Audubon faces a backlash after deciding to maintain title that evokes a racist enslaver

John James Audubon impressed technology together with his Birds of America compendium. But his legacy additionally contains racist views and the proudly owning and promoting of enslaved individuals — bringing requires the National Audubon Society to alter its title.

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Famous naturalist John James Audubon “did despicable things” and supported his work by shopping for and promoting enslaved individuals — and that is based on the group that bears his title. But the National Audubon Society’s board of administrators rejected the concept of fixing its title this week, setting off resignations amid plans from native teams to rename themselves anyway.

This week’s vote centered on whether or not the nonprofit ought to to resolve whether or not to maintain Audubon’s title or change it. No new names had been thought-about as doable alternate options.

The group cited two most important causes for keeping Audubon’s name: it is grappling with the crucial problem going through birds and different wildlife on account of local weather change and different pressures; and it believes the title of the group, based some 50 years after Audubon’s demise, “has come to represent so much more than the work of one person.”

Still, it added, “We must reckon with the racist legacy.”

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3 board members resigned

The debate over methods to method that legacy appears to have divided individuals at its highest ranges: In an electronic mail to NPR, the society confirmed board members had resigned after the title choice.

While the NAS didn’t title the members individually, a management web page on the group’s website is presently lacking the names of three board administrators who had been listed earlier this month: Sara Fuentes, Erin Giese and Stephen Tan, who served as a vice chair.

The three former board members didn’t reply to NPR’s requests for remark.

In a message to NPR, National Audubon Society Board Chair Susan Bell mentioned the physique is “disappointed to lose these directors and the wisdom and dedication they brought.” She cited the “diverse and reasoned perspectives that these directors – and others – have brought to this difficult conversation for our organization.”

Local teams are nixing Audubon’s title

Those criticizing the continued use of the Audubon title embody leaders of the D.C. Audubon Society a chapter within the nation’s capital that’s transferring forward with a plan to rename itself.

“I think it is disappointing, but not surprising that the National Audubon Society decided to not change their name,” chapter President Tykee James instructed NPR member station WAMU/DCist. “They don’t listen to their chapter leaders, and I believe that this will divide the network even further.”

Some of that division was seen on the nationwide physique’s Facebook page, the place commenters debated how the group’s historical past ought to match into the reckoning of America’s racist legacy that has taken place in recent times.

“It’s a missed opportunity to move away from an exclusive white male club shotgun ornithology image,” one commenter wrote, “to something more appropriate to the times we live in.”

A patchwork of conservation teams carry the Audubon title throughout the U.S.; some are native chapters affiliated with the nationwide society, whereas others are impartial. So far, at the very least 5 teams have dropped the Audubon title or are within the strategy of doing so.

The first to ditch the title was the Audubon Naturalist Society, primarily based simply outdoors of Washington, D.C. — it is now known as Nature Forward. Others planning related strikes embody Seattle Audubon, Chicago Audubon and Portland Audubon. In some circumstances, they’ve put a slash mark by Audubon’s title the place it seems on their web sites.

Historical evaluation is not type to Audubon, the person

The NAS board determined in opposition to a reputation change greater than a yr after it mentioned it might think about shelving its longtime eponym. Its evaluation course of was “robust and inclusive,” the group mentioned, including that greater than 2,300 individuals had supplied enter. The course of, the NAS mentioned, emphasised “reaching people of color and younger people.”

The NAS commissioned a historic evaluation of Audubon’s life and views. The image that got here again was not a flattering one. Even earlier than that analysis, the NAS had printed articles that depicted Audubon as an influential painter, promoter and cataloger of nature — and somebody whose views of Black and Indigenous individuals had been deeply rooted in racism.

“His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day,” the National Audubon Society says on its main page about Audubon.

The bio web page reels off an inventory of transgressions, from Audubon’s repeated shopping for and promoting of enslaved individuals to his criticisms of emancipation and allegations of plagiarism. Audubon additionally lied about his personal heritage: his mom was French or Haitian Creole, regardless of his declare that she was a rich Spanish girl, as a 2021 article notes.

In a 2020 contribution to Audubon journal, biographer Gregory Nobles filled in more details:

“In early 1819, for instance, Audubon took two enslaved men with him down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a skiff, and when he got there, he put the boat and the men up for sale. The Audubons then acquired several more enslaved people during the 1820s, but again sold them in 1830, when they moved to England, where Audubon was overseeing the production of what he called his ‘Great Work,’ The Birds of America, the massive, four-volume compendium of avian art that made him famous.”

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