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Commemorative Place Naming: To Name Place, To Claim the Past, To Repair Futures

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Abstract

Memorial toponyms represent highly charged civic issues within communities, but many elected officials, journalists, citizen groups, and even some scholars lack a full understanding of these struggles and what they mean. Although often taken for granted, commemorative place naming is important to people’s storytelling, lived material experiences, and political-emotional well-being as they inhabit, claim, and create places. To understand the protests in Paris and elsewhere, this chapter identifies the commemorative work underlying and performed by place naming. We review established and emerging approaches within the field to explain the narrative, affective, and material capacities of memorial toponyms along with their reparative possibilities and limits.
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Alderman, Derek H. “Commemorative Place Naming; To Name Place, To Claim the Past, To
Repair Futures.” Naming Places. ISTE-Wiley (edited by Frédéric Giraut and Myriam Houssay-
Holzschuch) (to be published in French).
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Commemorative Place Naming: To Name Place, To Claim the Past, To Repair Futures
Derek H. Alderman, University of Tennessee, USA
A Renaming Moment in Paris
Activists in the French feminist organization, Osez le féminisme, captured news
headlines in 2015 when they unofficially renamed 60 streets in Paris. They covered existing
road signs with the names of women from history, including notable singers, lawyers, scientists,
and physicians. The protest was meant to draw attention to the scarcity of Parisian roadways
honoring women: little over 7% of streets named after women (male names represent 51% of all
streets) and most of those commemorated females are saints or the wives or daughters of well-
known men. Some observers characterized the guerilla renaming campaign as merely a publicity
stunt, but Osez le féminisme saw it as a strategy for provoking Paris’ mayor to discuss a
“concrete action plan” for bringing gender parity in place naming (Gee 2015).
This rewriting of Paris street names is not an isolated event. Sexism in commemorative
naming is found across many world cities (Poon 2015; Forrest 2018; Mamvura et al. 2018) and
campaigns in other countries are pushing for greater landscape representation of female historical
figures. Activists are also challenging long-standing place names (or toponyms) that valorize
historical figures associated with racism and imperialism and the lack of racial and ethnic
diversity in commemoration. Contentious debates are being waged across regions over who and
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what should be memorializednot only on street signs, but also in the names of schools, parks,
university buildings, and other public places (Brasher et al. 2017).
The world is the midst of a renaming moment. Place name change is increasingly
pursued with the hope of inscribing new histories, identities, and more inclusive social values
into landscapes. Toponyms are being used by activists as reparative tools for recognizing and
doing justice to erased indigenous ties to the land and the neglected struggles of people of color,
women, and queer communities. These changes grow out the “adamant assertions of citizen
rights and persistent demands for representation and respect” by public groups (Doss 2010, 2).
While the renaming moment is ostensibly a struggle over the past, it is also a struggle over
whose identities and lives matter now and into the futureespecially for those traditionally
marginalized.
Memorial toponyms represent highly charged civic issues within communities, but many
elected officials, journalists, citizen groups, and even some scholars lack a full understanding of
these struggles and what they mean. Although often taken for granted, commemorative place
naming is important to people’s storytelling, lived material experiences, and political-emotional
well-being as they inhabit, claim, and create places. To understand the protests in Paris and
elsewhere, this chapter identifies the commemorative work underlying and performed by place
naming. We review established and emerging approaches within the field to explain the
narrative, affective, and material capacities of memorial toponyms along with their reparative
possibilities and limits.
Place naming as Commemorative Work
Commemorative place naming refers to a self-conscious invocation of the past, often of
the memory of historical people and events. But it is worth noting that all toponyms, even those
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not explicitly devoted to memorialization, are invested with a sense of history and serve as
storehouses of personal and social memories and experiences that guide people’s actions and
identification (Rose-Redwood 2008). To comprehend fully the relationship between
commemoration and place naming, one must recognize the socially constructed nature of
referencing and remembering history. The vision of history depicted through the memorial
landscapewhich includes toponyms along with museums, monuments, historical
performances, and preserved sitesis not synonymous with all that has happened in the past
(Nora 1989). What is defined as memorable is socially mediated and the result of
commemorative work and decisions of individuals and groupsfrom artists, tour guides, and
community activists to government officials, museum curators, business leaderswho as
“memorial entrepreneurs” influence how the public views, senses, and debates the past (Naef
2019). Commemoration is obviously about the past but is also situated within the present as
social actors and groups control, negotiate and contest memory to serve contemporary cultural,
economic, and political needs (Dwyer and Alderman 2008). Named places are the product of the
work of memorialization and in turn produce or perform work within society.
