Week 7: Change the Name!

What follows is an installment of my Writer’s Diary, which for eighteen weeks I am sending every Sunday. This current run has a central focus on food (although this installment does not). To receive this in your email inbox, subscribe here.

Hello dear readers! And a happy Father’s Day to you! I hope that you each are well and—is it too much to ask?—enjoying moment of internal tranquility and reflection. That’s what I always want for myself, especially on a Sunday, especially in this unsettled year, 2020. I want it for you, too.

Sunday morning here in L.A. it is overcast and cool and quiet. It’s nice, especially in contrast to the heat of recent weeks. This weather reminds me of home, which is about 500 miles north-by-northwest of here. Up on the Mendocino Coast, summer or winter it’s often foggy. There’s so much fog that we taxonomize it. What we have here today is Grand Fog, high up in the sky. This is in contrast to Drizzly Fog, Split Pea Soup, and the deadly Tule Fog. The best fog, though, is Blowing-in-Your-Face Fog. You zip your jacket all the way up, pull your beanie down, and still the fog finds its way up your sleeves, under your collar, and into your very bones. I miss it.

I’ve been thinking about the Mendocino Coast this week because I’ve been designing an anthology of poems written by my poetry students in Fort Bragg. Their poems are so rooted to them and that place.

Coincidentally, this is also the week that a growing movement to change the very name of Fort Bragg has coalesced. This change is long overdue. The argument in favor of changing the name runs roughly like this: our namesake Braxton Bragg was a slave-owning Confederate general in the Civil War, and the military fort named after him was used as a staging ground for the systematic genocide of hundreds or thousands of Native Americans in our county.

These facts are not seriously disputed! Nonetheless, there is a lively debate under way about, as the great poet Shakespeare put it, “What’s in a name?”

Would Fort Bragg, by any other name, smell so sweet?

This week’s newsletter has three sections:

  1. Poetry and the power of words.
  2. A guest column titled “How Can I Help? Change the Town’s Name.” Its author is the brilliant Elias Henderson, who happens to be my brother. If you read nothing else here, read his powerful column.
  3. An analysis of certain arguments put forward by Fort Bragg Mayor Will Lee in a recent interview.

Dana Gray Elementary School sits on the east end of Fort Bragg, up against the high school and, beyond that, the deep and silent redwood forest that still blankets our hills. I attended the school as a youngster, when there was a small baby boom (known colloquially as ‘the Millenials’) that forced the school to add a half-dozen portable classrooms between the basketball courts and the soccer field. Today those portables are largely abandoned. But the rest of the school is newly remodeled, with solar panels powering the place.

Dana Gray teaches students between between 3rd and 5th grade, about 380 of them. More than half of the students are Latinx, with the rest made up of a mix of Asian, Black, Native American, and white students. Three quarters of the kids qualify for free or reduced lunches. The school reflects our town’s increasingly vibrant diversity and at the same time its persistently deep inequalities. Test scores consistently lag behind statewide averages, and Dana Gray’s teachers and administrators struggle to balance its small budget with the profound needs of its students. And yet! Its students are delightful, funny, wise, and oh so creative. The school does an unusually good job of fostering these virtues, due to the devoted work of its teachers but also to its vibrant culture of parent and community participation.

One part of this culture is Dana Gray’s poetry program. For decades, local poets have sustained a tradition of visiting classrooms at the school and in each one leading a series of one-hour poetry lessons. The students read poetry, talk about language, and write their own poems. At the end of the series of lessons, each student poet has a sheaf of 4-10 poems to take home. After three years of poetry at Dana Gray, students often head off to middle school with well-developed identities as poets and mastery over many of the techniques of poetic self-expression.

For the poet-teachers, the work doesn’t pay well but it does pay, which is more than most poetry work can say. And it brings the usually private life of the writer into contact with their community. It’s a way to be useful. Over the years the program has grown due to support and funding from many sources: the county and state Arts Councils, the Mendocino County Office of Education, the Dana Gray Parents’ Club, and even the local chapter of Rotary.

