Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
Remember Picnic Bar at Sharples? You now know Picnic Bar as Patio Bar, which features the same menu. After getting a question from a reader about the reason for the change, the Gazette asked Linda McDougall, Director of Dining Services, about it. The change was inspired by a cook who “suggested that the word ‘picnic’ had negative connotations in slave days,” said McDougall in an email, “so we decided to change the name to patio so not to offend anyone.”
The Gazette asked Dr. Allison Dorsey, head of the Black Studies Department, to illuminate this concern. In an email, she replied, “I would encourage individuals involved with this decision to make use of the research and reference materials at their disposal. Pursuit of such inane efforts does a disservice to the memory of those who endured American slavery and the efforts of the thousands of people of African descent who struggled to secure liberty, human dignity and basic civil rights.”
The etymology of the word does not appear to relate to American slavery. According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, picnic may be traced back to the old French word piquer, which means “to pick, or peck”. The Oxford English Dictionary offers an obsolete definition of the term as “a fashionable social event at which each guest contributed a share of the food;” its earliest citation is from an English author in 1748.
Yet this idea of a picnic as a social gathering around food provided the setting for some of the thousands of lynchings between 1882 and 1962, according to an essay written by Dr. David Pilgrim, the curator of the Jim Crow Museum in Michigan:
Often the lynch mob acted with haste, but on other occasions the lynching was a long-drawn out affair with speeches, food-eating, and, unfortunately, ritualistic and sadistic torture: victims were dragged behind cars, pierced with knives, burned with hot irons or blowtorches, had their fingers and toes cut off, had their eyes cut out, and were castrated — all before being hanged or burned to death. One Mississippi newspaper referred to these gruesome acts as “Negro barbecues.”
Associations with words, of course, vary from person to person according to their experiences.
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