Place naming gives tangibility and familiarity to ideas and beliefs about the past,
normalizing memory and allowing it to appear as historical and social truth. While many people
might treat place names as impartial recorders or markers of history, commemoration is an
inherently selective practice that can hide as much as it reveals (Bouvier 2007). Remembering is
accompanied, simultaneously, by a process of forgetting an excluding of other historical
narratives and identities from public consideration. Because toponyms often reflect the values
and worldviews of dominant, elite social classes, they tend to ignore the past experiences and
struggles of marginalized or subaltern groups. Yet, drawing a hard binary between elite and
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marginalized identities does not fully capture all commemorative tensions and interests vying for
control of the past and place (Rose-Redwood 2008).
Behind every study of toponymic commemoration should be a series of major questions.
What political actors, decisions, and social relations enable certain memorialized names to be
displayed publicly? Who is given the power and authority (or not) to do this work of
remembering and naming? Whose identifications with the past are enacted (or denied) through
place naming? How do these toponyms work to benefit (or disadvantage) the belonging and
social standing of certain public groups over others?
The tension between remembering and forgetting found in named places never goes
unchallenged, in part because heritage is inherently dissonant or open to disagreement
(Tunbridge and Ashworth 1996). Plus, memory is more than what is intentionally
commemorated; it also emerges involuntarily or unexpectedly when the past haunts the present
(Atencio 2018). Even when certain histories are not written into memorial landscapes, this
forgetting of the past can exert an “‘absent presence” that affects the feel of places and thus calls
attention to what and who is missing (Muzaini 2015). For Osez le féminisme, for example, social
memories of women were conspicuously absent on named roadways. Activists used the counter-
naming of streets to make visible who had long been invisible and to remind us of the “political
choices” behind Parisian toponyms and more generally behind streets names in all large
European cities (Gee 2015, np).
Places of commemoration are in a constant state of becoming despite their apparent
permanence (Jones and Garde-Hansen 2012). Toponyms are open to control, challenge, and
sometimes significant change as history is re-evaluated and re-purposed in response to market
trends, ideological shifts, and political struggles. Commemoratively named places have a
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projective power; they help create an historical frame of reference and sense of place for people
that can structure, legitimize, and reproduce social relations. Memorial toponymsalong with
all place namingfunction as a political technology used to order, govern, or even resist the
material and symbolic construction of places and who comes to count or matter in those places
(Rose-Redwood et al. 2018). Controlling the representation and performance of the past as a
socio-political resource is important to acquiring the symbolic capital or social distinction
frequently at the heart of many power-laden identity struggles (Duminy 2014). How we imagine
and portray ourselves in the contemporary and the future is intimately linked to how we name,
remember and represent ourselves in relation to the past, providing justification for why we
should be recognized and respected publicly.
Narrative Capacities
Memorial toponyms are semiotic texts embedded in larger systems of representation,
discourse, and storytelling that help public groups make moral and ethical judgments about
places, people, and histories (Azaryahu 1996). Place naming is “rich in narrativity,” even as it
differs from other forms of commemorative communication (Ryan et al. 2016, 141). Place
names consist of a limited number of words and cannot depict the past in the same detailed ways
as museum exhibits or monument inscriptionsalthough contextual signage is sometimes
attached to named features to expand their interpretive capacity. The toponym is like “the title of
a story that stands for and encapsulates the life story of a person or an account of an event
(Ryan et al. 2016, 143). It serves as a powerful symbolic shorthand or signpost for wider stories
about the past without being able to sufficiently unpack these histories.