I know about all this because six years ago my friend and mentor Karen Lewis invited me to lead some poetry lessons in the fifth grade. I took her up on it, and I loved the work. I took over leading the program, and every year since I’ve spent a month or two giving poetry lessons at the school. (Karen and another local poet, Hunter Gagnon, have shared the teaching load.) It is important work, sweet work, often hard work. It’s taught me so much. It’s taught me how to be a better teacher. It’s taught me how to work with students who have behavioral issues, with students who don’t speak any English at all, and with students who don’t get steady meals or parental love at home. These are sometimes the students who connect most with poetry, which gives them a language and an opportunity to speak what’s on their mind. I am regularly amazed by my students’ brilliance.

Every year at the end of teaching, I put together an anthology of these student’s poems. Getting signed parental releases is a nightmare, and typing up hundreds of chicken scratch poems can be tiring. But it’s all worth it to see the joy of students when they receive a professionally printed book full of their and their peers’ poems. We print about 450 copies—enough so that every student in the school gets a copy, regardless of whether their poem is featured. For some students, these are among the first books that they have ever owned.

And they are so full of joy, beauty, laughter, wisdom, sorrow! Here are the poem excerpts I included on the back cover of the 2018 anthology:

Who could fail to be charmed by these kids and their sweet poems? For me, they provide a lot of hope for the future of our town and planet.

And yet I fear they are swimming upstream. Our society has deep fault lines and fissures. These mostly trace back to the U.S.A.’s foundation on the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement of Black people. We have yet to have a full societal reckoning. And nothing has made this more clear than the protests after the murder of George Floyd by our state security forces.

For these sweet kiddos growing up in a not-so-sweet society, the pervasive failure to take the past seriously is visible even in the name of the town in which they study.

Maybe, just maybe, we can do something about that.

How Can I Help? Change the Town’s Name

by Elias Henderson


With protests sweeping the country in the wake of the shocking murder of George Floyd, many concerned citizens have found themselves asking, “How can I help?” Luckily, if you live in Fort Bragg, the answer is simple. Change the town’s name.

In 2015, eight members of the California Legislative Black Caucus sent an eloquent, impassioned plea to our town’s leadership: “We are hopeful that you will engage your community in a serious reexamination of the historical implications of your city’s name and come to the conclusion that now is the time to end your ties to such a disgraced and treasonous figure in our nation’s history.” Then-mayor Lindy Peters responded, “You cannot change history.” Well, let’s talk about the “history” that is represented by the name Fort Bragg.

Braxton Bragg, our town’s namesake, was born in 1817. After graduating from West Point, he rose through the ranks to become a colonel in the United States Army. He won distinction for his role in the Mexican-American War, where he served under future president Zachary Taylor. A severe disciplinarian, he was so hated by many of his men that they twice attempted to assassinate him, once by detonating an artillery shell beneath his cot. Miraculously unscathed, he went on to retire from the US Army in 1856 and soon after purchased a sugar plantation and 105 enslaved African Americans.

Five years later, the Civil War broke out and again Bragg signed up to fight, this time as a general in the Confederate Army. After a string of ignominious defeats caused by strategic blunders, his resignation was accepted by Jefferson Davis in 1864. About the only good thing that can be said of Bragg is that his disastrous incompetence contributed to the military defeat of the Confederacy.

Why does our town bear the name of a disgraced Confederate general who never set foot here? The military post was established in 1857 in response to a petition from 51 settlers, all white men, who threatened an “Indian War” if the government did not protect “their property.” The lieutenant who founded the outpost named it for his former commanding officer, the soon-to-be confederate Braxton Bragg. For the next eight years, troops stationed in Fort Bragg subjugated the indigenous population, participating in violent campaigns against Native Americans as far north as Shelter Cove. After many of the remaining Native Americans were forcibly marched to Round Valley in 1865, the military post was abandoned. Thus ended the brief military history of Fort Bragg.

