Actually, Let’s Talk About Renaming Amherst

Since the violence in Charlottesville (and Donald Trump’s equivocal response), much more attention is being paid to a topic that sparked the white supremacist August rally — taking down historical monuments and changing names that many people find offensive and even oppressive.

That discussion is playing out in communities everywhere, and the Valley is no exception. Most recently, Belchertown resident William Bowen suggested that the community of Amherst change the town name due to convincing evidence that Lord Jeffery Amherst, the man, advocated for and enacted the use of germ warfare against the Native Americans local to the region before Amherst, the place, was named after him.

In a story in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, Amherst Select Board member Connie Kruger said the sentiment was unlikely to gain traction.

At the same time, many similar notions have gained traction and are hotly debated — even locally.

Last year, officials at Amherst College also struggled with their connection to Lord Jeffery Amherst — their unofficial sports mascot “Lord Jeff. Trustees ultimately decided to discontinue the use of the mascot. A majority of students and faculty members wanted to remove the mascot, but there were many alumni who dug in and fought to keep “Lord Jeff.”

In Montague, residents have embroiled themselves in a debate whether or not to keep the “Indians” as the mascot for Turners Falls High School. School Committee members voted 6-3 in February to remove the name, but a non-binding community vote had residents voting by a margin of 3-to-1 against the change.

The subject has also touched a community I’m intimately a part of — those who participate in New England style contra dance, a partner dance done to live music and a dance caller (think: “swing your partner”).

In that community, many object to the fact that one dance figure, which involves making eye contact and walking around one another, is called a “gypsy,” which is considered a derogatory term for the Roma people. Some also dislike the fact that callers use the gendered terms “ladies” and “gents” to refer to the two dance roles, rather than non-gendered terms that would be more inclusive of transgender and gender non-binary individuals — it would also invite more men and women to try out the traditionally “opposite” dance role.

The community remains divided on what to do with these terms, and debates — some of them heated and unpleasant — periodically find their way onto my Facebook feed.

Initially I defended the use of terms like “ladies” and “gents” in contra dance, but I found myself using similar arguments I was reading racist KKK members use about why the confederate battle flag should be preserved in Southern state houses — “it’s the way it’s always been” or “it’s tradition.” There’s nothing like parroting a white supremacist to make you call into question your own beliefs.

Words and monuments have different meanings for different people, and it is important we all recognize when we are continuing oppression and take advantage of opportunities to stop.

At the same time, it is important to have empathy for those people who are not racists or white supremacists, but who are dealing with losing a piece of their own past that, through no fault of their own, is rooted in bigotry. It is a hard thing to give up emblems we consider part of our identity, even if it is the right thing to do when confronted with the truth behind them. Recognizing that can be a good way to change minds.

So do we change the name of the town of Amherst, as Bowen proposes? I hope we at least talk about it. Even if it is decided nothing should change, it is worthwhile to acknowledge that we all have traditions worthy of being questioned.

Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at deisen@valleyadvocate.com.

 

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