Tucked into the back of our downstairs medicine cabinet is my secret shame. A tube of "Darkie" toothpaste, bought in Thailand in the late 1980s on a lark and kept, well, as an oddity, because you aren't going to be able to find it again. Maybe I figured it would come in helpful, as a metaphor.
Times change. You can't buy Darkie toothpaste anymore, even in Thailand. Where once we decorated our lawns with grinning jockeys, and laughed at the exaggerated gay neighbor characters on TV, lisping and mincing their way to help advance the plot, those cliches got stripped away, along with comic postcards showed hook-nosed Jews kwelling about such a bargain and comedians pretending to be Asian by squinting and talking in a chop-suey accent.
Sure, at times it felt like a loss. It's hard to know where to draw the line. Was the Lyric Opera right to take "the n-word" —I hate that term, but it seems necessary—out of "Porgy and Bess"? Well they didn't. That was librettist Ira Gershwin, who removed it in 1954. Was the Sun-Times right to forbid me from mentioning the exact word that was taken out in an article about the opera? Does that mean we should remove the word from from Huck Finn as well? What if it bothers people? I would say "No fucking way," but then I'm not black, and I'm a writer, and tend to be sensitive about allowing anybody who claims offense to edit my stuff. History's a nasty place, and I can't see the value of prettying it up so nobody trips over something that makes them think.
If we let people pluck the stuff out of culture they don't like, we're going to be left with ... well, not much.
But history is not the present. Wal-Mart couldn't get away with Darkie toothpaste, and few would want it to. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office on Wednesday cancelled federal trademark protection to the name "Washington Redskins," because the name is "disparaging to Native-Americans." Hard to argue that. It's a ruling of huge consequence—probably the end of the team name, though perhaps not. An NBC Sports analysis—"That would mean all those Redskins shirts and hats and other officially licensed gear would no longer need to be officially licensed. It could be sold anywhere, by anyone"—made me think, "You mean that isn't the case already?"
I would imagine the Redskins management would hold out, for a while, out of pure rich guy contrariety. But the writing is now on the wall.
Is that good?
Would you want the copyright office to, oh, yank the copyright of Richard Wright's Native Son. I'm sure lots of readers find Bigger Thomas "disparaging" to African-Americans. Is that next?
On one hand, you have to worry when a group of protesters get to seize somebody else's brand, built up over decades. Native-Americans, like any group, are not a solid block of unanimity. The New Yorker attended a powwow in Brooklyn for the Talk of the Town this week and had no trouble finding actual Native-Americans who support the name. This is like Donald Sterling losing his team over an angry slur—quite a change over how it used to be, and perhaps an over-compensation.
On the other, any business, when a brand becomes a liability, changes that brand. Jays Potato Chips was Japp's Potato Chips until Pearl Harbor. Aunt Jemima had her hair in a do-rag until the 1980s, when suddenly having a plantation mammy selling your waffles was out-of-step and she got a 'fro. For years, I was all for keeping Chief Illiniwek, the University of Illinois mascot, far less noxious than the term "Redskins." But there came a point when it was distracting attention from the sports program, and he had to go. The games still get played, and people attend.
The wonder with these professional sports mascots is not that they're being pushed out now, but that they lasted this long. Then again, professional sports tends to be a cultural backwater lagging years behind society at large: look at the to-do over a gay NFL draftee, the sort of fuss the media would make over a gay postman in 1972.
Teams change their mascots all the time. You can list the vanished team names all day long—from the Atlanta Flames to the Seattle Pilots. The question is: at what point does a sports franchise make the change to stop the steady drip-drip-drip of opposition? It's a shame the government had to be the one to push them—true, it's not a First Amendment issue. You don't have a constitutional right to a trademark. But it's a worrisome precedent that places a supposedly neutral government agency in the role of arbitrating what is culturally acceptable and what is not.
That said, losing its trademark protection seems a good moment to at least seriously consider taking the plunge. It's time.