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Names Matter, but How Much and to Whom?

Ideas and Issues
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July 17, 2021

Lake Burton, Georgia    

There’s a contradiction at work in thinking about culture and cancelling.  Culture is usually seen as something fairly immutable, something of the infrastructure of a people.  It’s not impervious to change, but change doesn’t come easily to something so firmly rooted.  Modernity and technology force adaptations and shocks to cultural systems, but basic attachments to land, family, food, manners, and folkways usually retain some resilience, even as practice forces alterations.  Canceling is an erasure, down to the nap.  It seems many of the arguments and protestations about so-called “cancel culture” are really about voice, and too often a slight silencing is more the protest of those privileged at their sudden loss, than about anything to do with either culture or canceling.

An email hit my in-box some weeks ago from The Lens, an online news source that I totally support, but rarely read.  The headline said, “When the culture wars become cancel wars:  The attack on names for schools.”  Culture wars?  Cancel wars?  School names?  What in the world kind of mumbo-jumbo was this?  In New Orleans, where you went to high school is an identifier often signifying neighborhood, class, religion, race, and more.  In the post-Katrina reconstruction as billions were allocated for new school buildings and charters pressed hard in branding and recruitment obsessions, the fights over names often rose to the surface.  Old alums lobbied whoever they could on the issue, but since the Orleans Parish School Board had been eviscerated, their voices might be heard, but rarely heeded.  Nonetheless, I read the piece and then noticed with more interest that C. W. Cannon, the author, mourning the loss of school names had gone to both my junior high school, F. W. Gregory, and my high school, Benjamin Franklin.  He seemed to care quite a bit, why didn’t I?  I invited him on Wade’s World to try and get a better understanding of his viewpoint.

Gregory didn’t make it past Katrina, and, in an inauspicious beginning, neither of us had a clue who F. W. Gregory might have been, nor was Google any help whatsoever.  Cannon speculated that he was probably a former superintendent or something, but they clearly come and go without leaving much of a footprint.  He works now at Loyola University and given the almost six-hundred years of the Jesuit order; he probably doesn’t have to worry about a name change there.  In the wake of the Confederate statues removal and Black Lives Matter, the city and school board have been reviewing the names of school, streets, and all manner of things.  Ben Franklin passes as an elite public high school in the city and some were conflicted about his dual role as both a slaveholder at one time and an abolitionist of sorts at another.  In the charterization of New Orleans schools there is a standoff as the school board is empowered to change the name of the building, but the charter can keep the name of their charter or not.

Cannon’s argument is that school names signify and establish communities making them important on many fronts.  There’s no disagreement there.  Point well taken.  Does changing the name cancel any culture for the former denizens of schooled under these bricks and sticks?  Not really.  They still have their culture intact.  On the other hand, if changing the name in fact restores justice to Black and Native Americans where systematic efforts were made at a genocidal level to erase their history and experience, it seems they would really know a lot more about cancel culture than many others raising that banner now.