America's rethinking of history is getting ahistorical
The state commonly known as Rhode Island is still officially named "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," but the last three words of the phrase won't appear on state documents going forward. The reasoning, as Gov. Gina Raimondo (D) explained at a news conference Monday, is that "plantation" is suggestive of slavery. "We can't ignore the image conjured," she said.
It's true "plantation" conjures an image of slavery in the Old South. That is certainly what comes to my mind. But that is demonstrably not what the word means in the name of Rhode Island.
And shouldn't that matter? When we're rethinking American history, shouldn't the actual history inform our agenda? Activism in the name of a more honest and just reading of history — particularly activism, like this, with the stamp of official approval — must be concerned with truth. If it isn't, it chances replicating some of the very ills it seeks to eradicate.
The Rhode Island case is striking because of how directly the historical record contradicts the modern connotation. Providence Plantations was founded by Roger Williams, a Baptist theologian who was remarkably anti-racist by the standards of his day. Williams called a "solemn lie" the notion of European discovery and claim of land already occupied by Indigenous people. When he founded Providence Plantations after being run out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for his "dangerous opinions" on religious liberty, Williams purchased the land that would become Rhode Island from the Narragansett Indians and established a haven for dissenters.
When Williams selected the word "plantation" to name this new settlement, it had no connotation of slavery. Indeed, though his record on enslavement is mixed, Williams opposed "man stealing," and he led the passage of an early abolitionist measure, a 1652 law which "limited the time a person might be enslaved to 10 years and specifically tried to prevent the enslavement of Africans." (Unfortunately, the law was not enforced, and Rhode Island did not pass a true emancipation bill until 1784 — at the behest of the Quaker community Williams had welcomed to Providence Plantations while other colonies persecuted them.)
Those facts should matter to how we read "Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." The fact that "plantation" was a word chosen by a proto-abolitionist with no reference to slavery should affect our understanding of the phrase. Why does anachronistic connotation trump the historical record?
The same dynamic was at play with more recent history in Oakland, California, where Mayor Libby Schaaf (D) announced a hate crime investigation after ropes were found hanging from trees in a city park. The ropes were hung by a man named Victor Sengbe, who is Black, for use as exercise equipment with his friends. "Out of the dozen and hundreds and thousands of people that walked by, no one has thought that it looked anywhere close to a noose. Folks have used it for exercise. It was really a fun addition to the park that we tried to create," Sengbe told a local news station. "It's unfortunate that a genuine gesture of just wanting to have a good time got misinterpreted into something so heinous."
The reasonable response to this information would be to shut down the hate crime investigation, as a hate crime by definition is motivated by malicious, prejudicial intent. Shaaf instead declared the investigation must continue and must do so with the assumption of hate — despite the demonstration of its absence. "Intentions don't matter," she said. "The symbolism of the rope hanging in the tree is malicious regardless of intent. It's evil, and it symbolizes hatred." Well, yes, it absolutely can symbolize hatred and the evil of lynching, but in this case it did not. It symbolized, at worst, poor judgment on Sengbe's part. It was a misunderstanding, and that should matter. Why does Shaaf's impression of the ropes trump the reality of their purpose?
Or consider Tuesday night's toppling of the "Forward" statue in Madison, Wisconsin, by self-declared "not peaceful" protesters. "Forward" was sculpted by a woman. Its creation and later preservation were funded by women. It was meant to celebrate the women's suffrage movement and progress in Wisconsin, and it has been a favored site for progressive activism for decades. That history did not save it from being knocked down — but how can toppling a monument to a triumph over inequality be a strike against oppression?
Perhaps the most instructive example of the phenomenon I'm identifying here dates to 1999, a year we may view with somewhat more dispassion than our own. A white aide to the mayor of Washington, D.C., described a budget as "niggardly." Niggardly, of course, is etymologically independent of (and indeed predates) the slur it has the misfortune to resemble. Nevertheless, after a Black colleague complained, the aide resigned. He was later rehired following an internal review of the incident, but before that happened, the then-chair of the NAACP, Julian Bond, weighed in. "You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people's lack of understanding," he said.
You hate to think you have to edit your state's name, undergo needless investigation, or see statues to suffrage toppled, either. This prioritization of subjective impressions and connotations above reality risks more than simply catering to ignorance. It risks activism for justice and honesty about our history becoming what it rightly opposes.
Doing away with "Providence Plantations" removes an opportunity to learn of Williams' groundbreaking contributions to causes of freedom and fairness — to learn, in fact, that his contemporaries with less laudable records on these issues were not without a vocal witness to a better way. Investigating Sengbe for a hate crime when he has provided easily verifiable video evidence of his intent with the ropes smacks of a longstanding form of racial discrimination in our justice system: a carelessness about mens rea — criminal intent — when considering the alleged crimes of Black defendants as compared to white. And knocking down a statue for women's rights undermines the argument most widely mustered for this present iconoclasm: that public monuments should honor good causes and admirable people.
Such digressions into thoughtless ignorance bowdlerize our society to accommodate people's lack of understanding. But the work of justice must be interested in truth.