What’s in a name?
My freshman daughter is reading Romeo and Juliet in her English class this semester. In all honesty, she is not loving it because of the time they are spending on each act, but one of the things we have been talking about at home is the famous phrases/lines that come out of this and other Shakespeare plays. One of the most recognizable lines from R&J is “what’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
This semester, while on sabbatical, I have been taking intentional walks in neighborhoods and communities within my city that I don’t normally spend time in. One of the things I have observed on three occasions now (in different parts of the city) is about the names of things.
Occasion 1: While on the west side of town, I saw a sign in front of a building that identified the shop as “Belle Meade (store)”. After living in the Nashville area for 10 years, I know what Belle Meade is, and this store is not in Belle Meade. I wouldn’t even call it Belle Meade adjacent. It got me to wondering: if you were a business owner, would you name your store based on a geographic location whose clientele you were hoping to attract? Does that work? Ultimately, I guess I only will know the history of why that is named such if I contact the owner. And the truth is, I don’t care that much. It is a store you built or bought and people have a choice about whether or not they go there, and so name it whatever you want. Go forth and prosper.
Occasion 2: While in another part of town, I walked past a public housing development. The name of the development is Andrew Jackson Courts. Built in 1938, these apartments are still in use today and run by Metropolitan Development and Housing Agency (MDHA). This development was built across the street from part of the campus of Fisk University, which was founded in 1866. So…our city leaders built public housing across from an HBCU and named the development after a president who enslaved people, who mandated the forced removal of Indigenous people from their lands, and whose actions led to thousands of deaths. This makes no sense to me. You could name the development after any of the alumni of Fisk, any founding faculty or staff of Fisk, or any other name significant to that part of the city and it would be better fitting than Andrew Jackson Courts.
Occasion 3: There is a middle school in our Metro Nashville Public School System (MNPS) that bears the name of “an old South apologist” (Wikipedia) and someone who had a “nearly religious devotion to white supremacy”. This second quote comes from Tim Wise, in a Medium article from couple of years ago, reflecting on his own time at this school. It is interesting that I read just this evening AFTER my walk and learning about the origin of this school name yesterday. Here’s a link to his article: Can We at Least Cancel the D-List Historical Racists? | by Tim Wise | Medium This school, John Trotwood Moore Middle School, was built in 1969.
Like the store in Occasion 1 above, I get that people who use their money to build or buy or birth can name their building or business or baby whatever they want. (Though I still think you should be a good and thoughtful human when doing so.) But when buildings are built and managed by public entities for the public good, like affordable housing and education, I think we need to have some thoughtfulness about the names we put there. Are these names representative of our city and all its people? Does the name we are honoring belong to a person who did honorable things? And if we don’t have that thoughtfulness or understanding in 1938 or 1969, we can at least have that critical awareness and action in 2023. Surely.