Lawmakers in the Rhode Island House of Representatives voted last Wednesday to hold a statewide referendum on the state's official name. The Ocean State is technically called the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. In November 2010, residents will vote on whether to remove the controversial last three words from the name.
We commend legislators for putting the issue to a vote, although we wonder whether it was the best use of their limited time during last week's crunched session. At issue is whether the term "Providence Plantations" is objectionable and, if so, whether its elimination is in order. Rhode Islanders should be allowed to decide that for themselves.
Opponents of the name change point out that the term "plantation," was, as a matter of historical fact, synonymous with "colony" or "farmland" when Roger Williams introduced it.
Supporters note that slaves labored on Rhode Island plantations, that the term brings to mind this country's legacy of slavery and that Rhode Island played a leading role in the transatlantic slave trade.
Both sides have a point. The traditionalists are correct that the historical definition of plantations is innocent of the word's more sinister connotations. The progressives are right to note that "plantations" has become inextricably linked with slavery in modern usage and that Rhode Islanders traded and owned slaves. These considerations lead us to cautiously oppose the measure to rename Rhode Island.
As the report of the University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice notes, "Most Americans today think of slavery as a southern institution. New Englanders, in particular, have contrived to erase the institution's presence from their collective memory." The old name, plantations and all, serves as a potent, if misleading, reminder of Rhode Island's ugly and extensive involvement with slavery. Without it we fear that Rhode Island's past will become even more obscure.
Last spring we urged faculty members to rename Columbus Day. There are three significant differences between the renaming of Rhode Island and Columbus Day that account for our support of the latter but not the former. First, holidays imply an approval or celebration of their namesakes that state names do not. Second, Columbus bears a direct connection to violence and injustice, while the term "Providence Plantations," taken in context, does not. Third, New England's ties to slavery are, we believe, less well-known than Columbus' misdeeds and more in need of publicity.
However Rhode Islanders end up voting, the name change is largely a symbolic issue. In a June article, the New York Times reported on the bill's practical effect: "state letterheads and documents would be replaced when current supplies ran out." State buildings will continue to bear the Rhode Island's old name regardless of the referendum's outcome.
Nevertheless, there are real reasons why voters ought to keep the name the way it is. We hope they pay attention to them.
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