Schenectady Community College is holding a series on the writings of James Baldwin during Black History Month. Last week, we discussed Baldwin's 1976 article "How One Black Man Came To Be an American: A Review of 'Roots'" (Click HERE to read). The discussion focused on the renaming of Kunta Kinte in the book and televised adaptation of Roots. (Click HERE to view the clip. Warning: For those who have not seen this, it is extremely brutal and violent).
The opening question posed was, "How did you get your name and what does it mean to you?" Some stories, like my own were humorous or innocuous. My parents, both teachers of Irish descent, named me Megan instead of Meghan because they wanted an Irish name, but believed that children struggle with silent letters when learning to read. Many people were named after relatives or family friends, also reflecting their parents' culture and values.
One student explained that her parents immigrated to the United States before she was born. In their language, her name is the feminized version of the name of God. However, in the U.S., people always mispronounce her name. She struggles with with correcting people who mispronounce her name because on the one hand, she wants to be polite (and it's annoying to correct people every day). On the other hand, in her culture, the name for God is important, and by mispronouncing it, people are disrespecting not only her, but also her faith.
Another woman added that her name is also reflective of her culture, and when she was younger, she changed her name to something that "sounded more white and more American." In my Children's Literature class, we're reading American Born Chinese this week, and her comment immediately reminded me of the brilliantly depicted scene where Jin changes his name to Danny. The name change alters his entire identity.
Our discussion moved from merely describing our names to examining what it means to be an American. There are an infinite number of cultures and experiences. Naming a child is just one way to reflect that diversity, but because names are personal and unique, names may be one of the most important ways parents attempt to retain cultural identity.
There is an interesting article on this topic by Jamelle Bouie from 2013 about African-American names and perceptions of difference (You can read it HERE. Warning, some adult language). And another short article HERE about young actress Quvenzhané Wallis and her insistence that reporters say her name correctly.
While some, like Kunta Kinte, and the many immigrants who came through Ellis Island, were renamed by those in power and stripped of their identity on the way to becoming more American, others have chosen to give up their names as a way of fitting in.
Beyond the discussion of heritage are questions of people who change their names for other reasons. Authors often choose pen names just as actors and musicians choose stage names, and in this way, they take on a new identity chosen by themselves instead of their parents. I heard a fascinating explanation about this by Dr. Drew who claimed that while some change their names because of SAG rules and name recognition, many have a dual identity to protect themselves. For example, while fans may call Jennifer Lopez J-Lo, her family most likely calls her Jenny.
I realize these thoughts are a bit rambling. I didn't want to draw any conclusions today, just open up more discussion. I'd love for others to contribute.
How did you get your name? What does it mean to you? Would you or have you changed it? If you're an author or performer, do you have a stage or pen name? If so, how did you choose it? What's in your name and how does it reflect your identity?