Place naming is intertextual in nature, defined in part by how it works with or against
master-narratives of national, regional and local history. Toponyms are not static vehicles for
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narratives but in a state of doing; they participate in narrating commemorative messages and
converting memories into public historical knowledge. Named spaces are limited in fully
narrating commemorated pasts, but they inscribe histories into the texts, performances, and
spaces of everyday life in ways not possible through museums, statuary, and heritage tourism.
Memorial toponyms, especially street names, incorporate remembered histories within people’s
sensory-laden movements and landmarks in such intimate ways that people are not fully
cognizant of that memorial choices and impacts going on around them.
Because of the daily pervasiveness of place names, authorities often use them to narrate
and legitimate ideas of national heritage and identity. Scholars find toponyms valuable for
understanding how the (re)writing of collective memory is shaped by political transitions and
revolutions, such as post-colonialism, post-socialism, and post-apartheid (e.g., Giraut et al. 2008;
Bigon 2009; Desbrosse 2014; Wanjiru and Matsubara 2017). It is common for government
officials and other elites to remove toponyms and other memorials that symbolize earlier
regimes, replacing them with names that sanctify a new set of heroes, military campaigns, and
ideological causes. This renaming of national history and tradition does more than alter texts,
maps, and signs. It is a consequential re-scripting of people’s everyday lives, identities, and
associations and can provoke activism from above and below (Capdepón 2020).
Toponyms are not just the products of social power but also tools for claiming and
marinating certain power relationships (Giraut and Houssay-Holzschuch 2016). Control of
language, especially in highly visible settings, is central to civic authority. Feminist activists in
Paris—as the city’s planners had long done (Bourillon 2016)used commemorative place
naming to fashion an alternative “political grammar, appropriating words and associated signs
and memories to redefine the nation and who is included publicly as a citizen (Wilce 2012). A
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spokeswoman for Osez le féminisme explained the vision of nation-building behind their street
name take over: “Little kids walking around Paris will subconsciously be taking in the history of
France through things like street signs. They'll think that France was built by great men - but it's
important they know about the important women too” (Gee 2015, np).
No matter how tightly one controls the commemorative narratives communicated through
toponyms, they can always be read, interpreted and acted upon in different ways by public
groups, even in ways that conflict with the intent of officials in charge of naming (Azaryahu
2011). As Dwyer and Alderman (2008, 174) asserted: “No memorial speaks for itself; each one
is dependent upon its audience to voiceor betrayits vision of the past into the future.”
Audiences form interpretive communities that vary based on their identities, personal memories,
social experiences of privilege or marginality, and narrativized worlds”—their pre-existing
understandings of how the world functions and what it means to them (Carter et al. 2014). While
place names have a capacity to spur new connections with the past, public groups also evaluate
how memorialized names fit, positively or negatively, within a standard story plot long carried
and deployed in their lives. It is perhaps more accurate to conceptualize toponym users as not
just audiences but also co-authors of the meaning of memorialized names.
Ordinary residents can have strong attachments to the heritage of old, existing place name
memorials, and thus resist or ignore government dictated rewriting of toponyms. Embracing
ethnographic rather than just archival methods, researchers are paying more attention to popular
responses to toponymic change. Practical concerns and ideological interests interlock in different
ways for different citizens to shape their reception and use of new names and memories (Creţan
and Matthews 2016; Vuolteenaho et al. 2019). Toponyms are embedded within people’s daily
habits, language, and corporeal enactmentsincluding how they speak about named places
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(Kearns and Berg 2002: Light and Young 2014). Even a subconscious verbalizing of toponyms
can act as political utterance that mediates the process of remembering (or forgetting) the past.
Inspired by more-than-representational approaches, scholars recognize that a sheer focus on the
official spatial inscription process fails to recognize how memorial toponyms represent
performative spaces (Rose-Redwood 2014). Analyzing the storytelling capacities of
commemorative place naming involves more than a detached reading or listening. It also requires
being sensitive to the embodied, multi-sensory ways that people experience and dwell within and
beyond the narrated past of toponyms.
