"Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes", but what Lennon and McCarthy saw and sang about is not what Liverpool officials were thinking of this week when considering a proposal to rename city streets once associated with the slave trade. The councilor who made the proposal that "all streets, squares and public places named after those who were involved in promoting or profiteering from the slave trade" be renamed had not known that Liverpool's most famous street, Penny Lane, would be on that list.
"I wasn't aware that Penny Lane was named after someone involved in the slave trade," said Barbara Mace. "However, I am not suggesting that all the streets in the city associated with slavery should be abolished. If that was the case, I think most of the city would be affected. My proposal is to rename several of the streets in the city center which are named after the more notorious slave traders and replace them with the names of people who have done something positive."
Liverpool was a major center in the triangle trade in the latter part of the 18th-century and James Penny was a slave ship owner and apologist for slavery who made his fortune there. Still, the association between Penny's tarnished name and Penny Lane had been forgotten by just about every Liverpudlian prior to this controversy, and the street has a new association with the Fab Four that completely overshadows its shadowy past.
Fear not for the fate of Penny Lane. Wiser heads have prevailed, and Penny Lane will keep its name. This is not a simple case of misplaced political correctness, since the councilor herself has made a course correction upon learning new information. Nevertheless, "what's in a name" remains as relevant a question today as when Shakespeare posed it on the British stage over 400 years ago.
Little inflames passions more than the debate over signs and symbols of past injustices. One of the first things that the newly independent nation of Zimbabwe did was to rename its old colonial towns and districts and reclaim indigenous place names and spellings. Wankie became Hwange and Fort Victoria is now Masvingo. The Chinese have done the same with Beijing and the Indians with Mumbai. Nationalisms require unifying symbols and traditions and names with contemporary relevance and meaning.
I myself saw how powerful reclaiming local names could be when working with a communal area conservancy in Namibia to map their area and record the names used or remembered by local people for a landscape with just German and Afrikaans labels on existing maps. Actually, some of those old farms that became communal lands for black Namibians under apartheid had great Latin names that are still in use at those settlements. How would you like to be able to say you lived at "Nil Desperandum?"
Yet some traditions - female circumcision or genital mutilation comes to mind as a particularly scandalous example - can no longer be considered appropriate foundations for individual and group identity given modern values and understandings of human worth and dignity. Those traditions and symbols that do not have contemporary relevance or are too laden with meaning to transcend their previous negative associations are rightly subject to scrutiny, but this neither justifies knee jerk PC revisionism nor a fundamentalist defense of morally bankrupt imagery.
Take an example from my adolescence. I was admittedly a "singular" kid, and among my many eccentricities was a love of costume that continues to this day (you should see my hat collection). My interest in the American Civil War began in 4th grade and I quickly organized the local neighborhood kids into a miniature reenactment unit - the 15th NY infantry. I portray the wounded officer at left, and yes, that is an anachronistic hedge of Japanese barberry.
In 8th grade, the opportunity to reenact for real came my way, but the only unit recruiting in our upstate New York area was a company of the 10th Virginia (confederate) cavalry.
One can only imagine the moral dilemma this presented my progressive, pacifist parents. My father was involved in civil rights work and voter registration in the 1960s. I also found it unsettling to assume the role of a confederate trooper - even for the sake of history - whose core principles I did not share despite the Alabama brigadier lurking in our ancestral closet. Having a talent for disassociation, I gave myself the ethical dispensation to proceed with reenacting and had a marvelous time. But I also liked wearing my cavalry shell jacket as a winter coat, and one day I was walking down the street in Millerton, NY and saw my old grade school superintendent, Eugene Brooks, who also happened to be one of the few, prominent African Americans in our area. He greeted me warmly and asked; "So, are you in military school now?" In the awkward silence that followed, it occurred to me that the best answer might be; "...Yes I am!" but instead I just answered truthfully "no" and the wall between us grew palpably higher.
Confederate signs and signifiers are very powerful, and even if appropriate in the context of my reenacting world they had other undeniable impacts in the real one.
There are many examples of a negative image or word being subverted by those it objectifies. Consider the use of "nigger" by some African Americans when referring to each other. This makes some in the African American community very uncomfortable, and my use of it as a white American male is utterly without justification. You'd be surprised how many "Nigger Ponds" there used to be on old New England maps, though. Even taxonomy has expunged species names with "kaffir" at their root, which is a derogatory term for black people in parts of Africa on a par with "nigger."
Back in my undergraduate days, a pink triangle was often seen as a symbol of militant gay pride. This symbol was originally used to label homosexuals in Nazi concentration camps, just as the Star of David branded Jews under the Reich. Today one is more likely to see a rainbow image signifying gay pride. Times change, and symbols no longer represent group identity as they once did. I suspect, but not being part of the gay community have no direct knowledge of this, that in the end the Pink Triangle was burdened with too many negative associations to be a transforming and affirming symbol for all members of the group today.
Then there is the striking juxtaposition of the shell of Coventry Cathedral, bombed to stone-dust during the Battle of Britain, and in a courtyard of truncated columns and hollow walls open to the sky, the reclining effigy of a bishop with the pre-Nazi image of the swastika worked into his miter.
It is right to re-examine from time to time contemporary associations with problematic historic symbols and to see whether they still have the power to bite or have lost their negative edge. There is no call for iconoclasm, for linguistic and symbolic cleansing for its own, fundamentalist sake. Penny Lane is Penny Lane in my ears and in my eyes. But no key defining attribute of identity outlasts its usefulness. Sometimes, a rose by another name still has a foul stench.