In his 2015 response to the Black Caucus, Peters went on to say, “We are a tight-knit community who do not favor changing our name, especially when pushed to do so by politicos who have never even visited our town and know nothing of our long and rich local history.” But one has to ask, which part of our “long and rich local history” is represented by the name Fort Bragg? Is it our non-existent connection to a slave-owning general who committed treason against his country? Or is it civic pride in the brief moment a century and a half ago that our town was used to perpetrate genocide against Native Americans, a handful of whom still live here?

There are numerous alternatives that bear actual, meaningful, and positive connections to our town’s history. I’m partial to Noyo, the name of a historical Pomo village near Virgin Creek and of the river to which our town owes much of its prosperity. Whatever name our community decides upon, we could hardly do worse.

Recently, the bastion of progressivism that is the United States Army announced its willingness to reconsider the name of its largest military base: Fort Bragg, NC. It is past time for our community to do the same. Join me in calling for the Fort Bragg City Council to place a referendum to this effect on the November ballot. Place the decision in the hands of our community. The time for cowering behind the threadbare excuse of “history” is over. The time for change is here.

(If you’d like to thank Elias for this column, email me and I’ll pass it along.)

Although it would have required only a few hundred signatures for a referendum to be placed on the November ballot—a number that could now be collected in an afternoon—the deadline for submitting such signatures was in mid-May. For obvious reasons, no one was out in front of Harvest Market trying to get signatures in April and May: the shelter-in-place orders were in effect, and the murder of George Floyd had not yet shocked the conscience of a nation.

Yet a measure can still be placed on the ballot, if three members of the Fort Bragg City Council vote for such a plebiscite. I hope that they will do so.

Unfortunately, it seems likely that the council will take the path of passive resistance, refusing to place the question before the voters until the present moment of urgency and enthusiasm has long since passed. Why do I fear this? Because friend-of-the-newsletter George Steeley passed along this recent segment of Forum in which Michael Krasny interviews the current Mayor of Fort Bragg, Will Lee. Lee is just one vote among five on the council, but while he says he has not yet made his mind up about the name change, he sounds quite confident that he already knows what the people of Fort Bragg want: no name change and no vote on a name change.

Here are five quotations from Mayor Lee’s interview, which reveal popular arguments for keeping the name unchanged. (Full disclosure, Will Lee was part of the council that fired my mom after she served twelve years as Fort Bragg’s City Manager.) I have followed each of Lee’s statements with some commentary.

‘I can say that the majority of the people of Fort Bragg—and we’re a city of 8,000 people—the majority reject the proposal to change the name of Fort Bragg, as this has come up to us several times in the past. Just as recently as 2015 we were dealing with this same issue, and the people were overwhelmingly rejecting the name change. However this time around seems different.’ – Will Lee

Lee is certainly right to hedge this very strong statement about what ‘the majority of the people of Fort Bragg’ want by acknowledging that ‘this time around seems different.’ But it is ridiculous to claim to know what the majority of people want while refusing to actually ask them in a timely manner.

‘If the people of Fort Bragg decide that they want to put this on the ballot then there’s a citizen’s initiative to gather signatures, put it on the ballot, pay for it, and then vote on it. It would not be the five city council members recommending a ballot measure, at least not on Monday night’s meeting … I believe that it is up to the people of Fort Bragg and not just five people to decide this contentious issue.’– Will Lee

This self-contradicting statement reveals the shoddy logic of keeping this off the ballot. The people should make this decision. We, their elected representatives, can’t make it for them. But we can’t presume to put it on the ballot and ask them to make the decision. If only Lee realized how ridiculous this sounds.

‘Certainly we are well aware of systemic racism in our country, hatred and bigotry. I will point out that the City of Fort Bragg, California was named after Braxton Bragg before the Civil War. The City of Fort Bragg itself has no ties whatsoever to the Confederacy. And so Braxton Bragg retired from the U.S. Army, and then when the Civil War started he fought for the Confederacy because he had property in Louisiana, a sugar plantation. And so we recognize the long, dark history of slavery in our country, but the people of Fort Bragg do not feel that that in any way defines our culture and our society here. So we certainly understand that.’ – Mayor Will Lee