Affective Capacities
A narrative analysis of place names is valuable but it does not fully capture the affective
capacity of naming and the role of emotions in heritage (Tolia-Kelly et al. 2016). Memorial
toponymsas they become entangled with people’s experiences, identities, and social
relationscan move public groups to feeling and action. They influence the public by
participating in spectacular displays and performances of memory (e.g., parades, dedications,
festivals, etc.), but their affective power is often non-spectacular or banal. This banality allows
the memorialized name to appear ideologically innocent when in fact it is politically situated. By
working unsuspectingly in the background, toponyms have the potential to create unexpected
engagements with commemorated history and trigger a person’s prior knowledge and
memorieswhich could be comforting or painful. Sometimes, toponyms serve as cues that may
inspire reflection and education about a past unfamiliar to people, a particularly important impact
since many citizens are unaware of the history associated with names (Ryan et al. 2016).
Commemoratively named places affect public groups not only through direct history
telling or memory-evoking but also by creating broader “commemorative atmospheres
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(Sumartojo 2016). Place naming works with sensory experience, individual memory, and the
built environment to influence the feel, mood, and ambience of the past. While the affective
atmospheres of memorialized toponyms can reaffirm hegemonic narrations of the past, such as
nationalistic heritage, they also can de-stabilize dominant ideas about memory, identity, and
place. In elevating the names and reputations of specific historical women on Paris streets, Osez
le féminisme sought to create a disruptive commemorative atmosphere that would provoke
public reaction that otherwise would not happen. In fact, a member of the feminist organization
said she hoped the affected public would realize and talk about it [street renaming], they will
talk to their friends, maybe they'll start understanding a bit more" (Gee 2015, np).
An important but still undeveloped avenue of scholarship explores how the
commemorative atmospheres of naming affect the socio-psychological well-being of
communities, including the extent to which memorial toponyms mark and reproduce political
and emotional violence (Alderman and Rose-Redwood 2019). While toponyms can evoke
comfort, pride, and belonging for one group, they can conjure feelings of alienation and
intergenerational memories of trauma among other groups with histories of victimization and
exclusion (Brasher et al. 2018). Place names are capable of perpetuating environmental micro-
aggressions, those daily place-based indignities that communicate (whether intentionally or not)
hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward marginalized groups and thus reinforce
institutional discrimination (Ferguson 2019). Important to protests in Paris, Osez le féminisme
members viscerally sensed and resisted the micro-aggressions against women that had long been
inscribed into the city’s masculinist landscapes,
The term micro-aggressions can be misleading since the violent histories of place naming
are not at all small. Toponymic practice was deeply rooted, in a systemic way, within the
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linguistic, physical, and structural violence of settler colonialism and the creation of a
commemorative tradition still widely seen and felt today. In that tradition, toponyms signify and
legitimize the memories, identities, and presumed belonging of white male settlers by publicly
dispossessing indigenous people and communities of color of their own agency, histories, and
naming-language systems (Murphyao and Black 2015). The result of these naming patterns is a
“memoricide” (Masalha 2015) that symbolically and materially annihilates and misrepresents
subaltern attachments to place along with their historical subjectivities.
When toponyms perpetuate a public amnesia of the lived histories, experiences and
feelings of oppressed groups, the larger society is not encouraged to think critically about what
or who is missing from prevailing landscape expressions and how the excluded are affected.
Toponyms and their attendant political-commemorative messages and atmospheres facilitate
social exclusions in immediate and direct ways, but there is also a “slow” or attritional violence
that is produced in shaping how we see ourselves and our histories, identities, and political rights
over generationseven to the point that some members of marginalized groups may not be
aware of these effects (Ward 2015).
The southeastern USA is instructive when studying the violent aspects of memorial
toponyms. There is a long history in the region of white supremacist social orders using
representations of heritage to intimidate African Americans in their struggle for freedom and
equality. The naming of places such as schools, streets, and parks for racist historical figures
such as slave-owners, Confederate leaders, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and segregationist
politicians was part of the same political-emotional order that sought to lynch and segregate
Black communities and keep them from voting in elections and being employed in certain jobs
(Brasher et al. 2018). The fixing of these racially charged names and memories onto the
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landscape has been instrumental rather than coincidental to white opposition to people of color
making civil rights gains. For example, in direct protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of
Education Supreme Court decision that racially de-segregated public schools, officials in
Montgomery, Alabama named a high school for Robert E. Leethe mythologized major-general
of the pro-slavery, secessionist Confederate army during the American Civil War (Johnson
2019). Activists who have sought to remove these hostile toponyms are actively motivated by a
their own organic, day to day belief that these surviving racist symbols do affect them
negatively, represent a form of discrimination, and mark places “wounded” by the legacies of
exclusion, discrimination and trauma (Till 2012).
