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Re-Naming as Decolonization

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 Matter.”

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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