There once was a town called Nigella. It was a nondescript little Podunk, located near a larger and more notable community. Its residents were almost entirely white. Its high school sports teams were named, in a more benighted era, the Niggers. Many of the kids would attend games in blackface, and the mascot was a Stepin Fetchit character who danced and hooted when the team scored a touchdown. All innocent fun, and no one in this lily-white town conceived otherwise.
Then came the civil rights era, and the school had a problem on its hands. The nickname was a piece of the town’s history, and nobody wanted to change it. So they dropped the mascot and banned the blackface, claiming the nickname was never intended as a racial slur — merely a light-hearted callback to the town’s real name.
You know where I’m going with this. Last night, the South Burlington School Board voted to keep the “Rebel” nickname, claiming that it had a specific meaning in their community and had nothing whatsoever to do with the Confederacy or slavery.
“It’s what we make of it. It’s something artificial,” said [an SBHS alum]. “I don’t think the intention is to offend anyone or promote racism.”
Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. Words acquire connotations. “Rebel” has other meanings, but its primary connotation is with the wrong side in the Civil War. You know, the one that wanted to keep on owning slaves, and was willing to kill the United States of America in order to do so.
Maybe, just maybe, longtime South Burlingtonians can convince themselves that they’ve established a new, specific heritage for “Rebel.” But how does it look to the outside world? How does it look to new residents of different races?
Why did one non-white student leave the room “in tears” after the vote, saying she wanted to vomit? Why did Mary Brown Guillory, a longtime South Burlington resident and head of an NAACP chapter, react with these words?
“Don’t fool yourselves when you think you are brushing it under the rug,” she said. “How dare you want your kids to define that name and carry it on so that it can live. It’s nothing but hate, that’s all it is.”
And you can’t change that with a well-meaning whitewash of the nickname.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about whether the rebel name should be re-branded,” [School Board President Elizabeth] Fitzgerald said. “I believe the decision was made over 20 years ago to eliminate the offensive connection with the Confederate south.”
I’m sorry, but you did not “eliminate the offensive connection.” The word has acquired a deep and troubled meaning, and you can’t “eliminate” that with a few symbolic actions.
Nor can you do so with a proposed “steering committee” tasked with further whitewashing efforts.
There was a curious sentence in Free Press reporter Haley Dover’s story — a sentence that, I’m sorry to say, could only be written by a white person in a predominantly white community.
Many people were unaware of the historical significance of the nickname because there have been no direct references to the Confederacy since the 1970s.
And by “many people” she means “white people.” I doubt there are many black folks who are “unaware.”
If this story gets picked up by the national media, South Burlington is going to look like an ignorant little hick town that’s no better than Daniel Snyder, the unrepentant owner of Washington, D.C.’s pro football team. He insists that “Redskins” is a badge of honor, and he’s done quite a bit of whitewashing to try to convince everyone that he can change the connotation of a racist word.
He’s wrong. And so is the South Burlington School Board.