Material Capacities
Toponyms have a materiality that structures and shapes how people interact and identify
with the memorialized past and the associated name. Place naming is part of the built
environment as well as the realm of language. The very signage used to mark toponymswhile
often perceived as mundane and merely informative—“constitute[s] part of a highly invested
political strategy for producing a linguistic landscapeand maintaining or challenging symbolic
power (Bigon and Dahamshe 2014, 606). Memorial toponyms work materially to make
buildings and streets usable and recognizable; facilitate commerce, transportation, and travel;
participate in state formation and international politics; and demarcate zones of exclusivity and
stigma in neighborhoods (Mitchelson et al. 2007; Adebanwi 2012; Spocter 2018). Place names
participate in producing distinctive scalar constructions of memory that can reinforce long-
standing socio-spatial boundaries or create new material connections between people, places and
histories (Alderman and Inwood 2013). Because of the focus of traditional toponymic research
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has been on the name or historical reference itself, scholars have not fully analyzed the material
spaces created around and through memorialization and naming.
Place names help form everyday infrastructures, understood here not as ideologically
neutral physical surroundings but as consequential geographies that mediate broader distributions
of power and access to opportunities, resources, and rights. Osez le féminisme chose to re-
identify streets in central Paris exactly because roads and their signage are a vital piece of
infrastructure important to daily movements, activities, and sense of order. Coinciding with the
45th anniversary of Women's Liberation Movement, their toponymic protests challenged material
inequalities that still constrain female claims on public space as well as public memory.
The central material position of commemorative place naming within the flows,
practices, and protests of people prompts us to consider its relational naturehow toponyms are
embedded within broader and dynamic contexts, processes, and relationships across time and
space. Such a perspective moves away from the traditional approach of studying toponyms as a
single, isolated artifacts or linguistic patterns with a singular and stable meaning. Instead,
commemoratively named spaces form and are formed by assemblages that toponymic practices
share with a range heterogeneous social actors and identities, politicized histories, cultural
practices, government policies, and lived spaces that work together and against each other to
construct and transform the meaning of place and the past. The past assumes material expression
and power specifically because of the relations that place naming forms with larger, fluid
discourses, processes, and materialities. For example, Osez le féminisme’s street name protest is
inseparable from the organization’s wider praxis in France that addresses the material expression
of gender inequalityfrom the preservation of family planning to ending homophobia and
violence against women. An assemblage perspective helps us realize the emergent and multiple
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ways in which places become named and memorable along with how discursive and material
elements of toponyms assemble to spatialize history and historicize space (Wideman and Masuda
2018).
Important to the place naming assemblage is the relationship that commemoration has
with location (Dwyer and Alderman 2008). Where public commemorative practices are
emplaced within the material landscape is not incidental. The geographic configuration of
toponyms creates a “spatial narrative” that affects how social actors and groups interact with and
interpret the commemorated past (Azaryahu and Foote 2008). The material location of a place
name affects the visibility, accessibility, and symbolic prominence of the history it
memorializesall of which contributes to the degree to which the past resonates or appears
relevant to the various social groups that constitute the public.
The resonance of a toponym is relationally defined and depends upon its proximity to
other memorial locations, business districts, government centers, flows of locals and tourists, and
broader geographies of privilege and marginality. This locational context contributes to the
commemorative atmosphere that envelopes the memorial toponym, which can lend credibility to
or evoke criticism of the past being commemorated. Some public struggles over whether to
rename places are not just debates about who or what should be remembered but where exactly
that commemorations should happen. Public groups readily recognize how the central or
peripheral location of a toponym enhances or harms the legacy of the historical figure or event
being remembered (Alderman and Inwood 2013).