This is what’s known in rhetoric as the ‘shit sandwich.’ You say something nice and conciliatory, then you say the mean thing that you really want to say, and then you conclude with something nice and conciliatory. In this case, Lee is trying to conceal two flimsy excuses for keeping the name. The first is that Fort Bragg has no ties to the Confederacy. This is contradicted by the fact that soldiers at the original fort abandoned their posts to go fight for the side of slavery—and also by the fact that Confederate flags bumper stickers are to this very day regular features on the city’s streets. The second excuse, that the fort was named after Braxton Bragg when he was just a slave-owning soldier and before he joined the Confederacy, is equally flimsy. When Civil War broke out a few years later—and in the century-and-a-half since—people have continued making the active choice to keep the fort and then city named after him. What Lee is making here are excuses, not arguments. The worst part is that, despite it forming the bulk of Krasny’s question, Lee entirely neglects to mention the genocide of Native Americans that was carried out from the fort itself.

‘Now, we get to the point of paying for it… With the COVID shutdown the City of Fort Bragg has had to cut $1.5M from our budget. That may not sound like a lot of money to the Bay Area, but to a small, rural town like us that’s several jobs at City Hall, we furloughed, laid off, closed City Hall, cut services. Thank God we didn’t have to affect our public safety, police, and fire, or public works. But there are people laid off. So the whole cost of this matter is another major consideration. Who’s going to pay for it?’– Will Lee

The economic pain caused by this pandemic is real, but can that in good conscience be an excuse not to right a historic wrong? The council declined the chance to change the name in 2015, when the economy was doing just fine. The truth is there will never be a perfect time to get rid of this racist relic of our past. But there can be a right time. That time is now.

‘We don’t even have a cost [estimate] for what that would entail. So we don’t know. So [Advocate News] editor Robin [Epley] suggested, I’ve also heard it, we could sell the name. We could have a Survivor Island Fort Bragg, and whoever wins gets to name the city, and then the $50M dollar jackpot would pay for changing all of the names. We would all need new driver’s licenses, passports, the deeds to our house. And it just goes on and on and on. And so, who’s going to pay for that?’– Will Lee

To take this serious proposal that our town change its name in light of its connection to slavery, Civil War, and genocide—and then to joke about ‘selling’ it or making it into reality TV? It’s rude. That number, $50M, is an attempt to scare people away from having an actual conversation. And the idea that a name change would instantly invalidate all official documents? That’s not only wrong, it showcases Lee’s refusal to take this seriously. The town of Greenwood, 30 miles south, changed its name to Elk just so it could have a post office! And this man throws around $50M as if he knows what he’s talking about.

I hope that the rest of the City Council treats this more seriously. I hope they choose to stand on the side of history, justice, and the belief that words have meaning.

Now it’s afternoon. The fog has burned off. The police choppers are out, circling over a demonstration that looks like it might be headed down La Cienega. It’s time to bring this edition of my email diary to a close and send it off to you, dear reader.

I’ll close with a story that I ran across in a military history of Fort Bragg. One of the stories it tells is about how, after establishing a fort just north of the little town of Noyo and naming it after Braxton Bragg, the soldiers decided to comission a painter to record their handiwork.

‘Lieutenant Gibson had two paintings of the post made by Alexander Edouart, an artist of San Francisco. One was retained by Gibson who later stated, “One I sent to Genl. Bragg, then not in the Army, but Mrs. Bragg years afterward told me that it was burnt when the Genl’s mansion and plantation were burnt or destroyed by the Union troops in 1864.”’

Burning the plantation—a machine for turning enslaved people’s labor into money—was in keeping with both the strategic and moral interests of the Union Army. It was part of the same strategy that led the U.S. to turn Robert E. Lee’s estate on the Potomac into a tribute to the hundreds of thousands who died fighting to preserve the nation: Arlington National Cemetery.

I can only imagine the feelings—joy? relief?—of the over one hundred people who had been enslaved by Braxton Bragg, watching his plantation burn to the ground. And I love thinking about how as those flames burned, the painting that commemorated how our town was named after him also turned to ash.

It’s past time we finished the job. Change the name!

Jasper
June 21, 2020