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Soup of This Day #340: This Is How We Feel

October 10, 2013

Avro Lancaster B.VII
An Avro Lancaster used in the filming of The Dam Busters, complete with a mock-up of a bouncing bomb – Photo: RuthAS, 1954. RuthAS is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

In 1955 a movie called The Dam Busters was released. It told the story, quite accurately apparently, of a 1943 WWII flying mission called Operation Chastise, in which RAF bombers set out to breach a series of key dams in Germany’s industrial heartland. Each raiding crew had their Lancaster aircraft loaded with 1 experimental bomb, codenamed ‘Upkeep’ and now more popularly known as a ‘bouncing bomb’. This device, designed by the brilliant engineer Barnes Wallis, skipped across the water surface of the dam before, in theory, detonating as a depth charge against the base of the targeted structure.

The flying component of Operation Chastise was led by Wing Commander Guy Gibson, whose young age of 24 had been parleyed into veteran status by 172 completed sorties and a reputation for fearless aggression in carrying attacks to the enemy. That kind of approach served him well in combat but it made him appear aloof on the ground. Consequently he was regarded as a difficult man to know, seemingly closer to his dog than his wife.

The dog certainly was ever-present in the lead-up to Operation Chastise. He was the squadron mascot and when the Labrador was accidentally struck down by a car the day before the climatic raid, he was honoured in a midnight ceremony as the squadron undertook its famous task. Gibson even broadcast his old friend’s name in Morse to indicate the success of the attack on the Möhne Dam.

The codeword was ‘Nigger’.

Because the dog was black and so that was his name.

As offensive as we now know that term is, this was not an uncommon naming strategy in the 1st half of the 20th century and so I’m not calling out Gibson as some kind of Klan guy – He simply gave his dog a name that a lot of other people had used. Robert Falcon Scott allegedly had a lead sled dog called Nigger on his fateful Terra Nova Expedition in 1912 and here in Australia we had Edwin ‘Nigger ‘ Brown, a notable Queensland rugby league player of the 1910s and 1920s. So renowned was Brown, and such was his contribution to both his sport and his community after his playing days had ended, that a stand at the Toowoomba Sports Ground was later named the E S ‘Nigger’ Brown Stand.

In the 1960s. Let’s call that casual racism, in that harm wasn’t meant but harm was done all the same.

How Brown attracted his nickname is unclear – It has been speculated that it is an ironic reference to his fair complexion (The land down under is sometimes over the top on irony) or because he preferred to use a shade of Kiwi shoe polish (Further Australian irony – The flightless kiwi bird is a national symbol of New Zealand, while the shoe polish is Australian), known as ‘Nigger Brown’.

Which was a dark brown.

It’s worth noting at this point that of all of the horrible things we did to the indigenous peoples of Australia, naming a shoe polish after their skin colour is probably 1 of the least awful. That however is not a high moral bar to jump over and does not do much to explain why it took until 2008 for the grandstand to be renamed.

In fact, both Gibson’s beloved dog and Toowoomba’s sporting facility raise a number of questions for us as a society. In the case of the canine, Kiwi director Peter Jackson (He is from New Zealand – Nothing to do with the shoe polish) has been working on a remake of The Dam Busters for some time, with Stephen Fry (Not a Kiwi) writing the script.

The big issue so far for Jackson and Fry seems to be what to name the dog, with suggestions like ‘Nigsy’ or ‘Trigger’ coming to the fore. The debate is framed around 2 poles of thought – The 1st, that history is just that and to screen a depiction of true events while distorting facts to suit the current social mores is to disrespect the past, good or bad. The 2nd is that to use that term in this day and age is offensive and just a generally @#$% thing to do on top of the whole plethora of @#$% things that have been done on the basis of race throughout history.

There’s a matter of similar consideration gaining prominence in the US right now. In 1933 a football team was formed and named the Boston Braves, largely because they were born out of the baseball team of the same handle. After a year or so they became disconnected with the baseball side of things and were renamed the Redskins. In 1937 they relocated to Washington and there they have existed since as 1 of the NFL’s most prominent outfits, proudly bearing a moniker which is at best casually disrespectful to Native Americans, and at worst is a racially-charged slap in the face.

So should they change it? The current owner of the Washington team, Dan Snyder, says never and a lot of folk agree with him. The view seems to be that the name and image is a. Historical and b. Actually promotes a respectful understanding of Native American culture.

That last bit of reasoning is a stretch although some research claims that around 90% of Native Americans are ok with the current name. I’m not so sure that counts – The problem with these legacy brandings is that they are only acceptable with a significant supporting context. In a movie in which the dog is not a central character or with a football team whose branding is often fleeting, i.e. You might see it briefly on a helmet as a play is set, then the representation is shorn of context and what you’re left with is racist and offensive – A way of looking at a group of people that belongs to another time and place.

Kids by-and-large don’t get context. A lot of adults don’t either, at least not when there’s an easy symbol to hang your views on – How else do you explain the US renaming of French fries to Freedom fries, because the French weren’t all in on invading Iraq?

French fries are actually from Belgium.

And here in Australia we just call them chips.

So here’s what I’m thinking – I could go some fried potatoes right now and y’all should re-brand some of your teams. I’m suggesting the Washington Redskins, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves and the Kansas City Chiefs as decent candidates for an upgrade. It shouldn’t be too hard to do – None of those teams started with those names (The Boston Braves, Cleveland Bluebirds, Boston Red Stockings and the Dallas Texans respectively) and all bar the Cleveland Indians started life in a different locality to where they are now.

It surely wouldn’t be too hard to change names and mascots – For Washington I reckon you’ve got a ready-made replacement for the latter in Albert Edwards. He started out for the team when they were the Boston Braves and over 18 years and 3 name-changes stuck with them. His career was finally ended in 1940 when he twisted his knee turning to leave a pre-game coin toss. That kind of dedication and arse-backwards luck deserves something.

Or maybe Ernie Davis, the 1st black player to win the Heisman Trophy – For the most outstanding collegiate player – and the 1st to be drafted to Washington, the last NFL team to accept integration. Davis sadly never played an NFL game – He was used as part of a trade within months of breaking that colour barrier and died of leukaemia shortly thereafter. That man is surely a potent symbol of facing down adversity.

Whatever you go for, just change those names. In the meantime I won’t use them past this post – I’ll follow the lead of a number of writers, all better folk than me, and just call them by the 1st part of their names and with the sport they play thrown in for context – The Washington football team or the Cleveland baseball team.

And even though I don’t call them by their original names we still have them written down in our records and other books – So we’re not altering the legacy or forgetting what we’ve learned from the past – Instead, we’re taking those lessons and using them to create some new history – Of a sort that is a whole lot more understanding and accepting of what makes us human.

Here’s my final thought on this. When The Dam Busters was made in 1954 they used some mocked up Avro Lancaster B.VIIs. In the actual Operation Chastise they used Avro Lancaster B.III Specials. None of the latter were available in 1955 for the making of the movie – You just couldn’t use them any more. It should be the same for those offensive words, including the 1 that Guy Gibson named his dog by.

You just can’t use them any more.

This Is How We Feel

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