Pull down the signs: Our symbols teach values

06/24/2020

Over the last two weeks I’ve watched a debate on the West Marin Feed Facebook page between those who propose changing the name of Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and those who can’t stomach the idea. The debate is passionate and sometimes ugly in tenor. The “dialogue” reminds me of the weight of the symbolic.

Watching confederate statues fall across our nation stirred a flood of memories. I lived in Germany in 1989, when revolution brought down the Berlin Wall and statues of Lenin and Stalin were pulled down as the iron curtain was firmly pulled open. The dramatic change stirred hope in most, and fear of uncertainty and retribution in others. Looking in from the outside, I could see the cathartic effect that the crushing of marble and stone had as the impossible came suddenly within reach. 

My mother grew up in rural Alabama, in Truman Capote and Harper Lee country. She taught English and art and often talked about the power of the symbol. Mama taught me that words, the most common human use of symbols, were meaningful, but their weight could feel different depending on one’s experiences.  

When I was about 4 years old, my mother taught me a lesson that has stuck with me. I called my older brother the N-word and the consequences were swift. I was scooped up and brought to the sink where my mother firmly but gently washed my mouth out with soap before sitting me down and asking me what I was trying to say. 

At that age I didn’t know what I had said, only that I was repeating something hurtful to hurl at my brother in frustration. My mother explained that the word I used was the ugliest thing a person could say to a Black person and that the soap was to let me taste the bitterness of its meaning. She then named the people I would personally hurt if I used the word again, including the neighboring family who regularly welcomed me into their home. It was the only form of corporal punishment I ever received and the smell of Ivory soap brings me back to that moment. It was a potent and early lesson in racism and symbolism. Words have meaning.

When the road now called Sir Francis Drake Boulevard was named in 1931, there were few Black people in our county. Those who lived here were not allowed to buy property. Marin is known as the whitest and most segregated county in the Bay Area. The road cuts through the center of Marin and is the artery connecting West Marin to the rest of the Bay Area. Drake was an English sea captain, privateer, naval officer, explorer and slave trader. He died of dysentery 424 years ago, after landing on what is believed to be West Marin’s Drakes Bay. His “discovery” of West Marin’s coast set off a series of events that would devastate the native Coast Miwok.

Last December, my son and I flew to visit my dad in Alabama, stopping in New Orleans first. It was one of those memorable family trips, with great food, jazz and a ghost tour of the city. By far the most impactful part of the trip, however, was our tour of the Whitney Plantation outside the city. The Whitney is a museum dedicated to sharing the experience of slavery in the United States. It is unique in the South. Part historic marker and part memorial, it reminded me most of my trip to Auschwitz while living in Eastern Europe. The stories and statues of the individual children of the plantation all around the site brought home the terrible impacts on the real people. 

One line of reasoning in the comments I’ve read was this: Why bother with trivial and symbolic acts when there are better ways to spend our time and money to promote anti-racism and equity in Marin County? Another comment, and one of the most disturbing, was a note that defended Drake, saying he was only behaving like anyone of his time would. To that I say, Francis Drake was a man of his times, but not of ours. Symbols reflect and teach values, whether they are statues or words, and the English or Coast Miwok languages have plenty of beautiful words to choose among. Pull down those signs and make a fresh start. Marin can and must be better, with words first and then with deeds. 

 

Donna Faure was born in Selma, Ala., grew up on military bases, and spent her life working on behalf of causes close to her heart. She has lived in Inverness for 10 years.