On Memory and History: What’s in a Name?

In the 1996 film version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, John Proctor chooses his name over his life:

John Proctor: Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them you have hanged! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!

While Proctor speaks to the association between a name and honor, names also carry the burdens of gender and heritage. “I have guarded my name as people/ in other times kept their own clipped hair,” begins the speaker in Barbara Kingsolver’s “Naming Myself” from Another America. Later, she explains:

I could shed my name in the middle of life,
the ordinary thing, and it would flee
along with childhood and dead grandmothers
to that Limbo for discontinued maiden names.

But it would grow restless there.
I know this. It would ride over leaf smoke mountains
and steal horses.

Names also represent race and the lingering weight of the heaviest shackles of history. To that, Malcolm X explains his name:

Like Malcolm X, Countee Cullen confronts the name he was called, adding the power of memory, of how names and history combine:

Now I was eight and very small,
     And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
     His tongue, and called me, "Nigger."

From his trip to Baltimore, Cullen concludes: “That’s all that I remember.”

The current debate over renaming Tillman Hall at Clemson University is yet another moment about the intersections of memory, history, and names. Possibly lost in the Tillman debate is the wider issue it represents.

“It’s true, South Carolinians would do well to remember Tillman’s legacy,” argues Paul Bowers, addressing directly the naming of Tillman Hall:

But we shouldn’t honor it, which is exactly what we’re doing by keeping his name on a building at a public university….

It’s another thing entirely for it to be named after Tillman, a progenitor and perpetuator of American apartheid who led lynch mobs during Reconstruction and boasted about it until his dying day.

Remembering history, the worst scars of history, is different than honoring those scars of history. And naming—whether it be a person’s name or a building’s—treads a thin line between remembering (as not to make the same mistake again) and honoring.

William Stafford’s “At the Un-National Monument along the Canadian Border” forces readers to consider through inversion that what we name is what we honor:

This is the field where the battle did not happen,…
where no monument stands,…

No people killed—or were killed—on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

The South presents a history that must not be forgotten, but includes much that should not be honored—including the person, ideologies, acts, and name of Benjamin Tillman.

And somewhere between John Proctor’s impassioned but fictionalized plea and Malcolm X’s steadfast and reasonable refusal to accept the name given him lies my recognition that what we name anyone or anything, and why, is powerful evidence of what we remember and why—and ultimately what we honor beneath claims otherwise.

In Lynching in America, that fact—as in Stafford’s poem—is highlighted:

Most Southern terror lynching victims were killed on sites that remain unmarked and unrecognized. The Southern landscape is cluttered with plaques, statues, and monuments that record, celebrate, and lionize generations of American defenders of white supremacy, including public officials and private citizens who perpetrated violent crimes against black citizens during the era of racial terror [emphasis added]. The absence of a prominent public memorial acknowledging racial terrorism is a powerful statement about our failure to value the African Americans who were killed or gravely wounded in this brutal campaign of racial violence. National commemoration of the atrocities inflicted on African Americans during decades of racial terrorism would begin building trust between the survivors of racial terrorism and the governments and legal systems that failed to protect them. (p. 22)

Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street has a chapter “My Name” that begins, “In English my name means hope,” adding, “It was my great-grandmother’s name and now it is mine”:

She looked out the window her whole life, the way so many women sit their sadness on an elbow. I wonder if she made the best with what she got or was she sorry because she couldn’t be all things she wanted to be. Esperanza. I have inherited her name, but I don’t want to inherit her place by the window. (pp. 4-5)

Tradition is static, like “forgotten.” A name given, a name chiseled in granite, a name uttered each time someone gives directions.

Remembering in order to remain steadfast against the mistakes of the past does not require the echo of names, and renaming becomes an act of defiance and recognition, as Esperanza proclaims: “I would like to baptize myself under a new name, a name more like the real me, the one nobody sees” (p. 5).

The call to rename Tillman Hall, then, is not about erasing or forgetting, but about the baptism of re-naming as an act of courage, a claiming of honor too often denied and too often ignored. The refusal to rename Tillman Hall proves James Baldwin right, although he made these observations sixty years ago:

[The South] clings to the myth of its past but it is being inexorably changed, meanwhile, by an entirely un-mythical present: its habits and its self-interest are at war. Everyone in the South feels this and this is why there is such panic on the bottom and such impotence at the top. …

[I]t is, admittedly, a difficult task to try to tell people the truth and it is clear that most Southern politicians have no intention of attempting it….

This failure to look reality in the face diminishes a nation as it diminishes a person. (“Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”)

Renaming is a baptism long overdue in the Bible Belt.

See Also

Why the Heck Do Latino Reporters on Public Radio Say Their Names That Way?, Quenna Kim

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