Newport This Week

Hard to Capture Cultural History

To the Editor:

When I was in Italy several years ago, I remember a waiter putting his hand on my shoulder and chuckling after listening to me clumsily ask for the check in Italian. However it came out, it must have struck him that I was barely able to speak his language, let alone understand his culture. As a wannabe historian, I often think of the quote by L.P. Hartley: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

The possible upcoming referendum to remove “Providence Plantations” from the formal name of the state brings that sentiment into focus ever so clearly. The current fervor to address racial injustice and historic atrocities is absolutely justified. But when we turn to altering place names, flags, or monuments to express that fervor, one of the casualties is our understanding of our complex past. If this is done in the name of correctness, then we have a long list of street names right here in Newport that would need to be changed because they were named for families involved in the slave trade. And the more you dig into history, the longer that list would become.

In a recent guest view (“Proposed Name Change Ignores History,” Aug. 20), Brian Stinson does an excellent job of providing context to the formal name of Rhode Island, as well as demonstrating that it has nothing to do with the plantations of the antebellum South.

Understanding what people really did, felt, meant, thought, saw, smelled and heard in 1637 is as impossible as it would have been for them to fully know what our world is like today. This is despite our rich heritage in documents, artifacts and architecture.

Still, some would push for the name change, regardless of their understanding, to make themselves feel better about where they live right now. Well and good, but if you ever stroll through the Common Burying Ground and hear a good-natured chuckle from beneath, it could be someone getting a kick out of our collective ignorance of their culture.

When you’re ready to get past the Hollywood and Disney versions, try these resources: Newport Middle Passage Project, The Rhode Island Slave History Medallions, and the Understanding Slavery Initiative.

Jon Dember

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