Pritchard: Censorship can’t disguise city’s heritage

John Hayes Pritchard of Memphis teaches English at Southwest Tennessee Community College. He is author of the novel "Junior Ray."
July 24, 2005

I salute the good intentions of those citizens who seek to exorcise the devils of the past by changing the names of three Memphis parks — Forrest, Confederate and Jefferson Davis.

But the issue is larger than just the names of the parks that commemorate Memphis’s Civil War history. For example: Forrest Avenue has to go. Washington and Jefferson avenues also should be renamed. Like Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were not only slave owners but also traitors to their country — which, at the time, was Britain.

One of the most offensive images in our city is that of the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses the Great, whose larger-than-life statue looms over Front Street at The Pyramid. There is no telling how many souls he enslaved and slaughtered.

The names of the Hernando DeSoto Bridge and DeSoto Park should certainly be changed. De Soto, the 16th Century Spanish explorer who is credited with discovering the Mississippi River, was unconscionably cruel to the Native American population he encountered. In an effort to control the natives and convert them to Christianity, de Soto and his men mutilated many by cutting off ears, noses, hands and genitalia.

Any use of the word "Chickasaw" may have to be discarded as well.

The Chickasaws not only owned slaves, they were enthusiastic about it as they adopted English names, acquired plantations and sought, in the days before the American Revolution, to identify with the British. At their "Removal" to Oklahoma in the 1830s and ’40s, the Chickasaws took their black slaves with them. They threw in with the Confederacy during the Civil War, and afterward there was a hot debate over whether the freed black slaves of the Chickasaw — known as the Chickasaw Freedmen — were citizens of the United States proper, citizens of Indian Territory only, or both.

We ought also to take stock not merely of places but of events, such as the Napoleon exhibit that in 1993 became the fourth installment of Memphis’s "Wonders" series. Napoleon was undeniably one of the greatest mass murderers in the history of civilization, yet we paid no mind to that fact and enjoyed whatever municipal monetary benefit the exhibition afforded us.

Finally, perhaps like "Southerner" the term "African-American" could be re-examined. Without African participation there would have been no American slave trade, in the South or anywhere else.

European incursions into the interior of West Africa were thoughtfully discouraged by the West Africans of the 18th and 19th Centuries, who preferred to gather up the human commodity themselves as part of a bustling entrepot trade which, in addition to their export of slaves, included the selling of ivory, gold and palm oil.

Sadly, slavery still exists in parts of Africa, according to press reports, notably in the Sudan, Mauritania and in the region around the upper Volta River in what was formerly French West Africa.

Memphis, like all cities — including the ancient city of Memphis, Egypt, which also was founded upon slave labor — is imperfect. But its imperfections are part of what gives our community character and distinction.

Memphians should not shoot from the hip in deciding what to do about the names of our Civil War parks. The connections with slavery and oppression are deeply embedded throughout the history of our country. There is no avoidance of that.

But changing the names of the parks in question would deny an inescapable cultural truth, and that denial would deprive succeeding generations of essential historical information through which black and white citizens alike derive portions of their identity. Indeed, if the same censorship were inflicted upon literature, the Old Testament and Shakespeare would go the way of Beavis and Butthead.

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