[Spiral Galaxy M81 image credit: Adam Block/Mount Lemmon SkyCenter/University of Arizona]
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I just learned that a high school where I grew up is changing its name, and had an immediate jolt in my brain, where old stuff comfortably tucked away was suddenly forced to be pulled out, dusted off, and re-examined for the first time in many years.
It was embarrassing.
It was also lovely.
The school was Robert E. Lee high school, in Fairfax County, Virginia. On 23 July, 2020, the school board voted to rename it after John Lewis, a Congressman and long-time civil rights activist who spoke at the March on Washington in 1963.
That’s very cool. Lewis died recently, right at the moment that a wave of reckoning was occurring when it comes to naming things after Confederate men. Make no mistake: The Confederacy was a rebellion, a secession from the United States of America, and those who fought on its side were quite literally treasonous. Those are simple facts.
Having statues of Confederate leaders, having schools, highways, and so on named after them, is gross. They were traitors to the US.
Having said this, I grew in northern Virginia, which is in reality more suburban DC than Virginia. I don’t think too many people who grew up in my area thought of themselves as Southerners. Still, a lot of the area has quite a bit of Confederate heritage, and while most contemporary usage of it is gone some still lingers, like the high school above. There’s also Jefferson Davis Highway and Lee Highway, both of which may be renamed as well.
I never really thought about after whom they were named as I was growing up. Those were just their names. I knew who Davis and Lee were, of course, but somehow that little piece of my brain storing the name info wasn’t really connecting to the part of my brain that knew they were traitors. Our brains are really good at keeping stuff like that separate.
Sometimes we need to be prodded, need that poke, to make the connection and weigh the facts together, see them in context. I’ll be honest, if I had visited the area say a couple of years ago and drove on Lee Highway I wouldn’t have thought twice about it. Now, though, with the recent news, and my awareness raised, I would absolutely think about it.
That’s the perniciousness of this, the legacy of racism (as with so many horrific human traits like it). It becomes normalized this way, in names and in statues and in flying the Confederate flag and saying it’s a piece of heritage, not hate.
If you’re still unsure, I’ll be clear: It’s absolutely a piece of hate. You can say it was the flag of rebels, or secessionists, or Dixie. But all those words cover up the truth, deflect from it. It was the flag of a group of traitors that went to war against the United States of America. Full stop.
I’m really glad the school is being renamed, and I hope the buildings, highways, and everything else bearing those names get changed, too. This has nothing to do with erasing history; books on this still exist, museums still exist, the knowledge still exists. And that excuse is a lie anyway; those statues, for example, were named during the Jim Crow era, long after the Civil War, as a way to promote white supremacy and keep Black people down. Spare me the rending of garments over this. Dump those statues into the sea, or put them in museums in a special hall reserved for humanity’s capacity for self-delusion and hatred.
Instead of erasing history, this movement is all about what we memorialize, what we praise, what we respect. What we name things matters.
I’m also glad the high school renaming jolted me out of my own complacency. And by that I mean the disconnect in my brain between the name being just abstract words attached to a school I was familiar with, and the name being on the wrong side of our country’s history of racism.
The jolt I felt was seeing those two contradictory ideas existing at the same time in my head. But now they’ve been reconciled; I’ve refiled the former correctly, under “Previously accepted institutional racism that needs to be fixed, now.”
And that’s lovely.
What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI
Monday 20 July, 2020: Did Betelgeuse eat another star?
Tuesday 21 July, 2020: Comet NEOWISE goes from red to green and has spiral arms
Wednesday 22 July, 2020: New research shows Venus is still geologically active now, *today*
Thursday 23 July, 2020: An exoplanet first: Two giant planets directly imaged around a young Sun-like star
Friday 24 July, 2020: Astronomers nab the farthest visible explosion from a neutron star collision ever
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