What’s in a Name? : The Edmund Pettus Bridge

Update 7/15/16: My short trip to Selma last month, during which I asked a few people about the name change, suggested that people seem to share my view that the name should remain the same, a perspective shared by Selma native and Birmingham Congressional representative, Terri Sewell, and John Lewis.

There has been a lot of interest (in my facebook feed and elsewhere) lately about the names of historic buildings lately, especially those on college campuses. Many universities, particularly those in the South, are home to buildings named after Confederate military figures or politicians whose beliefs were deeply racist and segregationist, or who were members of the Ku Klux Klan and participated in lynchings and other forms of racial violence. This phenomenon is not restricted to universities, though they tend to get more press. I live around the corner from a subdivision called Forrest Pointe (named for Nathan Bedford Forrest, first Grand Wizard of the KKK and a slave trader before the Civil War) that was built sometime in the late 90s/early 2000s. Where I grew up in Northern Virginia, the main highway through town was named after Harry Byrd, a prominent Virginia politician and avowed white supremacist who led a massive resistance campaign that shut down public schools in several counties rather than desegregate them.

Marchers with signs approaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma
Marchers approaching the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday (photo by author)

Yesterday, I read an article about a current effort to rename the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The proposed name is the Journey to Freedom Bridge.

I am usually on board with renaming buildings with racist origins. Often these names were chosen both to honor the legacy of an individual and to send a message about the space occupied by the building. Naming a site after a known white supremacist told people of color that they did not belong in a public space and so upheld institutionalized racism and white supremacy. The renaming process, when done thoughtfully, can be an important tool for interrogating both institutionalized racism and the history of a site, like the “See the Stripes” campaign at Clemson University. The “thoughtful” part is key, because it is equally important to avoid whitewashing history and erasing the white supremacist or segregationist history of a place.

I have mixed feelings about renaming the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which probably seems hypocritical given my visceral opposition to anything being named for Nathan Bedford Forrest. Edmund Pettus was, after all, a Grand Dragon of the KKK. But like all historians, I think these things have to be taken in context. I’ve always thought there was some delicious irony and poetic justice in the idea that an avowed white supremacist’s name is best known for its association with a pivotal moment in the struggle for equality and voting rights. From my perspective, it makes the bridge an even more powerful symbol, as well as a reminder of how far we still have to go.

I’m glad to see people becoming engaged in important questions about the symbolic power of names and words. I’m heartened to see people connecting with this story in a personal way. I’m left wondering, though, how activists from Selma see this change? Is this progress, or simply writing over an uncomfortable juxtaposition of values? How do Selmians view the change? What does John Lewis think about it? I’ll be asking folks when I’m in Selma later this month, and I’ll try to update this post if I get any good feedback.

Two Black state troopers on crowd control at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. (Photo by author)
Two Black state troopers on crowd control at the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. (Photo by author)

The Real Africa – Pilanesburg National Park & Game Reserve

When you tell people that you’re going to South Africa*, everyone wants to know if you’re planning to go on safari. A lot of well-meaning people chimed suggesting that I go to Kruger National Park, not realizing that Kruger is about an eight-hour drive from Johannesburg or that it’s the sort of place you need to visit for weeks. It’s definitely one of my dreams to visit Kruger, but it was never going to happen in the amount of time or budget I had for this trip. I did, however, manage to squeeze in a trip to Pilanesburg National Park and Game Reserve, which is less well-known but only a two-hour drive from Joburg.

Landscape with water at dawn
On the way to Pilanesburg (photo by author)

Pilanesburg is a beautiful park. It is situated on an ecological transition zone, which means that it is home to a broad array of African wildlife. We saw lots of impala, elephants, zebra, hippo, wildebeest/gnu, giraffes, and warthogs, along with some harder-to-spot animals like ostrich, a white rhino, and even a leopard. Though I’m no photographer and of course I forgot my camera in the US (typical), I got some nice shots on my rented iPhone, especially when I held it up to the binoculars, because I am nothing if not resourceful.

white rhinocerus grazing beside a lake
A white rhino, THANKS INGENUITY. (author’s image–as if anyone else would take credit for that)
A lone gnu
The lone gnu. (author’s image)

Although I had a great time enjoying the natural landscape and seeing the animals, the heritage preservationist in me kept wondering about the history of the park. A few years ago, a friend sent me an old (but excellent) article on the formation of Serengeti National Park.** The article described how the formation of the park included the removal of evidence of human life, except for tribes that were deemed sufficiently “primitive” to not disturb visitor’s chance to see the “real” Africa. The author describes the impact of this decision not only on the displaced people, but on those who were forced to remain “primitive” so they would not lose their homes and land. Beyond this, he describes how this affected the way visitors see the park and their ideas about what Africa really is. This last idea in particular is something that has stayed with me, though of course it’s hardly unique to Africa–Frederick Jackson Turner conveniently erased Native Americans from the landscape for his frontier thesis, and scores of people were evicted from their homes in Appalachia to make way for national parks. This idea was brought home quite strongly for me when my tour guide mentioned that she thought of this place as the “real South Africa.”

scrubland with mountains in the distance
The “real” South Africa? (author’s image)

The problem with this idea is that the landscape at Pilanesburg, just as at Serengeti, is manufactured. Before it became a park, this land was home to Zulu warriors, Boer farmers, and later the re-settled Bakgatla tribe during apartheid. The land has been inhabited by humans and hominids for millions of years, and these people evolved alongside the animals in the park. When it was converted into a game reserve, much of the evidence of human habitation was erased, barring one remaining official building which has been converted into a visitor center. The animals that live in the park were reintroduced as part of Operation Genesis in the 1980s.

The Visitor Center
The Visitor Center (image by author)

The thing is, for all its natural splendor, this place is no less a managed landscape than a city. It is stunning, but is it anymore the “real South Africa” than Johannesburg or Soweto or Cape Town? So much of South African history is fraught and intense, and the specter of apartheid lingers because for half a century it dominated people’s lives and the landscape. A place like Pilanesburg can seem like an oasis from these hard truths; after all, there are no people here. But apartheid was here, too. It’s why the Boer farmers are no longer here; they sold their land to the apartheid government, which used it to create a homeland for the Bakubung tribe where they would be racially and ethnically segregated. Pilanesburg is not what South Africa used to look like–it’s what it looks like now, with all of the layers of meaning that exist in any cultural landscape, and that’s worth keeping in mind whether you are walking through an informal settlement or staring in awe at a leopard casually surveying his territory.

Leopard lying on a rock
Leopard on a rock, through binoculars

*After they ask about Ebola, of course.
**Neumann, Roderick P. “Ways of Seeing Africa: Colonial Recasting of African Society and Landscape in Serengeti National Park.” Cultural Geographies 2, no. 2 (April 1995): 149-169. (I cannot recommend this article highly enough.)