Saturday, July 22, 2017

What’s in a Name ?

We all know that beauty pageants play an important role in inspiring young girls to believe in themselves and their ability to change the world for the better.  Provided of course they are not fat and ugly. That’s why most Trinbagonians were pleased this week to learn that Queen Street in Port of Spain is to be renamed Janelle Commissiong Street. Janelle Commissiong as we all know is the first Trinbagonian and the first black woman to win the Miss Universe title, back in 1977. In a statement, acting Mayor of Port of Spain, Hillan Morean said the city corporation was proud of “Queen Penny” and that they had initially took this decision in 1978, but due to the traffic problem in the city it took 40 years trying to find a parking spot downtown so they could change the sign. 

Not everyone is happy though. Gerrad Besson, who is a historian, and as such probably hates seeing a proud black woman achieve anything, suggested the Port of Spain City Corporation display some thoughtful restraint in renaming places. Speaking to CNC3 news, Besson said that while he agreed that Commissiong should be honored, he reminded everyone that Queen Street was one of the original eleven streets in Port of Spain with a rich history that needed to be preserved. “What the (city council) don’t realize is that they are just custodians, they don’t own it. Their real job is to keep it safe, to carry it forward," said Besson. To which the POS City Corporation responded by saying that anyone with objections should formally send them in writing  to  the POS City History Department  located at 436 ‘Nobody Cares’ Boulevard. 

Controversial name changes are nothing new in T&T. King George V Park was changed to Nelson Mandela Park. Massy Stores used to be called Hilo. And until recently the Inter Religious Organization called a 12 year old girl ‘lunch’. Name changes can have positive effects. Like the way my cousin’s confidence and self-esteem improved when he legally changed his name to 'Krishna Boodan' from 'Boy-I’ll-cut-yuh-arse, Boodan'. The name his parents proudly gave him. But sometimes changing a name can get complicated. For instance, the group calling themselves the Cross Rhodes Freedom Project is advocating not just for changing place names, but the removal of statues or anything they deem to be a glorification of colonialism. Becasue airbrushing history and replacing it with things to make you feel good is what is now called ‘social justice.’ Previously, it was simply known as ‘fascism.’

The Cross Rhodes Freedom Project (CRFP) takes their name from the British businessman and politician Cecil Rhodes, whom they claim was an architect of South Africa’s Apartheid. Despite no evidence of this, Rhodes dying in 1902 and Apartheid laws being introduced well into the 1950’s. Because in any war with history the first casualty is the truth. The group has identified three key targets of their campaign. Firstly, statues and spaces dedicated to Christopher Columbus, whom they accuse of legitimizing “colonial conquest”. Milner Hall at the UWI, named after British diplomat and imperialist Alfred Milner. And lastly, Lopinot named after Charles de Lopinot who settled in Trinidad from Haiti with African slaves. 

It is putting it mildly that these three men were far from perfect people. Columbus cared little about the brutality of the indigenous people he oversaw while on his journey through the new world. Alfred Milner was certainly an advocate for British imperialism and on top of being a slave owner Charles de Lopinot was surely some kind of weirdo to want to live all the way up in Lopinot. 

It is good, indeed essential, that historical figures are continually being reassessed and reexamined. The complexities of real life means there is no one “true” narrative on history. However history is not meant to be curated like a Facebook photo album, meant to impress others while containing nothing to make us feel embarrassed or angry or depressed. We must accept our history in its totality. 

What is far more dangerous are racial or political groups who in the name of nationalistic pride decide that they are the sole curators of what’s historically   important or not. As the writer Eric Arthur Blair one wrote, "Those who control the present control the past. Those who control the past control the future." You might know Blair better by the name he switched to later in life; George Orwell.

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