Names, What Are They Good For? Audubon’s, For Example

Photograph Source: Audubon front lobby at its present headquarters in New York City, which earned a LEED Platinum designation for its Green features – CC BY-SA 3.0

CounterPunch readers may well have seen the news that Audubon societies around the country are dropping “Audubon” from their name. The latest big domino to fall, just last week, was New York City Audubon, probably the largest chapter of the national organization. Only weeks earlier, that same national organization announced that it would retain the Audubon name, to the dismay of many.

To be clear, John James Audubon (1785-1851) had nothing to do with the founding of the Audubon societies. The first such society sprouted in Massachusetts when a group of women banded together to oppose the trade in bird feathers – mostly from egrets and herons – shortly before the turn of the 20th century. They adopted the eponym in recognition of Audubon’s contributions to ornithology and our understanding of birds. Then, as now, his name was already synonymous with birds.

A little later, a group of local Audubon societies joined together to form the National Association of Audubon Societies – subsequently the National Audubon Society. Another origin story says that George Bird Grinnell, the earliest force behind the national organization, had been tutored in New York City by Audubon’s widow, Lucy, and therefore chose the name from personal inspiration.

Whatever the case, what is beyond question is that the Audubon family enslaved at least ten Africans at different points of their lives while residing in Kentucky in the 1810s and 1820s. John Audubon held admittedly “typical” white supremacist attitudes in his day, seeing both African Americans and Native Americans as subhuman. In one of his many written tales – real or fabricated – he describes “reuniting” a family of escaped enslaved people with their enslaver. For their own good, he would have us believe. More recently, it has come to light that he explicitly objected to abolition, in a letter to his wife.

I have more than a passing interest in the question of what we do with this tainted legacy. During a 20-year career at the national headquarters in New York City, I became something of a house expert in Audubon’s biography. A biographical sketch I wrote (in more innocent times) was used on the website for many years. (The current version still uses material I wrote, but now includes more of the unsavory stuff.) He was and is a fascinating character to study; complicated for sure, although the deeper one goes, the less appealing a human being he seems. He has been accused of plagiarism, treated many people shabbily, took credit for things that weren’t his or failed to give credit that was due, and even invented fictional species that got him into trouble in his lifetime – supposedly because a visiting naturalist smashed Audubon’s violin. (The story, apocryphal or not, is not without humor.)

What we usually hear when the subject of de-naming and renaming comes up is a version of “Where does it stop? Will we remove the names from every building, monument, street, and organization in the country over tarnished legacies? Isn’t everyone’s past imperfect?”

My answer to this is simple: Why not change all those names? If we can do it for one, why can’t we do it for ten, or a hundred, or a thousand? Because, when you think of it, nothing makes a name sacrosanct, other than our own desire to sanctify wealth and power – the usual criteria for naming things. Wealth and power almost by definition come at the cost of destruction, oppression and exploitation of other human beings. Naming is a purely cultural artifact. There is nothing inherently human or adaptive about naming things after people.

I think of the fact that, for longer than the Audubon Society has been around, Great Britain has had the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Putting aside for the moment whether “royal” could be viewed as problematic, the idea that you could have, say, an American Society for the Protection of Birds in place of the Audubon Society seems like a no-brainer. No one would be harmed by it, and those who feel excluded by casting their lot with a group named for an enslaver would no longer feel excluded.

Or, as in the case of Seattle chapter, something more creative like Birds Connect Seattle, their new chosen name. “No longer a barrier, our new name, Birds Connect Seattle™ represents an open door for new communities to join us in our mission to advocate and organize for cities where people and birds thrive,” the chapter said in announcing its renaming.

Criticism of the national organization for not changing its name is justified. The reason cited was essentially the long association of the Audubon name with birds and with the good conservation work the group has done for over a century. The announcement also came with a commitment to put a fresh $25 million into EDIB (Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging) work. If you’re going to go that far, why not just go one easy step farther and change the name? Inclusion and Belonging are precisely the issues that continue to go unaddressed by the organization’s intransigence.

Another frequently articulated concern about anti-racist actions such as changing names or tearing down monuments is that we will forget the positive contributions of historical figures. One might think so, at least in the case of someone like Audubon, though if the name of a Confederate general were never to cross our lips again, we might all be better off for it. That’s unlikely to happen, however. Those of us who know Audubon and his work acknowledge, understand, and appreciate what he did. We’re not burning his art books and writings. Audubon’s influence on modern ornithology and art is still real. It won’t vanish, and neither will he.

But name things after him? On the contrary, now we will also acknowledge the harm he did, the people he exploited for his personal and professional gain, and whatever role he played in delaying the progress of history toward freedom.

Is there a defense of Audubon because many people of his station and location in the early 19th century enslaved people and held similar racist views? Not at all. Claims of “presentism” are dead on arrival. Abolitionism began in America more than a hundred years before Audubon arrived on a ship from France in 1803. As an educated, cultured Frenchman, he could have known other ways of being. So, too, could his wife, Lucy, raised amidst the intelligentsia in England. They chose a different course. Truth be told, like so many of us, Audubon was a product of his upbringing: his father was a sea captain and “merchant” engaged in the Transatlantic trafficking of humans, and an owner of plantations in Haiti (where John, possibly of mixed race, was born) that enslaved hundreds. His son learned well.

To paraphrase “Hamilton,” badly: Renaming is easy, living with tainted legacies is harder.

I spend a lot of time thinking about how we, as a society, handle the past and problematic figures like Audubon, not only from the distant past, but also and especially from the recent past. What do we do about people still living, the Kevin Spaceys, Garrison Keillors, and a thousand others? Do we stop listening to anything James Levine recorded because he was a pedophile? Should we ban Wagner permanently? Can I laugh at “Sleeper” knowing what a horrible human being Woody Allen is? To me, these problems cut much deeper and are thornier to resolve than renaming something, which seems quite simple. These histories are complicated, and tell us something troubling about ourselves: that great creativity and innovation often arise from hierarchical social structures that go hand in hand with power and (white) privilege. De-naming and renaming are inherently democratic acts that challenge the hierarchies of power and the ingrained habit of hero worship.

Fred Baumgarten is a writer living in western Massachusetts.