So we’ve all been there. First day of school, substitute teacher, work, even our every day lives. We’ve all been through it. We sit there, watching the individual with the list of names, just awaiting the look of panic and the pre-apology for mispronouncing our name. We know that they are about to butcher our names, so we raise our hands quickly, so in an effort to prevent both our embarrassment as well as theirs. What does it mean to be African in America? Well, it means many things. But one thing that I believe is constantly overlooked is our names. What’s in a name?
Due to the constant mispronunciation of our names, we are forced to do four things. One, we begin to go by nicknames. My best friend growing up had the last name Ayarinola. The unforgiving students called him granola bar until the day he graduated. For a long time, instead of calling me by my last name, Awoniyi, I was called ADub, AW, and A&W rootbeer, Awana-eat, I wanna wewe. The only thing that they have in common is that they all start with an A. Close, but not quite. I guess with nicknames it helps the individual over compensate for their lack of pronunciation ability.
Second, we go by the meaning of our names. My good friend, Ifedayo, went by love all through middle school. Good thing her name was not Joke.
Third, it forces us to get tired of cringing every time our name is slaughtered and we just begin to pronounce it however it will make it easy for them to say. Tomi become Tomy, Lara to Laura. Will it ever end? I have to say, though, out of all these, the fourth is the worst.
We change our names all together. For the first ten years of my life, I was called Seye, or rather Sheya as the average American pronounced it. Then after that, I began to be called Mary. Now to the African community, I’m Seye, but to everyone else, I’m Mary. And you all know exactly what I’m talking about. How many Graces or Josephs do you know?
Through my short life, I have begun to realize what slowly happens to us when we change our names in order to accommodate others. We slowly being to conform. We slowly being to forget who we are in hopes of making them happy. Although it is merely a minute change, our name is our identity. Our name is who we are.
19 years ago, Funso Awoniyi gave birth to her second daughter. This child almost did not make it; there were doubts concerning not only her survival, but a successful birth as well. But after labor that lasted for what felt like forever, the proud mother was able to hold her baby in her arms. She named that baby Oluwaseye. Oluwaseye. God has done this. God has done this. Not Nancy, not Beth, not Jessica, but God has done this, Oluwaseye.
True, being an African in America means that my name is constantly slaughtered. Yes, it means that I constantly have to just shrug off the fact that at times it feels like the individual is not even trying to pronounce my name correctly. But you know what? It also means that I am unique. It means that my name is a large part of who I am. It means that my name not only represents me, but it represents my family, my people, and the struggles that we have overcome. It means that my name is part of something bigger than I am. It means that my name is well, it’s my name. And I take pride in that. Oluwaseye. Oluwaseye. God has done this. God, has done this. My name tells a story. What story does yours tell?