Change is part of our living history
You may have seen the PBS podcast that featured Frederick Douglass’ great-great-great grandchildren reading from his speech to abolitionists on Independence Day in 1852. He made clear his bitterness about a day for which almost 80 years later he and his enslaved brothers and sisters still had no reason to celebrate. Poignantly read by his current kin, the speech made palpable a history noticeably harsher than the one I’d learned in public school, where heroic names guarded a history that was seemingly valiant and unchanging.
When I came to New York City in the 1960s, anyone intending to travel internationally caught their plane at Idlewild Airport. Being primed to respond to “great men,” I assumed that Idlewild was someone of political prominence, though the name turned out to be that of the developer of the Jamaica Bay resort and golf course on which Mayor LaGuardia had built the airport in the 1940s. After President Kennedy was slain in 1963, the airport was rededicated in his honor. Though I was unaware of objections, I continued to speak of Idlewild. Then one day, somehow, that name had worn itself out and when I got on the subway with my suitcase to ride to the far reaches of Queens, I thought, “I going to Kennedy.”
Which gives me sympathy for those who resist both the removal of Confederate statues and the changing of names of military bases. Even though these names honor people who have harmed — and continue to humiliate — our black citizens, we’re a big country and people stick to what they’re used to for all kinds of reasons. I even understand why, if you’re not ready to make the change, it’s easy to think of those who are as merely “politically correct.”
I was talking about the removal of statues with an old friend, who many years ago benefited from a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Princeton University was announcing that it would drop the name of President Wilson from its famed Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, and my friend and other former Woodrow Wilson Fellowship recipients were suggesting that the name of the Fellowship also be changed.
My spotty American history had left me with the view of Wilson as an “idealist.” During the Paris Peace Conference that ended World War I, he tried to create an international governing order, the League of Nations, that would “end all wars,” and he supported the vote for women. Unfortunately, as I now gather, the principles of self-determination and democracy promoted in the League of Nations applied only to European and Anglo-Saxon settler nations, not to African, Arab, Indian, and Pacific Island peoples. Moreover, Wilson’s support for women’s suffrage came late, three years after “silent sentinels” led by Alice Paul began picketing in front of the White House, after the imprisonment and force-feeding of suffragettes had become a national scandal.
Black Lives Matter has also shone a light on Woodrow Wilson the white supremacist, apologist for the Klan, friend of the country’s prominent racist demagogues and defender of segregation within his own presidential administration. Trained as a historian, Wilson’s popular textbook, “Division and Reunion” contended that slaves “were almost uniformly dealt with indulgently and even affectionately by their masters,” who themselves were the beneficiaries of “the sensibility and breeding of entitlement” — an astonishing claim! Moreover, he condemned Reconstruction — the effort to enforce the civil and political emancipation of African Americans in the occupied South — because it allowed black citizens to vote.
Though most of us are understandably reluctant to undergo the emotional turmoil of rethinking our history and our heroes, all proper names denote a unique person with a particular story that will inevitably be re-evaluated as times change. Some may object that we’re on a slippery slope if we find Woodrow Wilson’s sins too great to honor his name. But I find it interesting that Wilson evokes different associations than when I was in school, partly because we’re in a very different era, and partly because of what people have uncovered and rethought about Wilson’s unique story. I am grateful to Black Lives Matter for once again sensitizing me to how we can unthinkingly ensure that whites, and especially white men, have an edge on power, on material and other resources, and even on safety.
Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories. She is trained as a spiritual director.