What’s in a name?
As Shakespeare noted, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but a ranch by some other names might prove disqualifying for the Republican presidential nomination, especially if no one is quite sure when you painted over the rock that contained the N-word.
(I may be paraphrasing slightly.)
“Words have meaning,” as Mitt Romney somewhat less eloquently put it.
And this is one of the most heavily freighted words there is. For years, Rick Perry’s family leased a Texas ranch where a giant rock at the entry proclaimed the name “Niggerhead.” He claims his father painted over it in the 1980s.
Herman Cain has already lambasted Perry for being “insensitive.”
But is this really such a big deal? What family hasn’t, at some point, leased a ranch with a wildly offensive name? I Mistrust Gingers Farm was where I spent most of the happiest moments of my childhood. I remember many a delightful day on Slut Point, just to the west of I Wouldn’t Vote For A Mormon River and I Don’t Know The Correct Term For Referring To Midgets Landing, across from Hidden Valley Ranch, which is somewhat dirty if you think about it too hard.
I’m sure this will be an insuperable obstacle if any of my kids hope to enter politics. Especially if my excuses are as good as the excuses the Perry clan has come up with, in which case I expect to say things like — “It’s named for a geological formation. This geological formation just happens to look like an untrustworthy ginger sneaking off with all my goods.”
The difficulty is that our landscape, like our literature, is still littered with these bombshells. That’s where the word got its power — it was embedded for years in everything, its vile tendrils extending even to the speech of what might otherwise have been termed civilized people. It is not so easy to uproot. From Huckleberry Finn, from which one publisher tried to remove the N-Word, sparking a debate shot round the Internet, to offensive team names (Redskins?) and bits of landscape — the Post article on the subject pointed out that Lady Bird Johnson had to campaign to rename a similarly offensive mountain “Colored Mountain” in 1968 — walking through some parts of the country means bouncing from landmine to landmine.
But there is a difference. I defended keeping the word in Twain’s work. Huckleberry Finn was from a different time, and the word in its pages retains its horrifying power — with all the context. This was casual, a word stripped of context. “It’s just a name,” Haskell County Judge David Davis told the Post. “It’s just what it was called. There was no significance other than as a hunting deal.”
That is the really damning part of this story. Perry has made a virtue of the obscurity of his upbringing. Paint Creek! Tenth in his class — of thirteen, as he told Liberty University! But — perhaps it isn’t. Yes, the Air Force expanded his horizons. But spend your formative years in a time capsule, where no one thinks until after 1980 to take the n-word down from a 5 foot by 3 foot sign and — that’s not disqualifying, sure, but it’s not a credential Perry should embrace, especially after all his efforts to show that he’s farther along on the evolutionary scale than people have so far believed have not been panning out.
The fact that the ranch once had the name is no reflection on Perry; go back far enough, and what spot didn’t have an offensive name? Just look at the Grand Tetons. The fact that the name stayed there until the 80s, though, is. And if Perry’s story that his father painted over it sometime in the 80s — still too late, for many — turns out to be false, it’ll be a giant scandal.
Whitewashing only goes so far.
Whether or not it was painted over, Rick Perry grew up in a part of the country where people were less worried about the word than about the fact that being seen with the word might cause political problems for Rick down the line.
“It’s just what it was called. There was no significance.”
That’s the significance.