September 11, 2016

SCHULMAN | Botanic Gardens: a Plain, Simple Name

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There’s a spot unique to this campus where I go when Cornell is being especially cruel. It spans about two or three square miles between CALS and North Campus and houses an arboretum, wildflower garden, trails and more. For the past three years I’ve made this place part of my daily routine, running and hiking there most mornings. I still feel rewarded when I climb its hills to see its views. I still get a sense of exploration even though I have already explored most of its twists and turns.

This place has played a key role during the last three years of my life. Climbing its hills, winding through its roads and taking in its scenery relaxes me and has put many of my problems into perspective. I have spent hours there, feeding the donkeys by the entrance with the wild grass that grows on the other side of the road and relaxing by the koi pond in the center, counting frogs, throwing pebbles to lure the sunfish, watching the snapping turtles. I find comfort knowing I can go here regardless of what is going on in my life.

Needless to say, this place is very important to me. Apparently, it’s become important to a lot of people since Cornell announced they would be changing this place’s name. It used to be called “the Cornell Plantations,” an outdated, ugly name. Cornell is finally giving the place a proper name that adequately captures what it is: Cornell Botanic Gardens.

Yet, this decision has been politicized. Critics of the decision argue Liberty Hyde Bailey, the main force behind setting this place aside as a sanctuary (also the guy Bailey Hall is named after), supported civil rights and did not intend to evoke the ugly system of socioeconomic oppression associated with plantation agriculture.

These arguments miss the point. Changing the name isn’t about activism or politics. I happen to sympathize with activists. Remnants of the oppression associated with plantation agriculture are still very much a part of our system. It is alarming when something symbolic gets met with so much pushback. If we can’t take small steps like changing a name  to fix our system, you have to wonder if substantive change will ever happen.

However, the name change isn’t about activism. It didn’t result from some external political struggle. It has been in the works since at least my sophomore year within CALS and the organization that maintains this area. The administration decided it wanted a name that more clearly captured the organization’s mission and vision. The word “plantation” doesn’t evoke the diversity of plants and natural areas that “botanical garden” does.

As someone who feels an intimate connection to this place, I know this is the right move. There is no place in the world where I feel happier or safer than the three square mile expanse between North Campus and the CALS. The pleasure I get from the wildflower gardens, arboretum and trails is plain and simple — certainly uncomplicated with connotations of socioeconomic oppression. It deserves a plain and simple name: “Botanic Gardens” That’s my schtick and I’m sticking to it. Stay tuned for more.

Eric Schulman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at Schulman’s Schtick appears alternate Mondays this semester.

3 thoughts on “SCHULMAN | Botanic Gardens: a Plain, Simple Name

  1. There are generations of Cornellians who have found value in the Cornell Plantations. They have either devoted their careers or donated money to build and sustain it. It is not an ugly organization and has never had any connection to slavery. Those who demand a name change are turning their backs on all of the labor and generosity that has gone before them. We should all be proud of the Cornell Plantations, its broad mission, its staff and its donor base.

  2. Schulman spectacularly misses the point, as do most supporters of his position.

    A symbolic gesture would be to rename something honoring or normalizing oppression, preferably by naming it after someone or something honoring freedom from oppression. That was the case at Yale, for example, when activists asked for Calhoun College to be renamed because John C. Calhoun supported slavery and called it a “positive good.” The idea was to rename the college, after an abolitionist or — even better — after an African-American civil rights advocate. That kind of gesture would signify confronting a racist past, disowning it, and choosing a new symbol that expresses a commitment to equality and social justice.

    The Cornell Plantations debate makes a mockery of that sort of gesture. As many have noted, the Cornell Plantations were never associated with slavery, and are not named to normalize that form of agriculture or honor supporters of the slave system. Quite the opposite. Liberty Hyde Bailey and his family were the exact kind of people that opposed the likes of Calhoun, racism, and slavery.

    Instead, the association between Cornell Plantations and the Southern slave plantations is entirely invented. Nobody at Cornell advocated for slavery, and the Plantations were named in repudiation of it. The word “plantations” alone, completely out of the context of slavery, cannot seriously strike such terror into the hearts of students whose parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and great-great grandparents never set foot on a slavery plantation, even when that sort of thing existed thousands of miles away from Ithaca. If it does, perhaps the university would do better to work with those students on developing resilience and common sense.

    What is being proposed now is to pretend this invented association is real, and that the best thing the university can do is abolish the name because that makes it look like it’s doing something about racism. This is about as fake and dishonest as things can get. Additionally, it’s not proposing to rename the plantations after, say, Liberty Hyde Bailey or, say, an African American botanist of note. That would be a symbolic gesture in support of social justice. Instead, it’s proposing to give it an entirely innocuous and forgettable name: Cornell Botanical Gardens. That’s not a gesture in support of positive change. That’s a gesture to tell activists that, fine, they’ve been heard, so now shut up and go away already. Again, fake and dishonest.

    Pretending, like Schulman does, that this is a step in the right direction is abetting oppression by erasure. It’s cowardly, it’s appeasing, and it serves neither to turn the name Plantations into a teachable moment (which at, you know, a university might be an obvious choice), nor to honor change-makers. It’s just conflict avoidance writ large, as if Cornell is a fussy old aunt at Thanksgiving Dinner, wanting everything to just please be ever so pleasant.

    In addition, the argument that it’s poor branding if the words Cornell Plantations don’t immediately evoke a botanical garden is spurious, and obviously a weak attempt to make a bad decision sound sensible. Nobody says that the Louvre should be renamed because its name doesn’t obviously refer to a museum, nor (to be Cornell-specific) that Helen Newman Hall should be renamed because the name doesn’t obviously refer to a gym. The Cornell Plantations has a large circle of friends, advocates, and donors who do their part in making it one of the nation’s most important botanical gardens, and that’s worked for a century without a cheap rebranding.

  3. “There are generations of Cornellians who have found value in the Cornell Plantations. They have either devoted their careers or donated money to build and sustain it. It is not an ugly organization and has never had any connection to slavery. Those who demand a name change are turning their backs on all of the labor and generosity that has gone before them.”

    This implies that the Cornell Plantations is going away, to be replaced by dorms, classrooms, offices, etc. It’s not going away. Only the name is being changed. Of course the Plantations never had anything to do with slavery, and of course it has always been a beautiful, never an ugly organization. It will still be a beautiful place that Cornellians can be proud of, that lucky ones can still devote their careers to, and that future generations can contribute to. It will be the same place, just with a different title.

    It is unfortunate that the word “plantation” drags such historical burdens with it, but it does in the minds of reasonable people. Imagine that Cornell is several decades older than it is, and that it has a prominent building named Confederacy Hall. The building was built in 1840, and was named not after the later-established CSA, but after the United States as it existed under the Articles of Confederation. Those who love the building and its name because they studied and did research there would argue the name has absolutely nothing to do with the 1861-1865 Confederacy, that its namesake was an entirely different political entity. Angry letters to the Sun would be written. Still the name would have to be changed because the very word Confederacy brings painful memories to the minds of reasonable people.

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