College of Liberal Arts

Place Naming as Doing or Denying Justice: The Unfinished Memory-Work of Anti-Racism Within the University Campus Landscape

Friday Feb 16, 2018 3:00 PM - 4:00 PM | CLA 0.128

Derek H. Alderman, Professor of Geography, University of Tennessee & President of American Association of Geographers

A number of U.S. universities are embroiled in debates over the longtime commemoration and valorization of white supremacy through the campus landscape. Recognizing place naming as a legitimate political arena, activists have called for—and in some instances succeeded—in removing in the names of racist historical figures from the names of university buildings and other public spaces. I offer ideas for understanding the significance and efficacy of these ongoing struggles. Even when school officials de-commemorate the names of Confederate generals, slave owners, Ku Klan Klan leaders, or segregationists, they have often leave unfinished the memory-work of transforming these racialized places into sites of anti-racism. I argue that replacements for the embattled names have tended to be generic, sanitized, and “colorblind” place monikers seemingly more concerned with avoiding further controversy than recovering and doing justice to a black sense of place. Less common is to find university buildings and places renamed for African Americans, which represent a denied opportunity for creating a reparative, regenerative, and responsible geography of memory. Finally, I encourage universities to document the historical-political origins and social-emotional impacts of named buildings and other spaces, to develop policies that incorporate social justice and inclusive participation into campus landscape decisions, and to combine place rename change with educational programming, digitally augmented reality, and the design of contextual signage.  

Derek H. Alderman is a Professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Tennessee. He currently serves as President of the American Association of Geographers (AAG).  Dr. Alderman’s specialties include race, public memory, and critical place name study—all within the context of the African-American struggle for social and spatial justice. He is the author of over 110 articles, book chapters, and other essays along with the award-winning book (with Owen Dwyer), Civil Rights Memorials and the Geography of Memory.  He has recently published an edited volume (with Reuben Rose-Redwood and Maoz Azaryahu) entitled The Political Life of Urban Streetscapes: Naming, Politics, and Place (Routledge).  Alderman frequently uses his scholarship to engage and assist the news media, government officials, community activists and organizations, and the broader public.  He has been interviewed or quoted over 200 times in print, radio and television media outlets, including CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, CityLab, Washington Post, USA Today, The Guardian, and BBC Radio News.  He is the recent recipient of the Distinguished Mentor Award from the National Council for Geographic Education and the Distinguished Career Award from the Ethnic Geography Specialty Group of the AAG.  As President of the AAG, Alderman is developing the “Geography is REAL (Responsive, Engaged, Advocating, and Life-Improving)” initiative, which encourages and supports greater public intellectualism, communication savviness, and disciplinary promotion. Alderman can be followed on Twitter @MLKStreet.



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