With anti-police brutality protests marching across the nation, anti-racist books selling out, Confederate statues toppling from their pedestals, and NASCAR banning the Confederate flag from its events, we're watching a moment of reckoning with our country's history happening right before our eyes. Many people are looking back at our past behavior and current interactions with a more critical eye as we do the necessary and important work of dismantling internalized racism.
This week, the Grammy Award-winning country trio formerly known as Lady Antebellum announced that it will change its name to Lady A, after reflecting on its own complicity. That makes us all reflect on what the term really means.
The name originally referred to architecture
In a letter to fans, the band expressed regret for not changing the name sooner, writing, “Our hearts have been stirred with conviction, our eyes opened wide to the injustices, inequality and biases black women and men have always faced and continue to face everyday," it said. “Blind spots we didn’t even know existed have been revealed."
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Musicians Charles Kelley, Hillary Scott, and Dave Haywood got the inspiration from the "antebellum-style" home where they took their first photos, when they first formed in 2006. "We were taking pictures outside an Antebellum home in Nashville and we were searching for a name," Kelley said, in an interview with the Cheyenne Post last year. "We were going to call ourselves something like Springdale, or something, but names are so hard to come up with. I was like man that’s a beautiful Antebellum house, and that’s cool, maybe there’s a haunted ghost or something in there like Lady Antebellum. We all thought it sounded cool, like southern rock."
What the word 'antebellum' means today
The dictionary definition of antebellum literally means "before the war," coming from the Latin phrase, ante bellum. It became widely associated with the U.S. Civil War after it was over, and now calls to mind grand plantation-style architecture with stately columns, sprawling grounds, trees draped in Spanish moss, and women in hoop skirts fainting on the porch a la Gone With the Wind. But the key word here is plantation.
Lady Antebellum just dropped Antebellum from their name.— Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) June 11, 2020
no one wants to be associated with racism anymore, not even country musicians. It's really something.
That's the major problem with the antebellum aesthetic: It was built on the backs of slave labor. While the original term wasn't offensive, "antebellum" as we use it today glorifies a painful period in our history when Black people were enslaved by white people. It's important to remember that architecture, fashion, and even language don't live in a vacuum. They're contextual and evolve along with our society. Elements of our past we may have thought acceptable or even romanticized at one time have been revealed as problematic today. That includes the term antebellum.
We can all keep learning
"We are regretful and embarrassed to say that we did not take into account the associations that weigh down this word referring to the period of history before the Civil War, which includes slavery," Lady A wrote, of the band's blind spots at the time.
Like them, more and more of us are opening our eyes to racist elements of our world we haven't examined in that light before. It's a difficult education, and one we're all taking at different speeds. And while Lady A said it couldn't excuse its shortsighted choice of names at the time, the bandmates committed to doing the work to become better antiracists and educate themselves. As part of that, the band plans to start with a donation to the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit that provides legal representation to prisoners through LadyAID, the band’s philanthropic effort.
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