Important to this focus on materiality is the political economy of memory and the
commodification of toponymic practice (Karimi 2016). Influential donors and corporations
increasingly purchase the right to affix their names to streets, stadia, university buildings, thus
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fundamentally reframing local place attachments and the identity of public spaces (Rose-
Redwood et al 2019). This place branding can lead to a politics of memory dispossession in
which long-standing names and symbols of local heritage value are replaced along with possibly
suppressing alternative commemorative messages of greater value to communities (Kearns and
Lewis 2019). Memories, names, and places take on an exchange value that overrides their use
value for ordinary citizens, although the public can express resistance, acceptance, or
indifference to the commercialization (Medway et al. 2019).
Even when naming rights are not sold directly, toponyms can become part of a wider
neo-liberal conversion and protection of the landscape for capital accumulation. Promoters often
engineer the marketing image of housing developments, urban districts, medical centers,
waterfronts, tourism destinations, commercial establishments, and entire communities by
deploying ambiguous, if not contrived historical symbols and names or wrapping older toponyms
in a blanket of nostalgia (Madden 2018). While developers openly invent traditions through
naming, they also can be reluctant to abandon long-time commemorative namesno matter how
antiquated and offensive they may bebecause of not wanting to disrupt the flow of capital, to
inconvenience customers, or to violate the prevailing rights of business and property owners
affected by a change.
Manipulating and protecting memorial toponyms for capitalistic gain is often rationalized
as non-political, although it clearly has ideological consequences and weakens the political will
of government officials to address controversial or even the violent effects of established
commemorative names. When such name-memory formations are eventually seen as a threat to
capital accumulation, toponymic changes can be superficial, tokenistic and sanitizing to facilitate
investment rather than truly addressing historical tensions and injustices (Brasher et al. 2018).
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Running through memorial toponyms is a dissonance between their way-finding and financial
function and the political-commemorative work that activists hope to accomplish. French
protesters exposed that tension and temporarily challenged capitalist material power over Paris
streets. They created a commemorative landscape where the educational and political message of
toponyms took priority over doing “business as usual.” Osez le féminisme appeared to relish the
confusion their guerilla street renaming caused among tourists who reportedly were standing on
street corners consulting their maps” and “many [were]asking for directions (Gee 2015, np).
Reparative Possibilities and Limits
No analysis of the Paris scene is complete without recognizing the extent to which
toponyms serve as memorial arenas, sites where social groups debate the meaning of history
and compete for control over the commemorative process as part of larger struggles over identity
and self-determination (Alderman 2002a). Subaltern communities and their supporters
increasingly appropriate toponymic geographies as tools of resistance, but non-elite
interpretations and support of counter memorial naming are not monolithic and social divisions
within marginalized population can create inequalities in resistant toponymies (Forrest 2018;
Brocket 2019). Some resistance takes place, as seen in France, through temporary toponymic
protests. But historically oppressed groups often pressure their governments for official,
permeant commemorative name changes as part of a broader exercising of the right to participate
in public decision-making and the right to claim access to public spaces and symbols (Alderman
and Inwood 2013). A fight for epistemic justice motivates much of this name reform as activists
encourage the public to unlearn exclusionary ways of knowing the past and to learn new shared
inclusive histories.
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Memorial toponyms are arenas for “reputational politics,” intense debates over the
historical legacies and reputations of commemorated figures and the social connotations and
appropriateness of memorializing them (Alderman 2002b). These debates lead to calls to remove
long-standing place name memorials to historical figures known for perpetuating slavery,
imperialism, genocide, antisemitism, eugenics, gender and sexual inequalities. Activist
movements also want authorities to create new toponyms to recognize the historical
contributions and civil rights struggles of women, people of color, indigenous communities,
LGBTQ communities, and members of other oppressed groups. This activism is about using
public memory to expand the politics of who belongs or matters socially. In this respect, public
memory is not just another word for social or collective memory, but a “process by which a
group of people who were once dismissed and never thought of as part of a ‘public’ might
become visible to themselves and to others” as “new publics (Ebron 2014, 147).
