I get it. I really do.
Changing a school mascot is a big deal, especially when that mascot has been in place for almost a century. I know that if my alma mater, Hillsboro High School in Nashville, were faced with replacing our beloved Burro, I would feel sad. Many folks with ties to Algood School feel an equally strong attachment to their Redskin mascot. They contend it wasn’t racist when it was chosen decades ago and it’s not racist now. It’s a noble and proud mascot, they say. It symbolizes strength and bravery. The Redskin helps keep Algood School’s identity and history intact.
Others push back even harder when it comes to hanging on to the Redskin. They call efforts to get rid of it “political correctness gone amuck.” They claim their culture is being erased. They blame “a left-wing mob,” “the Main Stream Media,” and “liberal Tennessee Tech professors” for stirring up trouble. They suggest that people not affiliated with Algood School should mind their own business and that “outside agitators” should give it up because they don’t have a dog in the fight. “If you weren’t born in Algood,” one person said, “your opinions aren’t welcome.”
One Redskin enthusiast even made this heartbreaking statement: “We shouldn’t have to change everything just because a few Indians are angry.”
There’s a flip side, of course, to the pro-Redskin arguments. Those who want to do away with the mascot claim that the word Redskin is neither fun nor innocent and that it demeans rather than honors Native Americans. They point to the controversy surrounding the NFL team in Washington, D.C., which last year officially dropped the Redskin mascot. The term Redskin is one of the last vestiges of racism that is still out in the open in America, they say.
A friend of mine, now retired, was on the faculty of Algood School for many years. Though she wore apparel that bore the name of the school, she refused to wear anything that said Redskins or that bore a picture of the mascot.
Another friend was a student at Algood in the late 1960s. “I have vivid memories of my first day of first grade, walking through the halls of the school looking at posters depicting ‘Redskins’ splitting open the heads of their enemies with tomahawks or piercing them with arrows,” he wrote. “Someone did an amazing job with that artwork, but it was horribly gruesome. Fifty years later, those images are still seared on my brain.”
By a unanimous vote on February 4, the Putnam County School Board chose to retain the Algood mascot. Board member Kim Cravens, who represents the Algood district, said her calls and e-mails had been running two to one in favor of keeping the Redskin. “The people of my district have spoken loud and clear to me,” she said. “I cannot support a name change.”
I would argue that just because a majority favors something doesn’t make it right. I like to believe that most folks who want to retain the Redskin mascot are traditionalists, not racists. But I fervently hope they’ll take a step back and acknowledge that words matter. If we could all walk the proverbial mile in a Native American’s moccasins, perhaps we’d think about things differently. “Redskin” is an unkind word. An insensitive word. A word that hurts. There are far better choices for a school mascot.
Perhaps some of those choices would allow Algood School to retain the image of a Native American in full headdress. Perhaps not. But the time has come for this entire community and every member of our school board to acknowledge that the term “Redskin” needs to be retired. It’s a move that’s long overdue.
(March 6, 2021)