Society gets rid of the name of the man formerly known James Jean-Jacques Rabin. Seems Jean-Jacques changed his name to John James Audubon as part as his illegal immigration to the United States as he was fleeing his father’s Haitian slave plantation and his duty to serve in Napoleonic wars. Audubon’s own mother was a black enslaved woman; his father took many Black or mixed race “mistresses,” though not by wit and charm I’m sure. Unless rape is charming. Later when Audubon married and moved to Kentucky, he bought, sold, and did whatever he wanted to and with Black people. Bought, sold and used people, as people buy, sell and use a horse or a dog today.
So there is some weeping and gnashing of teeth at Audubon Society, where the Trustees recently rejected a proposal that would have changed the bird watchers’ name to something other than the name of a slaveholder.
Famous naturalist John James Audubon "did despicable things" and supported his work by buying and selling enslaved people — and that's according to the organization that bears his name. But the National Audubon Society's board of directors rejected the idea of changing its name this week, setting off resignations amid plans from local groups to rename themselves anyway.
This week's vote focused on whether the nonprofit should decide whether to keep Audubon's name or change it. No new names were considered as possible alternatives. The organization cited two main reasons for keeping Audubon's name: it's grappling with the critical challenge facing birds and other wildlife due to climate change and other pressures; and it believes the name of the group, founded some 50 years after Audubon's death, "has come to represent so much more than the work of one person."
There is a real good book called The Known World about Black slaveholders living amongst and perpetuating America’s original sin. It was written by Edward P. Jones (no relation) who, in addition to my surname is in adverse possession of my Pulitzer Prize. If Audubon’s mother was Black, then so too was Audubon according to the one drop rule then in use at the time. Today he would be considered Black by the Obama rule. “Race” is so malleable. So Audubon was a Black draft dodging slaveholder who fancied white women and painting birds.
There is a lot of what I consider unnecessary navel gazing going on at Audubon. Here is a little more from the NPR story:
Those criticizing the continued use of the Audubon name include leaders of the D.C. Audubon Society a chapter in the nation's capital that is moving ahead with a plan to rename itself. "I think it is disappointing, but not surprising that the National Audubon Society decided to not change their name," chapter President Tykee James told NPR member station WAMU/DC. "They don't listen to their chapter leaders, and I believe that this will divide the network even further."
That Audubon had more than one drop of African blood doesn’t make his enslavement any less despicable than the fact that it was mostly Black cops in Memphis who killed a Black kid just trying to get home. I won’t tell anybody how they should feel about this particular case though I do think nuance is in order. I would insist, for example if I were the King of the World, that Fort Bragg be renamed for someone other than a confederate general even if I would not likewise insist that the Audubon Society be renamed the Bird Watchers’ Society. But let’s not get it twisted. A name change is only just that.