Skip to content

What’s In a Name? Everything.

3 years ago

852 words

I had a teacher in fourth grade who just refused to learn my name. For an entire school year, I was “Kai-ra” instead of “Keera,” even though I was in his classroom every day. I don’t know what his problem was, but I remember distinctly him just never seeming to find the want or care to say my name correctly. Rebellious even then, chose a few days simply not to answer when he called on my with the name that was not mine. This got me punishment instead of results. I was insubordinate Kaira rather than  standing-up-for-herself Kyra.  Kyra just isn’t that hard to pronounce. You always get a one free pass and then, after that, it really should skip off the tongue easily.

So when Ricky Gervais decided to butcher Quvenzhanè Wallis’ name last night during the Golden Globes, some heat rose up from some long buried place. “What the fuck, man?” I yelled at my television. “Why can’t anyone seem to honor this little girl?”

My husband went with his gut reaction. He’s a perfect barometer for what the lay person is going to say. It hurt even more: “I’m pretty sure that was the joke. He was just making a joke.”

I scowled. “That little girl worked her ass off and was nominated for a major award. She deserves to hear her name, pronounced correctly, like everyone else in that audience! It isn’t that hard to pronounce!”

“I’m not sure that it’s that big of a deal…”

Here is why the constant butchery of Quvenzhanè’s name is a big deal: She is an actress, who is paid to do her work, and who does it exceptionally well. So well, matter of fact, that we are seeing her nominated and honored and put into more and more projects. She gets to be the torch-bearer and trail-blazer for a while, slowly dragging Hollywood forward into the real world where not everyone is White, skinny, and forever sneering or manically smiling for no reason. On the Macro level where there are many Black folk out there who have beautiful and uncommon names, it says so much to see prominent White folk make it a point to just not give a damn to pronounce her name correctly. You want to talk about a community that is screaming to be heard and seen? Start with the 11 year-old girl who is in the movies and good at what she does who ya’ll still can’t seem to respect enough to get her name right. Visible invisibility. Don’t tell me it ain’t real.

On another level, it’s a great commentary on breaking into worlds like this in general: “Yeah, you made it. You’re here. But don’t expect extra. Don’t expect belongingYou are, as ever, a stranger here.” It’s hard to be a trail-blazer. On the micro-level, for a girl who is 11 and coming into her own identity, I wonder what goes on in her mind when what is seemingly a dream come true (your name being called at a major award ceremony in Hollywood) is just utterly mangled by some drunk asshole who could give a fuck in front of a room full of your idols and also on national television. People are going to watch this shit on youtube for the ages. Your name, your moment, fucked up by some idiot trying to get a laugh.

All little girls are beautiful and some of them are lucky enough to have unique and beautiful names. Some little girls are gifted with names that aren’t given to a million other little girls. They get to go into class and know that when their name is called, no one else is going to answer. It’s a wonderful thing, it’s a blessing. When a mother gives her daughter a name, it’s a sacred act. One that should be honored and respected, in unknown classrooms and on famous stages. This is just what we do, because we’re civilized people. So it is a big deal, and I know that you, dear reader, already know that. I hope you speak a little truth today to the lay people in your lives, whoever you may encounter, who either shrugs it off or speaks some ignorance.

I really am trying not to get on my soapbox all the time this year. But for this little girl, who seems to be the subject of a particular sort of cavalier behavior when it comes to Hollywood press or adults making a joke, I get particularly protective. If I have to live in a world where every little girl in my suburban neighborhood gets to walk around in a (sometimes literal) tiara and dress, revered as a princess and sacred above all others, I think that I can live in a world where Black girls who work hard and earn their honors can have their names pronounced correctly. If you’re a mother of a little girl who is still belting out Let it Go in her little Elsa dress and yet you shrugged at Ricky last night, I’m just sayin’… sacredness should be sacred everywhere.

