The article highlights the efforts of Joseph Almeida, a Democratic State Representative from Providence. Almeida, working with those outside the political realm but with influence in it, has pushed forward a bill to be considered that will shorten the official name of the state to just Rhode Island and leave the “and Providence Plantations” in the past, literally and figuratively.
One question that came to mind was how frequent are occurrences like these, both hidden and unveiled. I know of two. I thought about Florida. There is a city called Plantation not too far north of Miami. Plantation High School is home to the Colonels. Homestead, Florida is an equal distance from Miami in the opposite direction. Before going off to school, I never thought about these names before because they were taken for granted, just part of growing up in Miami. I wonder how prevalent are such loaded names across the South, the thirteen colonies more generally, and, naturally, the rest of the nation. This is not just for references back to slavery. As historians love to skate over minority groups, I wonder what are the Latin@, Chican@, and Native American parallels. To be clear, what I refer to is not places named after or with the influence from other the different ethnic groups that make up the United States of yesterday and today. Rather, I refer to racially and culturally loaded names that minimize, or to put it honestly, degrades and/or ignores the significance of a people’s history while pardoning the actions of others.
Goodnough reports that
“Defenders of the [full] name say that the word “plantation” did not have a negative connotation when Rhode Island was founded in 1636, and that it referred to the state’s farming settlements. But the state’s early economy did thrive on the slave trade, with Rhode Islanders distilling rum from molasses, trading it in Africa for slaves and then trading the slaves in the West Indies for more molasses.”
Same story, different day. They are right though. Plantation did not have the negative connotation when Rhode Island was founded. The problem, however, is that only one group had the “rights” to do the defining and “connotating.” Thus the selective memory or opportunistic amnesia of the defenders is even more troubling. To posit that no connection exists is tantamount to take a revisionist approach to history (negationism). Ironically, however, this “labeling as revisionist” position is the argument put forth by the defenders against those advocating for the change. Dare I say it? Is this the pot calling the kettle black?
Though the article made me think about this larger issue in connection with official names given to bounded regions that we call cities, counties, and states, Goodnough misses the mark. The article was promising but towards the end, she drops the baton just before crossing the line.
Instead of taking such a change as real, Goodnough automatically relegates the push to change the state’s name to the symbolic realm as if the symbolic dimensions of life do not impact life in real ways. Since when is the symbolic not real? This is the question that the following quote brings to mind:
“The change would be largely symbolic, since the state’s formal name is so rarely used. It appears on some state stationery and on many documents, like elevator inspection certificates and marriage licenses. The official name also appears on the state seal, which is imprinted on the floor of the Statehouse Rotunda and elsewhere around the building.”
Marriage licenses are very real. When one signs on that dotted line one is entering a covenant with one’s partner “till death do you part.” Official documents from the state, in many instances, are as real as real can get when they are connected to one’s livelihood and well-being. Everything from bills to birth certificates, warrants to wills can have the state name on them as they are official documents. Those seven syllables have more than just symbolic meanings. Moreover, whenever you go the statehouse you still have to encounter "Providence Plantation."
I think the change, although no change in how we speak of the state in casual conversations, would mark the unmarked as the saying goes in white studies. The actions of Almeida and others could serve as a prime example of making the invisible visible.