Rachel Dolezal is gone. The controversial former head of the Spokane, Washington, chapter of the NAACP—disgraced when it became known that she’s a Caucasian woman who “identifies” as black—legally changed her name to Nkechi Amare Diallo. Author Denene Millner, for one, isn’t having it; she recently called Dolezal “a white lady with fussy hair and a bad tan” whose appropriation of Nigerian and Senagalese names “cannot … earn her the soul of black folk.”
Dolezal’s motivation for the name change isn’t difficult to figure; she’s radioactive to the very community with which she wants to align herself, and she’s got a biography dropping later this month. But the change fascinates me, because it represents a full reset. No matter if she’s a grasping opportunist; we now have to call her Nkechi Diallo. And every time we do that—for maybe another year, unless Trump appoints her to a cabinet position—we’ll have to unpack what she meant by doing that. Rightly or wrongly, Dolezal/Diallo recognizes that names shape identity.
Las Vegas, too, has had recent problems with names. The one that received the most press, naming our NHL team the Vegas Golden Knights, annoys me least. Sure, it’s a dumb name on several levels: Locals call the city “Vegas,” but we’re annoyed when outsiders do it; “Golden” is a baffling identifier for a Silver State team; and “Knights” has nothing whatsoever to do with Las Vegas, hockey or even gold. Still, it’s a minor offense that we’ll get used to when the team starts winning games 10 to 15 years from now.
I’m a little more annoyed by the renaming of UNLV’s student paper from The Rebel Yell to The Scarlet & Gray Free Press. Its former Civil War-inspired name—an artifact of UNLV’s early, ill-considered choice to thumb its nose at UNR by co-opting Confederate imagery—plainly won’t work anymore, but couldn’t they have simply shortened the name to The Rebel? After all, the act of rebellion is universal—in fact, it’s pretty fashionable right now. The Scarlet & Gray Free Press is an unwieldy apologia for an identity that the paper itself never chose (and it’s one UNLV continues to use, even if it has changed its mascot from a Confederate wolf to “a modern-day mountain man”).
Still, The S&GFP did its best with a bad situation, and besides, it doesn’t upset me as much as the renaming of Riviera Boulevard to Elvis Presley Way. Presley is in no danger of being forgotten, but the Riviera, which logged many, many more faithful years in Las Vegas than Elvis did, is now all but erased. (We should have renamed Fashion Show Drive instead: Not only does that mall still stand, but the road passes the site of the former Frontier, where Presley played his first Vegas gigs.) And don’t even get me started on how the 18b designation is being slowly phased out, leaving us with the generic “Arts District.” The map is being needlessly changed right underneath us, depriving us of identity.
Street and neighborhood names matter. We’ve got to get better at holding onto the ones we have and using the ones we’ve misplaced. Who wouldn’t rather say “I live in Paradise” instead of “I live by the airport”? Enterprise or Sunrise Manor instead of the southwest or the east side? Consider LA, which boasts dozens upon dozens of neighborhoods and subsets—Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Hollywood—and how those places-within-a-place have shaped the identity of its residents. You tell the IRS that you live in LA; you tell friends you live in Atwater Village, so they can make plans to come to your pool party.
Ours is a city still struggling with its identity at the local level. We’re beginning to figure this stuff out: I’m heartened by the way the Westside has proudly reclaimed its name and history. Citywide, we could all use the certainty born of the sense of place, of belonging, that comes easily when you know exactly where the hell you live. That’s an earned soul.