On renaming Hawaii

De-memorializing the violence of colonial imperialism by abandoning the names of oppressors currently commemorated in our street, school and place names.

Tyler Greenhill

Sadly, our nation has again witnessed the tragedy that results from a deadly mix of unabashed gun culture and the plague of racial hatred that still infects the United States.  This has, predictably, sparked further examination and diagnosis of the American body; recent scans of social and other media have revealed the development of a discourse denouncing South Carolina’s stubborn insistence on flying the Confederate flag, and the general memorialization and commemoration of Confederate military leaders, slave plantation owners, and slave traders through school and street names. 

The idea of renaming places and refusing to idolize those who profited from, or maintained, systematic racial terrorism and oppression, is simple, rational, and moral. It would represent an active move by the United States, not to implement a policy of historical amnesia, but rather to stop celebrating those who upheld overt and systematic racism. The men whose names are emblazoned on South Carolina street signs and who have schools named for them were no heroes.

The push to change this policy of celebration of men directly involved in slavery and other human rights abuses practiced in this country has already had some effect. Just today, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, who had previously insisted that the Confederate flag was a part of his state’s proud history, reversed his position and joined South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley in calling for the flag’s removal from the State Capitol after significant outcry across multiple media platforms. On Facebook, Twitter, Reddit and other platforms, people are speaking out against this policy of commemoration:

I think one of the great points that Jon Stewart made relates to a Romanticized version of the Civil War here in the south. As he pointed out, some street names where black people live in Charleston are named for Confederate generals who fought to keep their ancestors enslaved. Hell, one of my favorite places on this fair earth is Barton Springs pool, a place of peace and serenity—which is bordered by a street called Robert E. Lee.

“Oh, but those great military minds—those great Americans—didn’t really fight for slavery. Stonewall Jackson thought slavery was an abomination before God. Robert Lee did it for love of Virginia. It was all about state’s rights. The north was an invading force. We should still honor the memory of those valiant men who fought for what they believed in…” Well, sorry Generals. Too bad about your honor. You fought an insurrection that supported the institution of slavery… In this southerner’s opinion, it’s high time we stopped skirting that fact.

My great- great-grandfather, a farmer of Titus County, Texas, went to war with all his brothers and buddies for the Confederacy. Did he own slaves? No. Was he a supporter of slavery? No idea. I can only assume so. Did he, in his mind, think, “I’m gonna go fight the north so those rich planters can keep their slaves?” Doubtful. He probably considered the Union Army to be an invading force of his homeland. But I don’t care what he thought. At the end of the day, whatever the personal reasons of individuals involved, the south went to war to preserve the institution of slavery.

I am really sick of the argument that it was about state’s rights, not slavery, and that Lincoln slyly framed the conflict to be a question of slavery in order to gain more federal power. The tired old “Lost Cause” of a Romantic aristocracy fighting to preserve the simple charms of their country serenity is [nonsense]. Maybe some southerners thought, and still think, that that’s what they were fighting for, but the fact is that the state’s “right” in question was the institution of slavery. Period.

And, as such, I think the valiant military exploits of Lee, Jackson, Hood, Longstreet et al need to take an immediate back seat to the real, immediate, and human interests of the descendants of the people whose freedom and equal rights and opportunity their “cause” sought to curtail. If the memory of my great grandfather, or of the generals he fought under need to be resigned to history books and removed from street signs and state capitols so that this country can show some justice and respect to those they enslaved, so be it. Let’s stop [pretending].

Let’s put the modern interests of the people of our nation, especially those who are still fighting for their basic human rights, above our quaint desire to remember a Romance that never existed. Let’s take down the Confederate battle flag. It hurts people. Let’s take down the street signs. They hurt people. Let’s stop naming elementary schools for men who fought to keep the ancestors of the children who pass through their doors in chains. Let’s start remembering those who fought for liberty, and stop remembering those who fought for enslavement.  — Stephen Andrew Cook, via Facebook (edited for language and consistency of style)

But why stop there? How does this renaming campaign relate to Hawaii?

In Hawaii, we do not have the misfortune of having to drive on a Robert E. Lee boulevard, or of having to study at a Jefferson Davis High School. We’re likewise spared from having to attend basketball games at a Barclay’s Center.  But while Hawaii does not have a history of slavery the way the American South does, our state certainly still has a history of oppression which is often memorialized by honoring the men who oppressed. Native Hawaiians, as well as Japanese, Chinese, Filipinos, Puerto Ricans, and other immigrants whose grandparents toiled in the fields of Hawaii’s own plantation system, can tell you all about the oppressive system they had little choice but to participate in. So too can the poor, the houseless and the marginalized living in today’s Hawaii.

Radicalized violence and oppression in Hawaii usually does not take the form of sensational, singular events, such as the murder of Eric Garner or the murder of nine churchgoers in Charleston, but it is not totally foreign here. In 1932, a young Hawaiian named Joseph Kahahawai was murdered by family members of Thalia Massie after he and his friends were acquitted of bogus rape charges leveled at them by the unstable navy wife. The story is one of the most famous instances of racial violence in Hawaii, but there have been others. In 2011, another young Hawaiian named Collin Elderts was shot to death by a white State Department agent named Christopher Deedy during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in Waikiki. Deedy was acquitted of murder charges, though many in Hawaii were outraged by that ruling. Even just earlier this year, Sheldon Haleck died in still-unclear circumstances after Honolulu police restrained him outside Iolani Palace, drawing some parallels to the spate of police brutality-related killings on the mainland.

Just as racial violence is often memorialized on the mainland, the political and economic elite who dictate much of our future here in Hawaii likewise have an affinity for memorializing unsavory men. We erect monuments, name schools and otherwise commemorate those who initiated the colonial destruction of Native Hawaiians, who were directly involved in the illegal overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, who profited and oppressed during plantation times, and who used (and continue to use) Hawaii as a springboard for imperial expansion. This worship of economic elites who have greatly profited from the economic stratification of society that comes hand-in-hand with neoliberal capitalism needs to end. As the names of streets and schools south of the Mason-Dixon line are reexamined and changed , we in Hawaii should do the same, and critically examine the men whose names we remember.

Should Hawaii’s flag continue to bear the Union Jack, symbol of the British Empire?  Maybe we should follow the lead of Fiji and remove such a dubious symbol.  Should there really be a statue of Captain Cook on Hawaiian soil when he was, in many ways, the harbinger of doom for the Hawaiian people; whose men introduced the diseases that ravaged Hawaiian populations? Should students of Native Hawaiian ancestry have to walk through entrances adorned with the name of an imperialist like William McKinley; the man who pushed for the United States to illegally annex Hawaii?  And, regardless of their inefficacious, paternalistic philanthropy, should we be honoring oligarchs like Henry Baldwin or Samuel Castle who subjected plantation workers to abhorrent working conditions and low wages when their descendants and business successors continue to uphold an economic system characterized by inequality and greed?

Hawaii is rich with culture and rife with intellectuals, artists, activists and other ambassadors of aloha of all ethnic backgrounds worthy of commemoration. Why not venerate the beautiful people who have made the most positive, moral contributions to Hawaiian and local culture?  Why not let the spirit of aloha be represented in the names we choose to remember here in our islands? Doing so would be a tiny, tip-toe step towards eliminating the violence of racism, colonialism, imperialism and neoliberalism that has continued to infect our popular local history, culture and vernacular for so long. Let us unshackle ourselves from these ugly histories so that we may move forward in a way that is filled with aloha.