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 belonging. You 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.