In Spanish, when you ask someone what their name is, rather than saying ‘¿Cuál es tu nombre?’ (What is your name? – which supposedly, is more formal), you say ‘¿Cómo te llamas?’ The literal translation of this is, ‘How do you call yourself?’
I’ve always thought this an interesting concept, because I think there is quite a difference between asking someone what their name is and asking them what they are called. I could be entirely unnecessarily building this difference up, but let’s see, shall we?
The opening sentence for the story I am currently writing is:
“Many people say that the first gift you are ever given is your name.”
In many ways, a name is a gift. The protagonist goes on to mention how the meaning of your name can shape who you are and give you the ability to do amazing things.
According to Google, ‘name’ is a noun which means a word or set of words by which a person or thing is known, addressed, or referred to. Therefore, asking someone what their name is, is asking them what title they are known as. More often than not, names carry some level of significance, be it culturally, socially or domestically. For example, names convey class and status. Someone named ‘Jane Boggs’ for instance, is perhaps not as highly socially regarded as someone called ‘Penelope Clarington’.
Names also convey meaning.
My name, ‘Rianna’ is a variant of the Welsh name ‘Rhiannon’. According to ‘Behind the Name’ (which, may I add, is a very exciting website to use) this means ‘Great Queen’. Which I completely was. My surname, ‘Davis’ is similarly a popular Welsh surname, and according to some quick googling, it originated from the Davidson clan in Scotland. But is mostly now used in Wales and England.
Names also convey cultural heritage.
Which, it is, at this point, that we shall have to pause for a moment. Because, I mean, I don’t know how obvious it is, but clearly, my ancestors were neither Welsh nor Scottish. I have a very Welsh sounding name, especially in its pre-derivative form (‘Rhiannon David’) and this gives absolutely no clue as to my origins, except pointing back to slavery.
In fact, the only thing I can tell conclusively from my name is that my ancestors were once owned by a ‘Davis’ family. Because that’s effectively what it tells me. I have no other link with my heritage because my name (here it comes again) has been erased and scribbled over with somebody else’s name, effectively denying me the privilege of knowing and understanding my cultural heritage.
So what makes me very sad is when people have their cultural heritage (due to their beautifully, rich-sounding names and/or surnames) and choose to reject them because of society’s Eurocentric standards. Don’t get me wrong, I completely understand the stigma there is around ‘African-sounding’ names, and I get that obviously many people will be eager to change their names so they don’t ‘sound black’. And that sounds bad, but you have to consider the fact that we do live in a White Supremacist world, so everyone in Western societies feels like they have to conform to a Western societal standard. Which, to some extent you do in order to get by.
In the West, ‘Babatunde’ isn’t a beautiful, meaningful name. In the West, ‘Babatunde’ mostly connotes ‘freshie’, ‘African savage’. It doesn’t hold the same cultural meaning that it does from its’ roots. In the West, anything that sounds remotely ‘ethnic’ is mostly laughed at and scorned (unless it’s at the Kardashians’ or Jenners’ initiation, of course) and because of these culturally-rich names, people are denied the chances to jobs and such because interviewers see their application and immediately recognise the person applying is clearly not white-British. Or alternatively, recognise that this person is African and want to hire them as evidence that their workplace is not racist because of their ‘multi-culturally diverse’ employees.
So we return to my name. As lovely as my name is (gracias a mis padres) and as much as I don’t want to change it (because I don’t even know what I’d change it to!) there is a part of me that wishes my name wasn’t so ‘bland’ and ‘whitewashed’ so that I was able to trace my heritage right back to its roots.
That’s why people denying their cultural names because they get teased for them make me sad, because they have the opportunity to know where they come from, what part of Africa their ancestors live in, or lived in. As much as there is a huge stigma around these names, and lots of racist stereotyping and such, the under-appreciation of these names really upsets me. I mean, society teaches us to really hate ourselves, gosh! Not just the way we appear and the way we look, but also the way we refer to ourselves; which comes right back to the point I was making at the beginning. When you ask someone “What is your name?” (because English is such a great language, we only have one way of asking that) and they tell you their middle name, because they are too ashamed to tell you their first name, they are not lying. They are telling you their name. They are telling you the words which have been attributed to them in order to identify them and the words which they are used to being addressed by.
But when you ask someone “Como te llamas?” (how do you call yourself? – I mean, I know it’s Spanish, but the point still remains), in my opinion, you aren’t just asking them what words they use to identify themselves. What someone is called is more than just what they are referred to. What someone calls themselves also says a lot about who they are. They could still answer this question with their middle name, because that is what they call themselves, and that is how they view themselves. They don’t necessarily want to associate with their culture or their heritage because of the stigma surrounding it, and it’s effectively them denying who they are.
I understand there is a lot of controversy surrounding this anyway, as in choosing ‘socially-accepted’ names over heritage names, and I probably see in it a more ‘black-and-white’ way than someone else who is actually in this predicament. And yes, I understand that society has a funny way of destroying our lives and culture from the roots up, but if you have those roots, why wouldn’t you reclaim them? Why would you want to let go of them, or feel ashamed, if you’re one of the few lucky ones to know where you come from? Why would you want to exchange thousands of years worth of your geographical history for a few decades of social prosperity but cultural ignorance? Maybe I’m asking a stupid question, but I think it’s a fair question, as someone who would love to get in touch with my own history.
And when I say history, I don’t mean that I want to be told that my ancestors were slaves in Jamaica and then probably slaves in England. I want to know my specific history. I want to know which country they were taken from in Africa. Which tribe they originated from. If that tribe still exists today. There’s so many gaps in my own knowledge of my personal history, because of the gaps in my name.
And society, especially Western society, makes you feel guilty that you name is unpronounceable, and forces you to shorten your name to make it less ‘ethnic’ and more ‘blandly ethnic’. I mean, disregarding the fact that they didn’t shorten slavery because it was ‘unstomachable’, how dare they try to strip people of their culture?
They don’t make us shorten Shakespeare’s name into something less ‘British’. Everyone can pronounce Truman Capote and Jack Kerouac, despite the fact that their names aren’t phonetic, and we’re taught how to pronounce them, and Scott F. Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway are never referred to as ‘Fitz’ and ‘Hems’.So why should you have to do that for a name that holds just as much significance for you culturally as the Union Jack does for the British?
I think I’m pretty much done with my rant about names, but before I finish up, I just want to drop this YouTube video of Button Poetry (my absolute FAVOURITE) and end on this note:
I don’t hate my name. I don’t feel any particularly strong way towards it, to be honest. My name is what I am referred to by. But my name is not who I am. My name cannot tell you – nor can anybody’s, for that matter – about my hopes and dreams, my aspirations, the person I am, my characteristic or my personality. But names have meanings, and names have significance. My name means something to my parents who chose to name me that. My name means something to people who know me and hear it, and think about me. My name means something to God and my name will one day mean something to even more people when it’s on the spine of a published book. Everyone’s name carries a significance. Appreciate your name and its’ meaning, no matter where you come from, no matter what your name is. Because your name is YOUR name, and if you don’t let them, then nobody can take it (or its’ meaning) away from you.
Peace out, (I wrote this all in my first two study periods LOL, I’m being productive!)
The Faerie Squad Mother x