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The "Plantation" Problem

The summer of 2020 — a summer of pandemic, protests, and toppled monuments — is also proving to be the season of reckoning with brand names burdened by racist or secessionist associations.

Outcry over the death of George Floyd, a Black man, during his arrest in Minneapolis prompted the Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben's, and Eskimo Pie brands to announce that they would be changing their long-established (and long-challenged) names. The Dixie Chicks dropped "Dixie: from their band's name, and 113-year-old Dixie Beer, headquartered in New Orleans, promised to follow suit. In sports, the Washington Redskins (football) and Cleveland Indians (baseball) are "reviewing" or "discussing" changes to their team names, which have long been subjects of controversy.

It's not only upper-case names that are stirring up discussion. There's also been a push to change the names of brands and institutions that incorporate plantation — a word with a complicated history.

In late June, Governor Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island announced that her state's official name, "The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations," would drop its second half, which had referenced the colony founded in 1636 by Roger Williams. "We have to acknowledge our history, that's true," the governor said in a news conference, "but we can acknowledge our history without elevating a phrase that's so deeply associated with the ugliest time in our state and in our country's history."

Hundreds of miles south of Rhode Island, some Florida residents are petitioning to change the name of the city of Plantation, which was established in 1953 and took its name from an early-1900s landowner, the Everglades Plantation Company.

Plantation, Florida

Elsewhere, communities, neighborhoods, and private clubs with "plantation" in their names, from Idaho to South Carolina, are undergoing scrutiny.

They're following the lead of Cornell University, which in 2016 yielded to student demands to change the name of Cornell Plantations, the college's gardens and arboretum. Ironically, when the gardens were named, in 1944, one of the founders "was essentially trying to reclaim the word from the plantation myth," a Cornell history professor told Inside Higher Education. But, he added, &"it's not really possible to do that." The gardens were renamed Cornell Botanic Gardens.

Plantation has had many meanings since the early 1400s, when it was imported from French to signify "the act of planting" or "propagation from cuttings." (It's still used in the first sense in some places. A 2004 article in the Statesman, published in India, refers to "plans for plantation of trees.") In the 16th century, a "plantation" could mean "a colony of people"; in 19th-century America, it could mean "a bed of cultivated oysters."

In the US, the primary meaning of plantation has always been "an estate where cash crops are grown on a large scale," and the word has been associated with slavery since the Colonial era. The OED's earliest citation for the "estate" sense of plantation is a 1626 document from the Virginia colony. Plantations were also established in other colonized regions, including Malaysia, South America, the Caribbean, and parts of Africa; but it was in the American South that plantation acquired its close connection with slavery as well as its anti-historical romantic overtones. "The plantation system came to dominate the culture of the South, and it was rife with inequity from the time it was established," observes a National Geographic encyclopedic entry. Plantation mentality, a phrase the OED traces back to the 1930s, came to mean, in the Caribbean and the US, an attitude of condoning racial inequality or paternalism.

In the 1950s, among African Americans in particular, plantation began to take on the metaphorical sense of "any institution regarded as exploitative or paternalistic." In his Autobiography, published in 1989, the musician Miles Davis wrote: "All the record companies were interested in at the time was making a lot of money and keeping their so-called black stars on the music plantation so that their white stars could just rip us off." Commenting on the National Football League's 2018 decision to fine players who didn't stand for the National Anthem, the African American sociologist Harry Edwards told an interviewer: "This land is not free. My people are not free. It's a carryover from 400 years of slavery and oppression. [NFL team] owners are acting like plantation owners, insisting that any act of 'rebellion' must be squelched."

Literal plantations may have disappeared with the defeat of the Confederacy, but symbolic plantation — in generic and branded forms — has insinuated itself successfully into our language. For example, plantation crepe is a spongy rubber used in shoe soles. (The name goes back to World War II.)

Or take plantation shutters, the generic term for wide-slatted louvered blinds that keep house interiors cool in hot weather. There's another, much older word for this type of product: jalousie, the French word for "jealousy." The original jalousies served as privacy screens, or, more fancifully, to shield occupants from jealous, prying eyes. "Jalousie" was the common term in mid-20th-century window-covering catalogs, but at some point it was replaced by "plantation shutter," either to simplify pronunciation or to capitalize on a latter-day nostalgia for the plantation myth. (See, for comparison, the rising popularity of plantations as wedding venues.)

"Plantation shutters" via The DIY Plan

Plantation is often attached to brand names that originate in the American South: I found more than 200 live trademarks for "Plantation" goods or services, including Old Plantation Apparel (based in North Carolina), Plantation Candle Company (South Carolina), Plantation Sweets (Georgia), and Recreation Plantation (Florida). But other regions have also laid claim to "plantation" in their brand names. Plimoth Plantation is a living history museum in Massachusetts; Plantation molasses is bottled in New Jersey; Plantation Hardwood Floors is in Oxnard, California.

Plantation Dog Food is based in Southern Virginia and incorporates many symbols of "Southern tradition" in its logo.

Those names aren't changing — yet. But other "plantation" brands have acknowledged that their names are problematic and plan to change them. Here's how the owner of Plantation Rum — founded in France in 1989 — put it in late June: "We understand the hurtful connotation the word 'plantation' can evoke to some people, especially in its association with much graver images and dark realities of the past."

Or consider Sienna Plantation, Texas, now simply Sienna. The town of 25,000 had been founded on the site of slavery-era plantations; it acquired its faux-nostalgic name in the 1930s. It's now "an amazing model of diversity," the town website declares, and "removing language that could be hurtful to others" was "the right thing to do" in 2019. One year after "plantation" was dropped, Sienna's developer reported little or no opposition to the change.

Will we see more rebranding? It's certainly possible. Now that the seeds of change have been planted, other "plantation" brands may be gone with the wind.

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Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.