Tue 19 May, 2009
Tags: History, Newport, Providence Plantations, Rhode Island, Slavery
I’ve previously blogged about the grassroots effort in Rhode Island to change the state’s name. In short, this movement seeks to remove the words “Providence Plantations” on the ground that the word “plantation” is now too intertwined with slavery.
There is a letter to the editor in today’s edition of the Newport (R.I.) Daily News arguing the case for this name change. The letter is co-authored by my uncle, Dain Perry, and Nick Figueroa of ULMAC:
Dain is, like me, a direct descendant of James DeWolf, the leading slave-trader in U.S. history, and appears in the documentary Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North. Nick is a leading figure in ULMAC, an organization which advocates on behalf of racial minorities in Rhode Island, and which has been pushing for the name change.
As I’ve reported previously, there is a joint resolution pending this year before the R.I. legislature on the name-change issue. The resolution has been the subject of hearings in both chambers this spring; it has passed out of committee in the House, and is awaiting action by the full House.
The letter is well-written and makes a strong case for changing the state’s name. My only quibble would be that the letter suggests that the word “plantation” has gone from being an innocent word to one which is dominated by a “malignant” image, much as the swastika became unavoidably linked to the atrocities of the Nazi era.
As someone who encounters the word “plantation” frequently in contexts unrelated to slavery, I’m unconvinced that this has become nothing less than the “true meaning” of the word today. As many dictionaries, encyclopedias, or the work of many historians would illustrate, “plantation” is still often used in ways entirely unconnected to slavery. Instead, I would have focused on an argument closely related to that offered in the letter and on the blog run by Nick and his group, We Are Not a Plantation: that the historical connection of the word “plantation” to slavery in this country naturally makes its use in the state’s official name deeply offensive to many of our citizens, particularly those with a deeply personal connection our history as a slave society.
To read the letter, you may click on the image above, or read the text of the letter below the jump:
‘Plantations’ in state’s name is offensive remnant of slavery trade
Hidden in plain sight is probably the best way to describe the sentiment of some Rhode Islanders who feel that their state has ignored its history and their suf¬fering. The point of contention is the word “Plantations” in the state’s official name.
Many of us understand the negative connotation of the word as it pertains to slavery. Not acknowledging the state’s role in the slave trade has made the word appear benign; after all, in its original meaning, “plantations” meant a farm or place of harvest. Rhode Island’s little dirty secret has been kept under wraps quite effectively. Our schools mention very little about Rhode Island’s prominent role in the slave trade, and the communities that par-ticipated heavily in these egregious acts have remained silent.
Private fortunes were made on the backs of the enslaved — so much so that our state’s economic foundation depended on it. The past seems so long ago. Rhode Island is now a vibrant and thriving com¬munity made up of many different ethnic¬ities and religions. Roger Williams would be smiling. Except for one thing: the term “Plantations.” Why does this word remain a painful reminder to many? The answer comes from the past practice of slavery and Rhode Island’s role in it.
Over a period of time words, phrases and symbols tend to take on different meanings. Take, for example, the swastika. In its original form, it was a religious sym¬bol for many cultures throughout the world. However, put into the context of World War II and the Nazi atrocities, this revered symbol morphed into a whole new meaning, one of hatred, murder and oppression based on religion. Regardless of where you see this symbol, the first thing that comes to mind is the Holocaust.
Now imagine having this symbol on offi¬cial state property. It would clearly be offensive to the victims and descendants of those who were subjected to its oppres¬sion.
Like the swastika, the word “Planta¬tions” as it relates to Rhode Island’s histo¬ry has undergone this transition from benign to malignant. It is a painful reminder to the descendants of those who suffered during this truly ugly period. One thing is clear: Those who are alive today are not responsible for the actions of their ancestors; however, it is our responsibility to acknowledge the true meaning of this word and eliminate this painful reminder from our state’s name.
Dain Perry, Charlestown, Mass., and Nick Figueroa, Providence
Dain Perry is a descendant of the DeWolf family of Bristol, which was prominent in the slave trade, and a participant in the documentary “Traces of the Trade.” Nick Figueroa is a member of the Univocal Legislative Minority Advisory Coalition, a nonpartisan network of more than 30 community-based organizations that advocates legislation and policies to promote equality and opportunities for people of color in Rhode Island.