Societal Travel 4 minute read

What’s In A Name: Everything Actually

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“What’s your name,” I asked him.

“Paul,” he answered looking back over his shoulder as he maneuvered the black jeep through bumpy terrain. I’m wondered if he was slightly insulted that I had asked him this question after I had spent a lot of time with him the last two days.

“No, your real name.  The name your parents gave you,” I yelled over the wind that was coming in from the glassless windows of the Jeep.

“Oh,” he smiled.  I wondered if his smile was because it was nice to be asked about his given name or if he was relieved that I hadn’t forgotten his.  “My parents named me Kymani.  I have a daughter, who is six months old.  We named her Namelok.  It means, the sweet one,” he said clearly picturing her in his head.  He, wearing a faded UCLA t-shirt, expertly maneuvered the Jeep with just one hand extended on the wheel, like a New York City taxi driver, though there were no road signs or road rules to follow.  He guided us over deep holes and dirt mounds, through the dry long grasses, and around the throngs of animals and random trees composing the landscape of the Masai Mara.

Kymani went on for some time explaining the history of his name and the traditions behind naming people (how the man takes on a woman’s name when a couple gets married, how names are passed down for generations allowing us to know a person’s lineage and history by simply learning his name.  His name told so much about him.

Similarly, my driver in Bali, Gede (pronounced Good-day) explained to me how Balinese people are generally named by their birth order (the firstborn child is named Wayan, Putu or Gede, the second is named Made or Kadek, the third child goes by Nyoman or Komang, and the fourth is named Ketut.  Names are also given to indicate one’s caste or clan.  Then families typically will add a Hindu name and a prefix indicating if the person is a male or female (because the same names are given for one’s birth order regardless of gender).  Accordingly, a Balinese person’s name immediately tells so much about a person, their family and their history.

For me, it brings to mind my grandmother on my mother’s side, and how she used to always use her complete name and insisted (to my slight annoyance) that others did too.  She was never just “Mary.”  She was Mary Lou Earnestine Boiling Brown—always.  What I now understand, is that her name told her story.  Each name had significance (people she was named for and after, her beloved family name, and the name of her deceased husband). Why should she have to forfeit any part of it for the convenience of others?

But doesn’t America ask people do exactly that all of the time?  Don’t people who immigrate to this country immediately feel compelled to sacrifice a significant part of who they are?  Xian Veit Wong becomes Jenny, Samol becomes Sam, Jessisura becomes Jessie simply because it’s easier for us to say?  People who immigrated to or who are visiting the states aren’t the only ones stripped of their names (and for some consequently their culture, family ties and story).  Those who were born and raised here oftentimes shorten or change their names in order to please the majority culture.  Worse yet, their names are shortened for them.  I have been in classrooms where teachers have proclaimed, “I’m going to call you “blank” because your name is too difficult for me to pronounce.”  It is a master / slave mentality and act (reminiscent of the scene in Roots where Kunta Kinte refuses to be called Toby until his master whips him nearly to death).

My conversation with Kymani, Gede, and others I’ve met on my travels taught me to always try to allow people with whom I come into contact to remain whole, to not feel as if they must strip a part of who they are—really are—to make me or anyone else feel more comfortable or to fit into an ideal.  If America is a country of immigrants, how can there be an American sounding name?  When we encourage people to change their names, it strips them of the opportunity to tell us about who they are; and speaks very loudly to whom we are.

My intention is for Black people to love themselves and each other. It sounds somewhat silly, I guess; but oftentimes my people are overwhelmed with negative images, bad news, and stereotyped characters about us. I’d like to flip that script. I’d like to remind us, as often as I can, how incredible we are. Read more

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