The Chicago Tribune reported last week that the Chicago City Council is one step closer to renaming Lake Shore Drive for the city’s nearly forgotten founding father.
Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, a mulatto fur trader, was the first non-native to occupy land in the city when he established a trading post in the 1770s, near where Tribune Tower currently rises from the mouth of the Chicago River.
The proposal has prompted intense debate between council members and Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who according to reports, has concerns about the proposal, in part, because she thinks it would interfere with the city’s branding.
“I don’t know whether it’s her only concern. But it’s wrapping your head around rebranding an iconic stretch of roadway. How it’s featured in a bunch of songs or commercials or TV shows and movies,” said a City Council Transportation Committee chairman during discussion last month.
Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington pushed back hard against the administration’s dithering.
“Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable founded this great American city,” she wrote. “Without DuSable, there would be no Chicago.
“People of color — first Native Americans, then DuSable, discovered and owned that land long before their white oppressors took it away,” Washington added. “That’s reason enough to give a great Black man our greatest honor.”
By all means, give honor where honor is due. Rename the street. As Washington argues, that’s the least the city can do. If DuSable was white, there would be no shortage of hero worship.
But there are deeper aspects of this debate that are unacknowledged, the first of which I’ll surface as a slight correction to Washington. As I mentioned in a column last week, Native Americans didn’t have a conception of ownership consistent with the one we modern Americans have today.
Neither did the natives live within the ideological or cultural framework of the Doctrine of Discovery, which “established a spiritual, political, and legal justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians,” according to the Upstander Project. So, they neither owned nor discovered the land in the way we conceptualize those terms today.
DuSable, a French businessman, may have had discovery and ownership on his mind when he came here, but he was no conquistador. He had to coexist with the people and cultures in place long before he got here.
It’s important to note that DuSable got here a lifetime before President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830 and the Black Hawk War in 1832; before the federal government moved to make the whole country into a relative monoculture, a monochromatic American Dream-scape, ripe for whiteness.
When DuSable arrived, Chicago was an unincorporated, unplanned and relatively untamed prairie frontier settlement known as Chigagou — an Algonquian word for wild-garlic place or wild onion field.
Chigagou wasn’t white or Black or Indian; rather, the area “was a polyglot world of Indian, French, British and American cultures tied to a vast trading network that was no less Indian than European,” historian William Cronin writes.
Native American governing structures, staple foods and land practices intermingled with Euroamerican governing structures, staple foods and land practices. Life in this settlement was more diverse — culturally, ideologically, ecologically, ethnically and spiritually — than what it would be once the settlement was ruthlessly transformed into the hyper-segregated city of Big Shoulders.
This isn’t to say there wasn’t conflict or struggle or even inter-group violence; there was. But no single racial, ethnic, cultural or ideological group had a monopoly on ways of living.
DuSable’s fur trade, Cronin writes, “occurred in an elaborate social context — mediated always by gift giving, celebrations, and complex negotiations — that Indian communities controlled as much as Europeans did.
“Marriages between Indian families and European traders produced offspring who played key roles in these relationships, and their mixed parentage symbolized the hybrid cultural universe that had emerged in the region,” he adds.
Indeed, DuSable — born in Santa Domingo (now Haiti), the son of a French sailor and a mother who was an enslaved African — “married a Potawatomie woman and became a member of the tribe,” WBEZ reports. “The Potawatomie called him the ‘Black Chief.’”
DuSable was probably familiar with the Native American’s application of what conservative scholar Terry Anderson calls “conservation Native American style,” meaning an elaborate and sophisticated system of incentives, rules, rights and even concepts of limited private ownership that conserved the resource base and promoted disciplined stewardship of that base.
The way we think of DuSable today, as an unsung Black Christopher Columbus, flattens the cultural context out of which he emerged and hollows out whatever monuments and tributes we might raise in his honor.
What’s more, our hero worship of DuSable is framed by western notions of progress, hyper-individualism and a reification of racial myths that obliterated the hybrid, culturally fluid and organically diverse context in which DuSable was created and to which we humans need to return if we’re to stave off our collective demise.
The shores of Lake Michigan are gradually disappearing as sea levels rise and the soil erodes from climate change, a “conceptual fact so large and complex that, like the internet, it can never be properly comprehended,” David Wallace-Wells writes in “The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming.”
Wallace-Wells writes that 1-in-500,000-year weather events like Hurricane Harvey and the Camp Fire that are now happening every few years all over the planet should not be considered part of our new normal. They represent an even more terrifying prospect.
“The devastation we are now seeing all around us is a beyond-best-case scenario for the future of warming and all the climate disasters it will bring,” Wallace-Wells writes.
The awesomeness of the existential threat that is climate change renders rather trifling the debate about renaming an expressway, particularly one that’s been an icon for the extractive and profligate culture that got us into this mess.
Who the hell cares what the roadway is called if it’s underwater? And cars won’t stop emitting carbon because the concrete goes by a different name.
The highest honor we can pay DuSable is to recognize the values and practices of the place and time that shaped him and make them our own.
Sure, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can rename Lake Shore Drive while also pouring adequate time and attention into local climate solutions (new practices, ordinances, regulations, etc.) that channel the ethic of resource conservation, land management and relatively healthy cross-cultural exchange that were characteristic of Chigagou.
To do so would mean nothing less than a transformation of our politics and their underlying economic base, what Swedish ecologist Andreas Malm calls fossil fuel capitalism.
We would have to retire, Wallace-Wells writes, “the intuition that history will inevitably extract material progress from the planet, at least in any reliable or global pattern, and come to terms, somehow, with just how pervasively that intuition ruled even our inner lives, often tyrannically.”
DuSable was no Columbus. He was better than him. Rethinking Lake Shore Drive in the context of a changing climate and how we can adapt and become resilient to it, is the honor DuSable deserves.
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