You might have seen the recent stories about Rick Perry's rock. A stone on property the Texas governor used to rent had a racial place name painted on it. A very unfortunate racial place name, one incorporating a term that rhymes with "bigger."
The story was played up to make Perry look bad. But it raises a broader issue. Hundreds of geographical places and features around the country bear racially insensitive names. Several are here in Virginia — including a couple of Negro Hollows, three Negro Points, four Negro Runs, the Negrohead summit in Rockingham, and a few others — including a place in Hanover called Negro Foot.
According to a local history tome, "tradition has it that for an atrocious act of cannibalism, a recently-arrived African was drawn and quartered and that, as a warning, parts of his body were hung in various parts of the colony. His foot gave its name to a section that is still known as Negrofoot." Another work notes that "slaveholders sometimes purposefully crippled habitual runaway slaves by cutting off one foot or one or more toes. In 1705, when slavery was codified, dismemberment was considered a legitimate form of punishment for habitual runaways as long as it was not likely to prove fatal."
Now once upon a time, "Negro" was a polite term, more respectful than many of the words whites used to denote and demean blacks. And, in fact, some places around the country now bear the term "Negro" because they once used the worst of those other words, and the U.S. Board on Geographic Names altered them back in the Sixties to make them more genteel.
Times change. "Negro" now carries taint. Should the names of geographic features change to reflect modern sensibilities? The question has come up before — e.g. in Kentucky, which a few years ago changed some names (such as N***er Fork) but not others (such as Negro Town Hill Road).
There are two schools of thought. One holds that anachronistic names represent a certain period when no harm was meant by a word, so none should be taken now. The other holds that as times and mores change, names should too. Once upon a time people thought stoning adulterers was acceptable, but that doesn't mean we should keep doing it.
On the other hand, changing names to suit the times opens up a can of worms. To begin with, a name changed once for sensibilities' sake might need to be changed again for the same reason later — and again, and again, just as the term "commode" was replaced by the euphemism "toilet" (which used to mean personal care in general), which became bathroom and then restroom.
As soon as a euphemism enters common use it ceases to be a euphemism, so a new one must be found. Linguist Steven Pinker has called this the euphemism treadmill. But there is an easy fix: Avoid racially charged terms altogether. Negro Creek should not become African-American Creek, but, say, Mossy Oak Creek. Problem solved.
Changing place names also might give cover to those politically correct censors who would Bowdlerize works of literature such as "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or "The Nigger of the 'Narcissus.' " Why rename Negrohead summit, but not Conrad's novella? There are several answers. Here's a brief one: A publicly owned geographical feature falls within government's scope. Works of art do not. A government, having named a creek, can name it again.
There also is a question as to where to stop renaming things. Some folks would like to rename the various schools, bridges and roads named after Confederate generals (and they have a case). Debate also waxes and wanes over renaming the Washington Redskins and other teams with insensitive monikers. (Some actually contend the term is a compliment honoring Native Americans' fighting spirit, which is like saying "The Jew Bank" would be a compliment because everyone knows Jews are good with money.) Then there are those who find something sinister and sexist in the word "seminar," and who insist on using "s/he" in written communication, which s/heems rather s/hilly. It is possible to take things too far.
But the fact that you can take things too far should not be used as an excuse not to take them far enough. Nor is it clear that the former is worse than the latter. In any event, it seems unlikely that renaming a Negro Branch here and there will inspire a petition drive against Cracker Barrel restaurants for insulting white people.
Finally one can note, as some have, that the rules of etiquette, or of simple decency, sometimes look highly arbitrary. "Colored people" is deemed insulting, yet "people of color" is progressive and enlightened. Go figure.
All of this sounds, in the end, like excuse-making. For anyone resisting the notion of rewriting the maps, a simple question should clarify the issue: Would you feel comfortable asking a black friend to lunch at Negro Foot? Let's hope not.