What’s in a name?

by Greg Veltman

This last May I traveled to South Africa with a group from Azusa Pacific University to explore higher education in its international context. We met with faculty and administrators at a few different South African Universities. This particular context is unique because of South Africa’s history of apartheid and its transformation into a democracy with the end of apartheid in 1993. An emerging conversation while we were there was the recent student protest about Cecil John Rhodes, who is memorialized on the campus of the University of Cape Town (UCT). Rhodes is a symbol of White colonization, as he left England in the late 19th century and pursued business and government position in South Africa, eventually becoming wealthy through diamond mining in South Africa. Rhodes was not unlike other White people in his time, he believed that the White race was superior and this justified colonial power.

The question South African students were asking about Cecil Rhodes is: why are we celebrating and memorializing a racist figure? More recently, The Atlantic has written about Yale’s naming and memorializing of John C. Calhoun, a South Carolina politician and prominent Yale alum. Calhoun also promoted racist views, going so far as to claim the “moral superiority of slavery.” The question remains, what are we to do about this history?

The predominant answer in South Africa is to take history back by removing the statue of Rhodes at UCT. South Africa has also renamed its capital from Pretoria to Tshwane. Pretoria being named after colonialist, Marthinus Pretorius. While, Tshwane honors “the Setswana name of the Apies River, which flows through the city,” and “Tshwane, son of Chief Mushi, an Ndebele leader.” The goal here is to do fuller remembering of history, recognizing that the present is the result of a struggle between colonialist power over indigenous peoples.

On the other hand, is an argument that changing names is merely symbolic, turning our gaze away from a present racism, relegating it to the past. In fact, Jonathan Holloway, former Master of Calhoun College and Professor of History and African American Studies, “favored retaining the college’s name ‘as an open sore, frankly, for the very purpose of having conversations about this.'”

Although talking and deciding about symbols is important, it often distracts from a deeper and more difficult conversation. As a response to Lincoln Caplan’s piece in The Atlantic, Tressie McMillan Cottom delves deeper, arguing that the very founding of universities in the US is based on slavery and White supremacy. She concludes with a challenge for higher education: “Beyond the names and marble likenesses, it is the wealth—its formation, its inheritance, its persistence—that haunts American institutions. Should an institution want to reject that past or redress the conditions of its founding, it might do better to commit the institution to educational-justice programs like affirmative action, reparations, and basic income. Without that, scholars will be writing these same books, these same histories for generations to come.”

It is this deeper analysis, that the “Race and Justice in Higher Education” team seeks to explore, promote and enact. It is our hope that we will pursuing the scholarship that will not merely be repeating the same books and articles that chronicle the changing of symbols, but the transformation of consciousness and institutions of higher education.