A Call to Quakers: Change That Name– Now!
Nicholas Kristof writes in today’s Times about the impact of “hostile environments”:
“Consider an office where bosses shrug as some men hang nude centerfolds and leeringly speculate about the sexual proclivities of female colleagues. Free speech issue? No! That’s a hostile work environment. And imagine if you’re an 18-year-old for whom this is your 24/7 home — named, say, for a 19th-century pro-slavery white supremacist.”
The “white supremacist” Kristof is referring to is John C. Calhoun, the South Carolina politician and chief intellectual defender of American slavery. No resume-padding here– he served as a U. S. Congressman, Senator, Secretary of both War and State & Vice President, and left his mark on all of them. He would have been a southern Civil War hero too, except he died in 1850, a decade before it started; but he got the ball rolling.
Yet before all that, Calhoun was an Eli, a Yale man, class of 1804. And one of the university’s “colleges,” (dorms to the rest of us) is named after him.
Today, though, some Yale students are demanding that the college be renamed. It’s their version of taking down the Confederate flag.
The fate of Calhoun College is up to the poohbahs in New Haven. But this idea of removing the names of slaveholders from major public spaces has spread nationwide, and as I reflected on it today, took on a distinctly Quaker flavor.
If The Stars & bars is now relegated to museums & history books; if Mississippi’s state banner is being redesigned & scrubbed; if even Calhoun College has to go (tho the buildings get to stay) — then it’s time, and past time, to rename Quakerism’s greatest (or at least inarguably its largest) public monument.
I refer, Friends, to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, whose founder was, of course, William Penn.
Did I mention that William Penn was a shameless slaveholder? He bought slaves & sold them, and used them at his manor house, Pennsbury, north of Philadelphia. [And unlike some others, he never “repented” of this.]
BTW this is no secret, no shocking exposé.
Despite it, I readily admit to having admired Penn for much of his legacy; but this part doesn’t fit. And given the temper of the times, it will not do to make a string of excuses.
So Pennsylvania has to go.
But what could be its replacement?
My first thought was “Woolmania,” for our sainted early antislavery crusader, the quietly dogged John Woolman.
But a moment’s reflection brought me up short: a name ending in “mania” doesn’t sound quite right in this setting; and there’s the inconvenient truth that Woolman was, well, from New Jersey.
Hmm. All right, what about “Benezetia,” for Anthony Benezet (1713-1784)? Born while Penn was still alive, Benezet became a settled Philadelphian, who published early abolitionist essays, founded the first antislavery society, helped free some, educated others, and seriously walked the talk. And “Benezetia” rolls easily off the tongue, or at least it does mine.
But perhaps, despite his many achievements, thus turning to Benezet perpetuates models of white-male-as-savior which many are also trying to get beyond.
Not a problem; there are others. What about Sarah Mapps Douglass (1806-1882), another distinguished Philadelphian, and a notable (and rare) black Quaker, who was consigned to a segregated back bench when she attended meeting. This would be one good way of moving her up to the facing bench.
(The secondary association which will occur to many, that of the more well-known Frederick Douglass, won’t hurt, though he was no relation and lived most of his free years in Rochester, New York. After all, he was associated with the antislavery radicals, the Progressive Friends.)
And how to turn it into a name? What about Douglassylvania? I think that would work. (For those accustomed to a single syllable before the suffix, an option would be Mappsylvania, with her birth name.)
Applying these concerns to [formerly] Quaker Pennsylvania might seem frivolous to some; but I haven’t yet thought up a substantive objection to it.
If the names of slaveholders & oppressors should be coming off the buildings at Yale, their flags down from statehouses, and nicknames from sports teams, why should Quaker turf be exempt? So let the discussion commence. Feedback? Other names?
Perhaps the only substantive objection was hinted at by Nicholas Kristof himself, at the end of his column:
“My favorite philosopher, the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, argued that there was a deep human yearning to find the One Great Truth. In fact, he said, that’s a dead end: Our fate is to struggle with a “plurality of values,” with competing truths, with trying to reconcile what may well be irreconcilable.
That’s unsatisfying. It’s complicated. It’s also life.”
Hmmm. “Competing truths?” Sounds like another word for “ambiguity” to me.
And ambiguity is the slipperiest slope around. Once we start down it, where will it lead?
(Maybe all the way back to Pennsylvania?)