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Rick Perry, the Daily Show and Toni Morrison: Race and Map-making

October 12, 2011

Because Rick Perry’s Niggerhead campground is on the news, setting off the usual alarms about racist white politicians. Because that Wyatt guy from the Daily Show screams “It tells us there’s not enough black people making maps!” and it’s pretty awesome.

And because I am re-reading Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and she is telling us something pretty important about naming land. A lesson on how we name our land, who names it and why. She begins by telling us about resistance, resistance to erasing histories and lives because they were not stories worth telling by the cartographers of the time.

[…] Not Doctor Street, a name the post office did not recognize. Town maps registered the street as Mains Avenue, but the only colored doctor in the city had lived and died on that street, and when he moved there in 1896 his patients took to calling the street, which none of them lived in or near, Doctor Street. Later, when other Negroes moved there, and when the postal service became a popular means of transferring messages among them, envelopes from Louisiana, Virginia, Alabama, and Georgia began to arrive addressed to people at house numbers on Doctor Street. The post office workers returned these envelopes or passed them on to the Dead Letter Office. Then in 1918, when colored men were being drafted, a few gave their address at the recruitment office as Doctor Street. In that way, the name acquired a quasi-official status. But not for long. Some of the city legislators, whose concern for appropriate names and the maintenance of the city’s landmarks was the principal part of their political life, saw to it that “Doctor Street” was never used in any official capacity. And since they knew that only Southside residents kept it up, they had notices posted in the stores, barbershops, and restaurants in that part of the city saying that the avenue running northerly and southerly from Shore Road fronting the lake to the junction of routes 6 and 2 leading to Pennyslvania, and also running parallel to and between Rutherford Avenue and Broadway, had always been and always be known as Mains Avenue and not Doctor Street.

It was a genuinely clarifying public notice because it gave Southside residents a way to keep their memories alive and please the city legislators as well. They called it Not Doctor Street […]

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