The Name Game: When No One Cares to Correctly Pronounce Yours

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It was the first day of fourth grade and I was the new kid. With my shoes shined and my hair tied with pink bobbles, I walked in proudly, ready to learn. As I eagerly sat with my fellow classmates, my teacher started reading the roll call. Breezing through Rita Anderson, Matilda Brady, and Jameson Connelly, she checked names off her list with gusto.

As she made her way down through the surnames beginning with Js, Ks, and Ls, my excitement grew and I prepared a megawatt smile. However, when she reached Oluremi Onabanjo, she stuttered, disrupting the almost rhythmic continuity that she had cultivated.

“Oloo-Reemee On-on-ah-banho?” she called out uncertainly.

“Yes, that’s me” I replied, smile dimming slightly, a bit confused.

Maybe it’s because I’m new, I thought to myself. But after I repeated my name with the correct enunciation, she zoomed back into her list, wrapping up effortlessly with Susan Williams and Richard Young. While my fourth grade mind quickly dismissed this encounter in the frenzy of Geography and Social Sciences that soon followed, as the years passed I continued having this experience. Again and again.

I became an expert in the phrase, “You can just call me Remi”.

But why did I accommodate? Or rather, why do we all accommodate? Milika shortens to Millie, Jenneta goes by Jan, and Tiana can be easily simplified down to just “T”. On the flip side, while black girls named Jennifer or Kelsey, more ‘conventional’ names, don’t have to endure this transformation, their names evidence a whole other set of circumstances, one impossible to delve into without acknowledging an element of American history that most would rather forget. These women endure a deeper sort of accommodation, showcasing the rather contradictory call for a race to assimilate into a society that emerged through the exploitation of their ancestors.

Despite these different manifestations, at their core is the ‘name game’ that black women in America constantly find themselves playing. The opponent is not a specific individual, but rather a set of social forces disguised as a need for simplicity and comprehensibility. Obviously ruling out the notion that certain syllables are inherently more ‘difficult’ than others, the driving question then becomes: what is it in American society that deems certain names so ‘difficult’ and others perfectly acceptable?

While it is almost impossible to identify a concrete cause to this situation, I take solace in the fact that these societal forces are definitely susceptible to change. After all, there was a time when O’Connelly wasn’t the best name to bear in the United States. Therefore, if we challenge these norms rather than accommodate them, there are many positive possibilities available in the future.

Take the name for what it is—a name, not a token exoticism for others to analyze. It can be a conversation starter, a piece of insight into heritage and even a glimpse into what was going on the ol’ parents’ minds those many years ago. This is something that all names are, not something limited to the black female.

The thing that makes black women’s names such a hot topic is the way society chooses to view us, and this dynamic can continue or alter all depending on how we decide to react. By taking control of these names as tools for forging each of our own distinct identities in society, we acknowledge that they are just a part of the complex and fascinating elements that contribute to the making us who we are.

So to my Tolas, Talias and Taylors out there, your names are a part of who you are, but in the end, that’s just what they are—names.

A rising junior at Columbia University, Oluremi Onabanjo is working towards a degree in African Studies and Political Science. Having spent most of her childhood divided between the African continent and the United States, Oluremi is fascinated by the linkages in the black African and African-American experience, especially as revealed through the interaction between political structures and cultural movements.

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