Places in California confuse me. When I first moved here I went with friends to the Colorado River south of Lake Havasu and, instead of raging whitewater, I found what seemed like a canal with barren desert and RV parking lots on each side. Death Valley turned out to be beautiful. I expected a lake in Blue Lake and found only a river. I found no fort in Fort Bragg.
Maybe that's why I'm not so bothered by the idea of changing the name of that old mill town.
By now you might have read that State Sen. Steven Glazer proposed Senate Bill 539 to ban the naming of cities after Confederate war heroes. The original version would have forced Fort Bragg and other cities to rename themselves, and some of their streets and other public places. But after Fort Braggites protested, Glazer amended his bill to grandfather in all existing place names.
I don't get hung up on names. I grew up disliking my own name until I discovered how unique it was. I'm the only one in the country according to howmanyofme.com. I have a friend whose career stalled until he changed his name from Ken to Buck. Would I have been as big a fan of Robert Zimmerman as I am of Bob Dylan or of Declan McManus as I am of Elvis Costello? I'd rather watch movies starring The Rock than the same movies starring Dwayne Johnson.
We rename places all the time. When I lived in New York, residents of Hell's Kitchen tried to rename the neighborhood Clinton to raise their property values. Now property in Hell's Kitchen is pricey in part because of the name. In the Bay Area, West Pittsburg became Bay Point in 1993. Army Street became Cesar Chavez. Here, Fortuna used to be Slide.
We name places like streets, rivers and towns after people as a way of landscaping history. Sometimes the lessons work. I knew about Henry Hudson and his ship, the Half Moon, because I lived near the Hudson River. I know a lot about pilgrims because I grew up in a suburb called Colonial Heights on streets named after them. But I once lived on a street called Wendell and I have no idea who he was.
History is important and complicated. Humboldt's own historian, Ray Raphael, has published a series of books on the mythologies we teach our children about the Revolutionary War and the true stories that go untold. As a nation, we want to be proud of our background but we don't want people repeating it by overthrowing the government. We aren't all as proud about the Civil War. Half of the country was on the losing side, for one. And that half fought largely to protect an immoral form of economic life — slavery.
Fort Bragg was named after General Braxton Bragg of the Confederacy before the Civil War. So many Fort Braggites don't see any reason to change it.
I think that if we use place names as history lessons, we shouldn't change them when we discover the history is more complicated than we thought. Most people have skeletons in their family closets, and it's those skeletons that make our family histories interesting. A genealogy search done by the wife of former Vice President Dick Cheney found that Cheney and Barack Obama were eighth cousins as a result of intercourse between owner and slave.
But some people like clean histories. Ben Affleck got into trouble this year for pushing historian Henry Louis Gates to erase his family's slave-owning past from his PBS show Finding Your Roots. The resulting hoopla was so great that PBS killed the entire next season of Gates' show. Affleck's embarrassment was crazy; his mom had been a Freedom Rider in the Civil Rights Movement. The fact that he had both a slave owner and a Freedom Rider in his family closet made Affleck's history more interesting.
Sen. Glazer doesn't think we should honor those in our past who did things of which we are now ashamed. Anyone who worries about that should read the book Immortality by Czech author Milan Kundera. In it, the German author Johann von Goethe in heaven tells Ernest Hemingway, "Immortality means eternal trial." Kundera tells us that the stories we tend to remember most about people are the embarrassing ones. People strive for immortality but they can't control it. It is often better to be forgotten than remembered.
If you are going to ban the naming of places because of a shameful history, you shouldn't pick and choose the shame. Maybe we need to rename John Wayne Airport in Orange County because he once told an interviewer he believed in white supremacy. And don't get me going about Walt Disney. In this paper, Linda Stansberry and contributor Jerry Rohde reported on a whole list of places in Humboldt County named after people who killed Native Americans. But I wouldn't now know about the particpation of those historical figures had it not been for the fact that places were named after them. When we write about James Henry Brown now, for whom Brown's Gulch was named, we write how he helped lead the Indian Island massacre. That's not something to be forgotten.
Right now, I am halfway through the book Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. In it, the era of the new world of the title begins with a nine-year war in which historical sites are blown up or fire bombed. The obliteration of history is essential to remake the world into a slave state. In real life, that's what the Taliban has tried to do and it is what ISIS is now trying to do.
Some people are ashamed of parts of their history. But obliterating history is scary.
Marcy Burstiner is chair of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Humboldt State University. She is a bit ashamed that she knows of no skeletons in her family closet. But if you go back far enough, she is probably related to Barack Obama.