What's In A Name?

Ames the OverseerNames are a big deal.

When we discuss slavery in early American history, inevitably we talk about names. Back in the day, when time permitted, I’d show parts of Roots, the revolutionary mini-series from the 1970’s.

The second installment ends with a brutal scene between the recently enslaved Kunta Kinte and the overseer  Ames. At issue is not his resistance to work, his refusal to eat pork, or even – directly – his effort to run away the previous day. At issue is his name.

“You’re name is Toby,” Ames explains. “It’s the name Master Reynolds gave you. It’s a good name – ‘Toby.’ Now, what’s your name?”

Roots CoverKunta is at this point hanging, tied by his arms, already having been whipped several times. I don’t know about you, but if there are issues for which I’d endure something comparable, what you call me isn’t one of them.

“Kunta. Kunta Kinte.”

The whipping resumes as the other slaves watch. The process is repeated with some variation until Kunta is broken.

“Toby. My name… is… Toby.”

It’s the saddest part of the entire miniseries, in my opinion. And one of the most important.

Names matter. This is something too easily lost in American culture and history, but it’s worth a ponder or two.

Suspicious BabyWhen you’re born, who gets to name you? Why?

It’s a funny system, actually – letting parents with little or no naming experience make such an important decision. Why not doctors, who could develop a system similar to that used to label hurricanes? Or some sort of local committee? Imagine the balance and variety we could inject into our population simply by having fewer Stephanies and more Ophelias?

And why your specific name? Does it reference an ancestor or other family member? Does it mean something in another language (or in this one)?  Maybe your parents just thought it sounded cool. Consciously or unconsciously, though, your name likely reflects something about your progenitors culturally, economically, educationally.

For some of you, your name evolves as you grow. Your parents call you one thing – a variation of your given name, perhaps – and your siblings another. Friends, teachers, girlfriend or boyfriend – each have an opportunity to tag you in their own way. The choice often demonstrates relationship – the faux-abusive epithet your older brother uses, or the pet name between you and your most recent romantic entanglement.

Names are often relationship-specific. You may speak of ‘Boo-Bear’, and I know who you mean. You call him ‘Boo-Bear’, I can ask you how ‘Boo-Bear’ is doing, and he may even sign his cutesy notes to you as ‘Boo-Bear’.

Why Are You FlirtingWe all know the name. But can Sinéad from 5th hour call him ‘Boo-Bear’? Why not?

Because he’s YOUR ‘Boo-Bear’. Not HER ‘Boo-Bear’. She can call him Charles, because that’s his damn name. Actually, though, you’d prefer she not talk to him at all, or you may begin calling her by a new name.

Names claim power.

You can name your pets, some people name their cars, and anymore you have to name your laptops and e-readers so various networks will know who they are and that they’re YOURS.  Nicknames can be affirmations of comradery or tools of brutality. When I call my students by their first names, it’s a sign I’m being slightly less formal than usual – almost “nice”. If they do the same in return, it’s considered defiant, or at least disrespectful. We don’t have that kind of relationship – we’re not “equals” in this social context.

Proposal BearIt’s still pretty common for a woman getting married to take the last name of her husband. Why? It shows a transfer of ownership from her father to her mate. For centuries this was quite literal – property rights, inheritance, legal authority, etc. Some now keep their maiden names, or hyphenate. Either choice indicates something about self-empowerment and relationship.

Some languages formalize grammatical variations indicating relationship or status. In many Amerindian cultures, your name might change over time based on your unfolding personality, accomplishments, or desires. When you want to eliminate someone’s individuality, enforce their impotence, you identify them only by number, or not at all.

Names similarly serve the divine purposes of God - or Allah, or Yahweh (it matters which name you choose, despite all three presumably referring to the same entity). In the Old Testament, Abram and his wife Sarai are called by their Lord to go places and do things, and He changes their names, albeit slightly.

With new names come new identities, roles, relationships – and in this case even new attitudes. Abraham and Sarah become the begetters of a people who won’t even say their god’s name aloud, as it is far too sacred – “hallowed be thy” and such.

Malcolm XIn the New Testament, Saul is famously struck down on the road to Damascus and given a name change – “Paul.”  Converts to Islam take on new names – Malcolm Little became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz for purposes of the faithful, and Malcolm X for the rest of the world. Each name brought a specific purpose and power of its own; each carried away some part of what he became while bearing it.

The angels sent to Mary and (cousin Elisabeth’s hubby) Zacharias to let them know divine babies were on the way didn’t dictate how John the Baptist or Jesus were to be dressed, educated, or fed – they hit the highlights of what they were destined to DO before explicitly decreeing what each must be NAMED.

Authors love this power as much as actual deities – from Rose of Sharon to Four, names toy with readers and augment themes.  President Bush supposedly mispronounced Saddam Hussein’s name as an insult. It’s an honor to have a building, a bench, or a star named after you, but you’ll upset Sean Connery if you replace your name with the family dog’s.

Tulsa recently changed the name of Brady Street to... "Brady Street" – the former being in reference to Tate Brady, long-deceased area businessman and KKK member, the latter honoring Matthew Brady, famed Civil War photographer who never set foot anywhere near Tulsa, OK. It seems it’s not just names but what they mean which matters.

MascotsAnd then there are those mascots. I can’t speak to the world of multi-zillion dollar professional sports, but Oklahoma’s public school system is full of Chiefs, Warriors, Indians, and the infamous Redskins. And it’s a kerfuffle.

I hear the bewilderment of those offended by proxy – why not just change the name?

It’s difficult for those outside to understand the communal force represented by some of these mascots and monikers. They stand for something of which all involved can be proud. Individual and collective identities blur together as these names provide an anchor in the past, a ballast for the inevitable uncertainty of the present.

Arab MascotImagine being asked to change the name on your grandfather’s tombstone for the convenience or sensibilities of modernity. Consider rechristening your child so her teacher can more easily pronounce her name.

Then again, there are those for whom these names have the same power as any other racial slang. They carry diminishment, and negation. They’re an anchor on the present, dragging against progress and hindering understanding.

I’m not sure I have a solution that doesn’t involve tearing something away from someone else, or inflicting my interpretations of the past on theirs. I do know we must resist the temptation to call one another unflattering names in our frustration, and instead try a bit harder to appreciate the existing power held by these sobriquets to each interested party.

I do know that names are a big, big deal.

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