Derek H. Alderman

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I-NAME Initiative

The goal of I-NAME (Interventions in Naming America and Mobilizing for Equality) is to create a workspace for scholars, administrators, planners, activists, teachers and students to generate intellectual, policy, and educational innovations that can advance public debate and decisions about the pressing issue of commemorative place name reform.

The hope is to encourage communities to reflect critically and honestly on the racialized and gendered histories behind named places, to recast place naming as public participatory and regenerative process, and to move toward a more inclusive commemorative place name landscape. The initiative responds to America’s ongoing place (re)naming conflicts and the need for actionable knowledge to address inequalities in naming place and claiming the past–particularly from the perspective and experiences of historically marginalized social actors and groups.

America’s Place Name Wars

Many of the nation’s streets, parks, and university campus buildings bear the names of Confederate generals, Ku Klux Klan leaders, segregationist politicians, and defenders of slavery.  In the post-Charleston and post-Charlottesville era, American communities are now engaged in highly charged debates, if not cultural wars, over whether to remove these public symbols. Fueled by the Black Lives Matter Movement and older traditions of commemorative reform, activists argue passionately for name changes, not as mere political correctness, but to address the larger atmospheres of inequality and intimidation these named spaces communicate to and create for people of color.

These calls for name change have evoked wide-ranging responses. Many citizens and officials strongly resist losing longtime names, to the point of passing laws to keep them in place. Some decide to erase offensive monikers simply to curtail further controversy, in effect changing the political subject rather than engage in the difficult work of (ad)dressing the wounds of past and current racial discrimination. In a much smaller proportion of cases, communities use the de-commemoration of racist historical figures to create spaces to actively honor by, name, the often marginalized historical contributions, struggles, and worldviews of African Americans.

America’s place names are embedded within the ordinary geographies of people identifying, navigating, and experiencing their communities. They are also memorials that cast critical light on the everydayness of racism, the transmission of racial power over generations, and the reparative potential of renaming. Our named spaces, although poorly understood, are important, contested narratives in addressing the legacies of White supremacy and building anti-racist public spaces.

 Need for Actionable Knowledge

Students of American politics and society have traditionally treated place names (also called toponyms) as if they exist beyond struggles over civil and cultural rights. The study of African American commemorative politics has grown significantly in the past few decades, but research on place naming is limited. Even within the recent “critical turn” in toponymic studies, we see scant work on named spaces in the context of racism and racial justice.

My past research over several years demonstrates that the authority to name places is often unfairly distributed across racial lines and can thus contribute to larger patterns of social inequality. Commemorative toponyms can participate in the creation of a discriminatory built environment that serves the histories and worldviews of certain social actors and groups while inflicting symbolic violence on the identities, memories and well-being of others. Racial inequality has shaped US place names since early settlement, but I am also uncovering a long history of African Americans and other marginalized populations resisting and even seizing control of naming to demand greater recognition within the public sphere.

Many citizens and pubic officials (as well as scholars) engaged in America’s place name conflicts lack a full understanding of the cultural and political significance of toponyms, particularly with respect to the African American Freedom Struggle and the extent to which place names have been deployed as technologies of power. The I-NAME project responds to the need for an actionable body of knowledge that can inform these community debates about race, memory, and inequality.  Such knowledge is critical to the functioning of the American democracy and fully applying inclusionary principles and racial reconciliation to ongoing toponymic controversies.

I-NAME Related Publications

Brasher, Jordan P. nd Derek H. Alderman. (Forthcoming). “From De-Commemoration of Names to Reparative Namescapes.” De-Commemoration: Making Sense of Contemporary Calls for Tearing Down Statues and Renaming Places (edited by Sarah Gensburger and Jenny Wüstenberg), Berghahn Books.

Alderman, Derek H. (Forthcoming). “Commemorative Place Naming; To Name Place, To Claim the Past, To Repair Futures.” Naming the World: The Politics of Place Naming London: ISTE/Wiley (edited by Frédéric Giraut and Myriam Houssay-Holzschuch) (published in French).

Alderman, Derek H. and Reuben Rose-Redwood. 2020.  “The Classroom as a Toponymic Workspace: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of Campus Place Renaming.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 44(1): 124-141.

Brasher, Jordan, Derek H. Alderman, Aswin Subanthore. 2020. “Was Tulsa’s Brady Street Really Renamed? Racial (In)Justice, Memory-Work and the Neoliberal Politics of Practicality.” Social and Cultural Geography 21(9): 1223-1244

Brasher, Jordan*, Derek H. Alderman, and Joshua Inwood. 2017. “Applying Critical Race and Memory Studies to Campus Place Naming Controversies: Toward a Socially Responsible Landscape Policy.” Papers in Applied Geography 3(3-4): 292-307.

Alderman, Derek H. 2015. “Naming Streets, Doing Justice? Politics of Remembering, Forgetting, and Finding Surrogates for African American Slave Heritage.” Geographical Names as Cultural Heritage, Seoul: Kyung Hee University Press (edited by Sungjae Choo), pp. 193-228.

Mitchell, Jerry and Derek H. Alderman. 2014. “A Street Named for a King: A Lesson in the Politics of Place-Naming.” Social Education 78(3): 137-142.

Alderman, Derek H. and Joshua F.J. Inwood. 2013. “Street Naming and the Politics of Belonging: Spatial Injustices in the Toponymic Commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr.” Social & Cultural Geography 14(2): 211-233.

Rose-Redwood, Reuben and Derek H. Alderman. 2011. “Critical Interventions in Political Toponymy.” ACME: An International E-Journal for Critical Geographies 10(1): 1-6. Refereed introduction to special thematic issue guest edited by the authors.

Rose-Redwood, Reuben, Derek H. Alderman, and Maoz Azaryahu. 2010. “Geographies of Toponymic Inscription: New Directions in Critical Place-Name Studies.” Progress in Human Geography 34(4): 453-470.

Alderman, Derek H. 2008. “Martin Luther King, Jr. Streets in the South: A New Landscape of Memory.” Southern Cultures 14(3): 88-105.  Non-refereed, heavily annotated photo essay.

Alderman, Derek H., Steve Spina, and Preston Mitchell*. 2008. “A Bumpy Road: The Challenges of Naming Streets for Martin Luther King, Jr.” Planning 74(1): 18-21. Non-refereed contribution to American Planning Association magazine (circulation: 37,749)

Mitchelson, Matthew *, Derek H. Alderman, Jeff Popke. 2007. “Branded: The Economic Geographies of MLK Streets.” Social Science Quarterly 88(1): 120-145.

Alderman, Derek H. 2003. “Street Names and the Scaling of Memory: The Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. within the African-American Community.” Area 35(2): 163-173.

Alderman, Derek H. 2002. “School Names as Cultural Arenas: The Naming of U.S. Public Schools after Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Urban Geography 23(7): 601-626.

Alderman, Derek H. 2002. “Street Names as Memorial Arenas: The Reputational Politics of Commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. in a Georgia County.”  Historical Geography 30: 99-120.

Alderman, Derek H.  2000.  “A Street fit for a King: Naming Places and Commemoration in the American South.”  Professional Geographer 52(4): 672-684. In focus section “New Memorial Landscapes in the American South” (organized by Derek H. Alderman).

Alderman, Derek H.  1996. “Creating a New Geography of Memory in the South: The (Re) Naming of Streets in Honor of Martin Luther King, Jr.”  Southeastern Geographer 36(1): 51-69.

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