Slavery & Historical Memory: Penny Lane is in my Ears and in My Eyes; and the Eyes of Texas are Upon You…

Yesterday, the AP posted a brief article that touches upon some sticky issues when it comes to history, race, representation, popular culture and cultural memory.

Associated Press
Liverpool–Penny Lane will keep its name. City officials said Saturday they would modify a proposal to rename streets linked to the slave trade when they realized the road made famous by the 1967 Beatles song was one of them.

The unassuming suburban avenue was named for James Penny, an 18th-century slave ship owner. Liverpool, the Beatles’ northern English hometown, was once a major hub for the slave trade.

“I don’t think anyone would seriously consider renaming Penny Lane,” said city council member Barbara Mace, who has been pressing to get rid of names linked to slavery.

The council plans to talk Wednesday about a plan to rename several Liverpool streets named for slave traders. Some want to honour Anthony Walker, a black teenager murdered in a July 2005 racial attack. Others suggest renaming streets for abolitionists.

How should nations like the UK (& the US) address their history as nations founded on the enslavement and trade of other, racialized human beings? Do we further suppresss our involvementt in the slave trade by “erasing” the fact that we once venerated these traders with street names? On the other hand, should we now honor abolitionist and victims of racial violence in order to show that our positions have changed? And finally, what significance can we give more recent popular culture (i.e., the Beatles song) when it is more recent and more prominent in our cultural memories.

A personal parallel comes to mind. While I was at the University of Texas they were busy attempting to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. with a statue–the first such statue on any campus in the US. But where to put our MLK statue?

On the prominent South Mall of the UT campus there stands what is commonly known as the “six pack”–a set of six statues that includes four statues of Confederate soldiers and politicians: Jefferson Davis, Albert Sidney Johnston, Robert E. Lee, and John H. Reagan.

In 2001, UT’s Graduate Student Assembly formed an ad hoc committee on the South Mall statues. The committee found that many students may find the statues objectionable because of the connection between the Confederacy and the institution of slavery, while many other students may view the statues as symbols of individualism, bravery and state pride, and do not perceive the statues as promoting slavery.

The Graduate Student Assembly recommended that the University’s Office of the President take the following actions:

1. Add new plaques next to each of the South Mall statues, to include historical and biographical information regarding the individuals;

2. Create a new University Commission, consisting of faculty, students and community leaders, to study the presence of Confederate statues and symbols on University property;

3. Construct a statue of Barbara Jordan at a prominent location along the pedestrian-friendly portion of Speedway.

Meanwhile, the MLK statue, which was conceived and financed entirely by the University of Texas at Austin student body, was looking for a home…at the time I recall that some outspoken six-pack critics suggested that we place MLK in the center of the South Mall (symbolically confronting the ex-Confederates), or–even more radically–some suggested that we melt down Robert E. Lee and cast MLK out of his remains (I kinda liked the symbolism behind that one).

In the end, MLK ended up on the East Mall (near Anthropology, facing the LBJ Presidential Library) and not confronting the figures of the South Mall. Further, to my knowledge, no explanatory signs have gone up on the South Mall.

More importantly…I feel that the purpose of the MLK statue was to show that the University of Texas was a progressive institution that valued Dr. King’s vision of a diverse society (not unlike Liverpool’s intent to show that it does not value slave traders)…but Texas’ attempt at a progressive image was undermined in January of 2003, when students defaced the MLK statue by pelting it with raw eggs…and again in August of 2004 when vandals painted MLK with silver paint. Finally a guard had to be placed at the statue in order to protect against vandalism…what does this say about the University of Texas’ REAL position toward Dr. King’s beliefs? What will it say when Liverpool street signs with the name “Anthony Walker” on them go missing? Only time will tell us what Liverpool is made of…

The original AP article can be found here:
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20060710.wxnote10-4/BNStory/Entertainment/home

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Categories: history

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