Confronting Racist Symbols in Alameda’s Public Spaces

 

Alameda must face its history and rid itself of white supremacist symbols in public spaces. Unfortunately, the Alameda Sun editorial (“Rewriting history now,” March 15) supports the status quo of having parks, schools and streets named after men who have committed genocide, held racist views and were enslavers of human beings by obscuring the issue and stifling discussion of Alameda’s history, its public spaces, and institutionalized racism.

The Sun’s publishers call for placing public spaces or monuments in proper context and suggestion that the efforts to rename these memorials rest on the fallacy of presentism. Sadly, they misinterpreted the context, perpetuated historical myth and fallacy, and used their platform not to further understand our Island’s history but to muddle a dialogue about memory and public memorials.

First of all, I hope the students and families that petitioned to rename their school after learning about Henry H. Haight’s views about white racial superiority don’t settle for “someone less racist,” and instead rename their school after someone who or something which embodies the values of freedom, justice and equality. 

Second, not all historians agree that President Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves.” Many historians argue that enslaved Africans freed themselves. The Lincoln “freed the slaves” myth is a commonly held view that obscures Lincoln’s very own racist and colonial views about Black people and implies African people lacked agency in their freedom struggle. 

Third, I place the effort to rename Haight within a global context. Communities throughout the world are removing monuments to colonialism, and other symbols of oppression, like Confederate statues, are falling down across this country.

A proper question and context might be to ask when and why Alameda parks were named after slaveowners? In 1909, when three new city parks opened and were named after U.S. Presidents, according to Woodruff Minor’s Alameda at Play, Alameda Park was renamed after Andrew Jackson. Why did city leaders chose Jackson instead of 19 other presidents? It is of note that this renaming occurred at a time when the erection of Confederate monuments reached a peak, according to a 2017 chart by the Southern Poverty Law Center. I do not know the intention of those that selected the name, though I am interested to know it, but the writers didn’t even ask that question. This leads to my fourth point.

Their argument that people today should not judge decisions of predecessors’ actions based upon today’s moral standards, our own present perspectives, or on newly available information. This claim neglects an important reality: white supremacy is not the only standard. To use more specific examples, just as Black and Chinese Californians opposed the anti-democratic and racist views of Henry H. Haight, Native Americans, Africans and white abolitionists had different interests and perspectives than Andrew Jackson. Were their lives and perspectives not “pertinent”? Or perhaps dissident voices were just ignored, marginalized or silenced.

Lastly, the intentionally ludicrous example referencing Oak Street and Eagle Avenue are false analogies that trivialize an important discussion about public memorials. The suggestion also echoes the slippery slope arguments used by some defenders of Haight. 

Chinua Achebe once wrote, “Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” There is a distinction between historical writing, which critically engages people, places and events, and public spaces that venerate individuals without any context. Public memorials like Haight School and Jackson Park adulate these men uncritically, provide no context of their lives and omit the histories of the peoples these men oppressed.

This dialogue and renaming of public space also reflects and requires reflections of power. As two white male historians that own a newspaper, The Sun publishers’ voices and views influence Alameda’s narrative. Instead of preempting discussion of renaming public spaces that honor people with histories of genocide, racial oppression and slavery with limited framing, it would be of benefit to utilize platforms and privileges to enable discussions of race and memory. 

Perhaps the Sun can support a call for a commission to examine Alameda’s public spaces, similar to other cities and states grappling with their legacies of white supremacy and systemic oppression. Historical research can examine streets, parks, schools and public facilities in Alameda and assess their place as symbols in the public square, beyond the one-sentence contrasting examples the editorial included.

Ultimately, removing the symbols of systemic oppression from public spaces is not historical negationism or “rewriting history now.” Historians do refine and revise histories, however, as new information, approaches and perspectives emerge. Alameda has an opportunity to reexamine our history and develop more accurate and comprehensive narratives, beyond the hagiography that comprises much of Alameda’s historiography.  Alameda can create more inclusive public spaces, better than those memorializing men with malicious records. 

Of course renaming Jackson Park to Justice Park will not liberate the Africans he enslaved at the Hermitage, return land to the Native Americans forcibly resettled in the “Trail of Tears,” or resurrect those he murdered. However, honoring those he dishonored would be a symbolic move towards justice.

 

Rasheed Shabazz is an author, communicator and educator raised in West Alameda.