Naming the Birds

Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine | www,scene4.com

Michael Bettencourt

According to the American Ornithological Society, there are about 150 North American birds out of over 1,000 species (that number according to The Birds of North America) that have eponymous names, that is, bearing the names of people to identify the bird.

A news story on NPR described an effort to change the identification of those birds named after people with a racist or supremacist biography, such as Bachman's sparrow, found in the southeastern United States. Backman was an antebellum Lutheran minister in South Carolina who promoted the inferiority of black people to justify slavery. This is part of a larger effort to change all the eponymous names regardless of their backgrounds into descriptions that only depict the birds themselves.

Some may think such undoing is unnecessary (and there are some, as there always are) who feel that this is (make your choice) cancel culture run amok, wokeness run amok or a destruction of heritage run amok.

And since it only involves a subset of about 150 North American birds. it's not like it's a really huge number, so why get all exercised about decolonizing the names of some birds and shifting them all to have purely explanatory labels. Is it really necessary?

Yes, it is.

I am all for such renaming efforts, whether that means changing a high school named after Robert E. Lee or retiring Confederate monuments raised to terrorize Black people from parks and squares and promenades to a museum full of damning context.

Do we do the same with Washington and Jefferson and Columbus? Why not? Just because many have erected multiple cottage glorification industries around such people does not exempt them from judgment and, if needed, banishment.

Will this create cynicism among the people about the glories of the United States? I hope so. There is something healthy in teaching people that the grand principles of the U.S. experiment in democracy are built on a foundation of death and destruction, with slavery as the template, to the point where even bird names are infected by the lingering disease.

All that movements for racial justice are doing is reminding those who want to hold on to heritage and myth and exceptionalism and privilege that, "Yes, believe what you want, but you must be reminded, forcefully if needed, that all you hold onto is nothing but a corpse filled with nightmares, and until you let go of it, we will continue to try to pry it out of your hands."

Possibility for truth and reconciliation? Perhaps on some high, abstract moral level, but as history has shown, reconciliations on that upper level have rarely profited Black people on such lower levels as jobs, wealth accumulation, and equality, to name just a few.

The recent decision by Evanston, Illinois, to provide reparations to its Black citizens shows the limitation of efforts based on a toothless notion of reconciliation. Instead of identifying those who had been materially damaged by policies like redlining and refunding to them all the wealth they should have been able accumulate over time, the city instead went for a more generic approach about better housing and other kinds of fiddling at the margins.

But reparations, while it does include the transfer of wealth, cash on the barrelhead, means much, much more than that, something Ta-Nehisi Coates' testimony in 2019 to Congress about reparations pointed out. In an interview inNew York Magazine, Coates said this: "It's so crucial that it not just be a question of the money but it actually be a question of some sort of attempt to alter how we remember the past…. My hope would be there would be a profound reimagining not just of the African-American past and what was done to African-Americans in America and thus the American past in itself, but our responsibilities and how we deal with people in general."

This could involve a suite of policy decisions that would be quite different in shape but unified in principle: élite universities need to do something different from the military for not awarding Black people GI Bill benefits from the FHA for denying mortgages to Black people to the cities that hosted exterminations like Tulsa, Oklahoma, or Wilmington, North Carolina.

Will this happen? I admire those fighting for racial justice, and I hope their efforts can cleanse the body politic. But I have severe doubts that any of this will "alter how we remember the past," to use Coates' words, because I can't see people taking the necessary steps to change the structures grounded in racism that govern power and wealth in this country.

And can the white supremacy ideology that informs these structures ever be eradicated? As Coates noted,

    This is a country that would not exist without slavery. It's in the bones…It's in the economies, it's in the cultures, it's in the politics, it's everywhere....For some 250 years, a quarter of a millennia, it tolerated the enslavement of people. It tolerated the doctrines that justified that enslavement. It tolerated the culture, it tolerated the politics. Then what followed was an era of pogroms, of Jim Crow, of massacres, of death, of robbery, of raping. And what followed that? An era of mass incarceration where we built the largest prison state ever known to man and we built it on the basis of racism and white supremacy....What good does it do a doctor to act like cancer isn't a big deal just because he hopes for a cure?

But as the bird names effort shows, you do what you can where you can to alter the remembering of the past, no matter how loudly people denigrate the effort as cancel culture or betrayal of heritage. It's the right thing to do, and so it should be done.

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Michael Bettencourt | Scene4 Magazine | www,scene4.com
Michael Bettencourt is an essayist and a playwright.
He writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
Continued thanks to his "prime mate"
and wife, María-Beatriz.
For more of his columns, articles, and media,
check the Archives.

©2021 Michael Bettencourt
©2021 Publication Scene4 Magazine


Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt April 2016 | www.scene4.com


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