10 Replies to “What’s In a Name? Everything.”

  1. I’m in complete agreement with you! We have an apparently difficult surname to pronounce, and I have been blessed with kids who often receive school awards. They absolutely HATE the fact that our principal mucks up their name every single time, in front of the entire student body and parents watching on.
    The golden globes are not a roast, and Ricky Gervais has no right ridiculing ANYONE in the room for any reason. I used to be a big fan of his, and one day I caught part of his stand up comedy routine on tv. I was revolted by his ‘comedy’ and lost all respect for him immediately. He has a blatant disregard for many minority groups and I find his humour neither intelligent or funny.
    *getting off soap box now*

    1. You know, it’s funny. I want to like Ricky a lot. He came out on stage with the booze in his hand and my Husband and I went into a fit of giggles. We just knew it was gonna be fun. But the problem with the world right now is that too many people are trying to stretch the limits of what’s ok to say and the places where such things can we said. I know that he’s at the forefront of that sort of thing, but this just wasn’t the place. Why they let him back on… bewildering…

  2. Totally with you there. I never had any trouble with my name, growing up (Tracey just isn’t something you can really screw up), but I went to school with lots of kids who got their names butchered all the time. On a more personal note, when my daughter was born I had to do a lot of correcting (It’s Eh-drianna, not Ahhhh-drianna), and it frustrated me a little more every time I had to do it. There’s really no good reason for why someone should screw up someone else’s name after the first time. You get confused once? That’s fine, but once it’s been corrected for you there’s no excuse. This is someone’s NAME, their IDENTITY. There’s no need for being so cavalier about it!

    1. Right! One free pass. I’m cool with the free pass. Actually, one of my favorite things now is that people I meet will be like “I’ve been practicing your name and my [partner of whatever gender] were debating how to pronounce it. Is is Key-ra or Kai-ra?” And I always smile warmly because I appreciate the thought. Doesn’t matter if you screw it up. If you were really thinking about it like that, you’re ok in my book.

      But then don’t screw it up again. 🙂

      I’m so disappointed to see people troll online talkin’ jive about “well, shouldn’t name that child with such an unconventional name.” It just kills me. All names are beautiful. You know?

      I really like “Eh-drianna”! Very different and pretty! Not a common name to begin with and then to have even the slight difference to make it even more unique, I think, is super cool! 🙂

      1. Thank you! My family actually had a rash of “not common, but not totally out there” names in the past few years. lol It was actually kind of funny, because all of my cousins and I started having babies, and we all chose names that were not unusual, but were also ones that I personally had never known anyone to have. That seems funny to me. lol

  3. Yes, i write about this frequently! My name is Shahidah sha-hee-dah. I always tell people,predominantly white, to say it three times and trust me it will roll off your tongue. I had a nurse just destroy it. I corrected her good naturedly. Im used to it then she said. I can’t Im not even going to try.well in a room full of other patients i said no dear you are going to try and do. It is the epitome of respect that you say someone’s name correctly and if you went through 4 years of nursing school Im pretty sure you ran into words with longer sllyables and much more difficult than my 3 syllable name SHA-HEE-DA
    she said it correctly, twice.
    Ricky should have taken the time to learn the little girls name, out of respect for her personhood and work.
    Im not at all sorry my name is not Suzy. My name is Arabic and means one who believes in one God. Its who I am

    1. I had a classmate named Shahidah back in grade school. She was one of the most beautiful, confident, graceful people I knew. I swear it is because she just had a name that just wowed. I LOVE that name, and no, it’s not hard to pronounce. People always try to twist it like our names are so exotic or rare. Nope. Just not Becky. And that’s perfectly ok.

    1. Oh, see, I would have said Leee-hah… or Lay-ah… or Laheya… or if I was being cute, Leee-yuh.

      Just kidding. Lee-uh is pretty perfect. 🙂 Short and sweet. Two-syllable names, by the by, are kind of the best. All the boys got these long names (my husband, too) and I rock the short and sweet. And the best part is, everyone knows when I’m angry because FULL NAMES get thrown out like candy! Bwahahaha

      I’m on poem 80. I’ve still understood only 3. lol

Leave a Reply