Columns

Sarah Rosenthal ’11: Li’l Rhody’s big name change

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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Rhode Island is the littlest state with the longest name. I tell people this and watch as they try to figure out whether “Rhode Island” has more letters or syllables than “Pennsylvania” or “South Carolina.” Usually, they conclude that it doesn’t, and then I bust out that arcane but wonderful fact about Brown’s home state — its full name is “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.”

Soon, our oft-slighted little state may lose even that distinction. The Rhode Island legislature is considering a bill that would allow voters to drop the “and Providence Plantations” from the state’s name, and it’s likely to pass.

This is not the first time that controversy over naming has roiled Providence this year. In April, the Brown faculty voted to change the name of the Columbus Day holiday to Fall Weekend, much to the consternation of those who saw it as a slight to the Italian-American Providence community.

Such luminaries as Curtis Sliwa said on Fox News that while Columbus was guilty of all offenses and may in fact have been “a barbarious slave trader,” it didn’t matter because a) Columbus stood for the spirit of exploration and b) Brown students think that his ships were called the Nina, the Pinta, the Santa and the Maria. (He wasn’t giving Brown students enough credit — we all know that Columbus’ ships were called the Groucho, the Harpo and the Chico.)

Fox News aside, it seemed like a fairly obvious decision. We’re mostly good little liberals here, cautious about offending anything or anyone, and since no university would celebrate Vlad the Impaler Day or Pol Pot Day, 67.2 percent of students polled by The Herald favored the change. For Native Americans at Brown and others who lobbied for the name change, this was a major victory. For most of the student body, the change will be cosmetic. For me, this seems like a lost opportunity, one that soon may be repeated on a statewide scale.

Reiko Koyama ’11, a proponent of the Fall Weekend change, said in The Herald, “I didn’t really see what the reasoning could be for keeping the name … It definitely exposes the need for increased awareness” (“Student favor scrapping ‘Columbus Day,’ Apr. 2). But I think Koyama has it backwards. There will be no “awareness” if we don’t own up to the past.

On the one hand, this appears to be a manufactured controversy if there ever was one, since it ignores the historical meaning of the word “plantation” as used by Rhode Island’s founders. To them, a plantation was indeed a place of labor, but fruitful labor in the service of God, not black slavery in the service of a white master. The Rhode Island state charter of 1663 (which I know Brown students peruse nightly), says of the land: “(B)y the good Providence of God, from whom the Plantations have taken their name, upon their labor and industry, they have not only been preserved to admiration, but have increased and prospered…”

On the other hand, it’s not up to me, Curtis Sliwa or anyone else to judge what people are allowed to find hateful or offensive. Yet that’s no excuse for whitewashing the past. Imagine if we cut out all the potentially unpalatable parts of our history — for instance, that the man who penned the stirring words of the Declaration of Independence also kept slaves. Yes, we’d be sparing ourselves a sense of discomfort and betrayal, but we’d also be lying.

Just as interested citizens could use Columbus Day as an opportunity for programming and education about Native American history, culture and issues, so too could they channel curiosity about Providence “Plantations” or the Brown family’s livelihood into an opportunity to pierce the smug Northeastern attitude about American slavery. Yes, there was slavery in Rhode Island, and even more slave trading; it didn’t just happen down South. It’s nothing to be proud of, but it’s far worse to ignore it.

The Slavery and Justice Commission is a positive model for the kind of action Rhode Island could take on the matter. Rather than ignoring the past or getting bogged down in symbolism and abstract arguments, the University shone the sun on an ugly chapter of its history, pledged to cement its findings into the public historical record and took concrete steps to help those in the community who are descendents of slaves or whose lives have been affected by racism and inequality.

All in all, the intense focus on political correctness seems to be a well-meaning distraction. It stirs up controversies that polarize the population and does not do anything concrete. Removing the phrase “and Providence Plantations” doesn’t provide one more job in a state with a 12.4 percent unemployment rate (except maybe the guy who goes around removing the lettering from state buildings; he might be very busy). It doesn’t help pay the teachers or halt the rapidly rising foreclosure rate or address any of the other problems plaguing the state. If the name change gets through, we will soon be the littlest state with the biggest problems — and nothing else.

Herald Opinions Editor Sarah Rosenthal ’11 is offended by this column.