Some marginalized communities and their allies believe the renaming of commemorative
toponymsbecause it enacts new political histories and new ideas of cultural citizenshipcan
serve as a form of “symbolic reparation” and assist in “restoring the dignity and public identity
of victims” of oppression and rehabilitating national histories so that human rights violations are
recognized (Swart 2008, 106). While reparation is often defined in strict monetary or litigation
terms, a broader approach recognizes the role of commemoration in making amends for
historical injustices and moving toward a more just future. The term “memory-work” (Till 2012)
is of growing importance to capture the process of using new forms of public memory or
counter-memorials, including place renames, to confront traditionally exclusionary
commemorative structures and the broader continuing legacies of state-sanctioned
discrimination, trauma, and violence (Kitada 2016). Some scholars suggest reparative renaming
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is critical to “regenerating” oppressive socio-cultural systems in ways that enable self-healing,
greater public participation, and assessments of positive and negative social impacts of
memorialization on subaltern lives (Sheehan 2020).
The use of memorial toponymic practices for ethical aims opens up important avenues of
analysis and casts great significance on the name protests in Paris and elsewhere. But, reparative
place naming encounters limits and obstacles. Despite growth in commemorative challenges and
changes, many public groupseven those sympathetic to marginalized communitiesoppose
giving up established place identifiers. Continuing inequalities and social wounds within
communities severely limit subaltern memory-work. Reparative approaches depend upon a
redistribution or sharing of naming power yet unrealized. In addition, toponymic resistance is
not just carried out by oppressed populations and their allies but also deployed by dominant
groups opposed to the removal and negative re-interpretation of existing memorial toponyms.
These groups have at times been successful in misrepresenting reparative change as an erasure
rather than a restoration of history.
There can also be different opinions among oppressed groups about how best to involve,
if at all, place naming in a reparative politics (Brocket 2019). Heritage from below is a “force
field” of different collective interests and intersectional identities that converge, diverge, or mix
in ways the defy binaries (Seaton 2001). Marginalized groups sometimes clash over
“commemorative surrogation,the process of choosing whose name and memory is the most
suitable signifier to fill the historical and emotional cavities created by the death, diaspora, and
trauma of oppression (Alderman 2015). Place naming can also be a source of division when
seen as trivial and not clearly connected to larger material struggles for well-being and
empowerment. Osez le féminisme faced criticism such as this in Paris from women who
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questioned the importance of challenging street signs relative to advocating for equal rights and
pay (Gee 2015).
Some activists and scholars argue that the use of official place renaming to elevate public
recognition of minority groups can actually work to deny power and self-determination to these
groups. This is because the authority for designating place names remains solely within the
jurisdiction of geographical naming boards and related institutions. The heritages and identities
of subaltern groups, while more recognized publicly, become “domesticated,appropriated, and
put into the service of the same settler state responsible for histories of discrimination and
violence (Rose-Redwood 2016). Indeed, some authorities use memorial toponymic change as
tool of appeasement and avoid the difficult conversations and practices necessary for full
reparative memory-work (Brasher et al. 2017).
State sanctioned name removal and renaming, although pursued by many oppressed
groups, “is by no means the only way to bring new ‘toponymic worlds’ into being. Counter-
memory making can also happen through the “performative force…[of] everyday, embodied
speech acts” that don’t seek institutional permission to exist (Rose-Redwood 2016, 202). New
toponymic worlds also arise from insurgent, highly publicized occupations of memorial space,
such as seen along Paris roadways in 2015. In this respect, what is dismissed as a street renaming
“stunt,” is more fairly recast as a legitimate way of opening up new ways of representing,
sensing, materializing, and debating the past.
Finally, realizing the reparative possibilities rather than limits of place name
commemoration requires re-situating toponymic scholars, specifically those from privileged,
non-subaltern backgrounds. We must do more than offer scholarly critiques and remain neutral
onlookers of naming struggles. But that not does mean our ideas and presumed intellectual
19
authority should supersede the knowledge, lived experiences, and political desires of minority
activists and scholars (Rose-Redwood 2016). To repair the future and not perpetuate systems of
oppression requires a model of solidarity in which we create “workspaces” in our classrooms,
research groups, and lived communities to support toponymic activism and socially responsible
commemoration (Alderman and Rose-Redwood 2019).
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