“Racial wallpaper” and the power of mapping

In response to Dylann Roof’s killing of nine people in Charleston this past week, Jon Stewart commented what he called the state’s “racial wallpaper” of white supremacy: “The confederate flag flies over South Carolina. And the roads are named for confederate generals.”

To test the truth of Stewart’s statement, Laura Newman Eckstein, a rising senior at Haverford College, created a map of streets named after Confederate generals and African American leaders, respectively:

From

From “The Confederate Streets of South Carolina” at lauraneckstein.com.

While the map raises as many questions as it answers (are the streets in prominent locations, or on back roads? Are they single-block “commemorations,” say, marking the block where a historic figure was born, or miles-long thoroughfares or highways? and so on), it make visible, in a powerful way, what “racial wallpaper” looks like.

At the end of another blog post, this one written by my friend (and South Carolina literary historian) Susanna Ashton, of Clemson, a commenter pointed out that Dylann Roof also happens to live very near a street named “Chain Gang Road.” I used to live on Joe Sayers Avenue in Austin, TX, a street named after a Jim Crow-era governor of Texas (and, I now discover, a major in the Confederate Army). I always hated giving out that address and was glad to leave it behind. But at least it wasn’t “Chain Gang Road.” Can you imagine what it says to choose that name for a road– much less be proud to live or work there? Or possibly, it just got that name because it described what happened there. But the fact that it stuck says a lot, none of which I’d be proud of owning.

I had always assumed that cities that used alphanumeric systems to name streets did so simply out of a desire to impose order on the grid, to make cities easier to navigate. But perhaps it also is an indication of an ideological fractiousness within a city, one that would make attaining consensus on street names impossible. Or it might hide that fractiousness altogether under a veneer of an orderly grid.

Everyone says New York is so easy to navigate, because it’s all numbers: streets going south-to-north, avenues going east-to-west. It may be easy to navigate, but it also “depersonalizes” or maybe even “dehumanizes” the city as well–perhaps for ideological reasons– does it not?

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2 responses to ““Racial wallpaper” and the power of mapping

  1. JLC

    Reblogged this on Think. Do. and commented:

    Sorry for not blogging here for the past few weeks. It’s because I’m blogging somewhere else– at the City of Print blog sponsored by the NEH Institute on the City of Print I am currently attending in New York City. Here is something I just posted today.

    Like

  2. sarahsalter

    I’ve been thinking a lot too about how the space of the city is ordered and experienced. For me, the mostly numerical street system in New York requires a different sense of history: one knows that street names have meaning, but that knowledge is based on a certain fine-grained awareness of what places were like/are like/where things happened. So, for example, Christopher Street (which does have a person-name, oddly) is a meaningful address not because of the Christopher for whom it was ostensibly named, but as a result of the events that occured there and the specific historical struggle it has come to represent; Bechdel’s Fun Home does a really nice job talking about that knowledge and how it comes to be, I think. Does that meaning depend in part upon one’s seeking (or having) historical information that is not only conveyed by the name itself? Yes, certainly. That is to say, if someone didn’t know the history of Stonewall and gay activism in the city, the name “Christopher Street” would not give her that information. But I’m not sure that, for me, that condition is not personalized. Maybe it’s a kind of research version of history and space, which is why I find it appealing and not alienating? But others might (and no doubt do) find the New York street system more insidery and unclear and impersonal than helpful or meaningful. You also point us to a rich area of philosophical and linguistic thought, one that I didn’t really have any language to think about until now. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/names/

    Liked by 1 person

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