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The national reckoning over race and history is playing out in the world of birds

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The national reckoning over race in history is now playing out in the world of birds. At issue - the racist past of the 19th century naturalist and illustrator John James Audubon. NPR's Melissa Block reports.

MELISSA BLOCK, BYLINE: Let's go out in the Maryland woods, surrounded by golden tulip trees and the earthy scent of spicebush.

LISA ALEXANDER: Oh, my gosh. It's just such a beautiful fall day. The colors are finally turning.

BLOCK: I've come here with Lisa Alexander.

ALEXANDER: I'm the executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society. Well, for the short term.

BLOCK: For the short term because the Audubon Naturalist Society, which serves the D.C. region, recently voted to drop Audubon's name. No question, Audubon was a brilliant artist. He created gorgeous, life-size paintings of hundreds of bird species, so vivid in detail they seemed to fly off the page. But also...

ALEXANDER: He was a white supremacist. He was an owner of slaves. He was a desecrater of skulls of Native American and Mexican people.

BLOCK: All this has drawn new scrutiny as this country reexamines its history.

ALEXANDER: Should we have known earlier? I think that's possibly true that we should have known earlier. But now that we know, we had to act. Once you know it, you can't unknow it.

BLOCK: And so, Alexander says, the soon-to-be-other-than-Audubon Naturalist Society will take the next year or so to choose a new name.

ALEXANDER: The only thing I can probably say for sure is we won't name ourselves after another human being.

BLOCK: Alexander's organization is independent of the National Audubon Society, which has hundreds of chapters around the country and hasn't yet decided whether to keep or drop Audubon's name. Jamaal Nelson, the society's chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer, says the national group will take the next 12 to 18 months to hear from stakeholders on that. But, he says, the conversation has to be broader.

JAMAAL NELSON: I don't want us to stand really close to a pixelated painting and focus on one little dot. There's so much more work than that.

BLOCK: Which means, says Clemson University Ornithologist J. Drew Lanham, absolutely change the name. Drop Audubon, but don't stop there.

J DREW LANHAM: To leverage John James Audubon into something greater than he ever could have been is to take a bitter history and to make some sweeter future out of it.

BLOCK: To make identity and inclusion central, he says, to the mostly white, homogenized world of conservation. As a Black man, Lanham is constantly aware of how race and his passion for birding collide.

LANHAM: I can have a really high-end pair of binoculars around my neck. I can have a high-end scope on my shoulder. And if I walk through the wrong neighborhoods, then bad things can happen to me.

BLOCK: This spring, Lanham's piece in Audubon Magazine titled "What Do We Do About John James Audubon?" helped kick this national conversation into high gear. Lanham wrote, Audubon's racism is the albatross rotting around the necks of those who would hold him in reverence. It is past smelling foul and beginning to reek.

That piece drew outrage from some who revere Audubon. Lanham is undeterred. Use this moment, he says, to widen the mission.

LANHAM: And maybe it's going to serve birds better, but it's also going to serve humanity better.

BLOCK: On the wall of his tiny writing studio in South Carolina, Lanham has hung an Audubon print. It shows a quartet of songbirds, bright yellow-breasted chats - two in flight and two tending to their nest, which is festooned with wild roses. Beauty and bitterness, Lanham says. A reminder that genius can wrap itself around a rotten core.

Melissa Block, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "ARRIVAL TO AN EMPTY ROOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.