From the day I was born until the day I got married, I lived in the same modest three bedroom ranch house in Plantation, Florida. Our family was larger than most at the time, busting the seams of that house with six children, but other than that we were your typical middle class white family. We went to church every week. My mother worked at the local school. My father volunteered to be a city Santa each Christmas Eve.
Plantation, back in those days, was populated mostly by a homogenous blend of families like ours. My childhood consisted of playing outside until the streetlights came on and riding my bike to friends’ houses, all of whom lived within spitting distance of the elementary school we attended. I had my very first kiss behind the local library where I spent most of my afternoons borrowing armfuls of books.
I can’t remember the day it dawned on me that a plantation was more than just the name of my hometown. I remember it being explained to me that our city was a former banana plantation and that’s where the name came from. Still though, the significance of Plantation and plantation never did connect for me until years after I had moved away.
When I entered the doors of Plantation High School as a freshman in the late 80’s, our mascot was a colonel. A combination of a lily white upbringing and a whitewashed public education, where a screening of Gone with the Wind counted as a history lesson, made it easy for me to be ignorant of what that colonel might be doing on a plantation.
Our mascot was changed at some point to a simple letter ‘C’, but I can’t recall if we were ever told the reasons it was being changed. There was no letter home explaining how radically racist and offensive he was. There was no one to teach us why our mascot was long overdue for a makeover. It just happened and no one ever cared why.
In my later years of high school, Plantation started to become a more culturally and racially diverse city. On our street, our first non-white neighbors moved in. They were from the Middle East. The father, if I recall correctly, owned a local store. The oldest son went to high school with me. My father routinely called them r**heads, under his breath, or sometimes to their faces.
His racism didn’t shock me, even if it disgusted me. It was not uncommon for him to use the N word in our home. I have a memory of an extensive conversation where it was explained how the N word was not meant for a particular color of person, but rather a ‘type’ of person. See, a white person can be a n*****, so it’s okay for me to say it.
Those were the obvious and glaring racist attitudes I was brought up with, the ones that were easily understood as wrong, even when I was a small child. But I grew up with a thousand different subtle racist behaviors that I’ve been unlearning ever since. My high school mascot is but just one.
That family who lived across the street, the one who came to this country for a better life and found it by running a business, they remained a constant irritant to my father in ways that I never understood. They came over to this country and took our jobs, my father would gripe. He never found the irony in the fact that his family had done the same thing coming from Ireland. To him, they were never blue eyed folks.
I still remember the shame of having to apologize to the oldest son, the one I would see in the hallways, my fellow Plantation Colonel. I’m not like my father. I’m sorry he’s that way. That conversation rings in my head to this day. Even though he didn’t have to be, he was gracious and accepted my apologies, but I can imagine now how hollow that apology sounded after having to deal with my father’s constant racism.
Not long after high school I left my hometown and got married. I’ve only been back a handful of times. My father, whom I had a strained relationship with until his death a few years back, moved shortly after I did. He moved to the same county in Florida whose Fraternal Order of Police recently made headlines by offering to hire the 57 Buffalo police officers who resigned after two officers were suspended for pushing a 75 year old man down during a recent protest, causing him to suffer a brain injury.
In the news recently, I read an article about a current resident of Plantation who started a petition to have the name of the city changed, for obvious reasons. I am still connected to hometown friends on social media, so I’ve seen a lot of different arguments both for and against this action. I am one former Plantation resident who welcomes the change.
I certainly have bad memories from a childhood in that modest ranch, but I also have fond ones of the city I spent countless hours peddling around on my Schwinn. None of those good memories have anything to do with the name of my hometown. That name is an embarrassment and has become nothing more than a story I tell people to illustrate the ignorance of my own white privilege I had for so long.
The petitioner has suggested the new name could be Jacaranda, which is an area of Plantation, as well as a beautiful flowering tree. For me, the name fits. It’s familiar to those who live in Plantation and the surrounding areas. And it’s a symbol of what beauty could be born when we confront the dark and ominous history of the word from which my hometown took its name.