By Any Other Name
‘An exploration into the effect of names on the way we view others.
Some months ago, my friends and I went to the cinema to see the new Annie movie with Jamie Foxx. It was an enjoyable two hours: realistic, funny and good music. Personally I think Cameron Diaz is one of the most versatile actresses, especially when she plays evil roles. But the star of the show was of course, the star, Orphan Annie, played by the most adorable little black girl. She had the pretty eyes, chubby cheeks, curly mass of hair and requisite sassy attitude to have you going awwww. I for one was impressed by her acting and singing voice.
As we left the cinema, I looked on the large cardboard cutout display for the movie to find her name. This actress, I thought, was one to watch. And then I saw it. Quvenzhané Wallis. My first thought was, ‘How do you even pronounce something like that?’ My second thought was, ‘Why do black Americans have to keep making up these ridiculous names?’ And my final thought was, ‘I can just imagine the background that she comes from.’
Let me be clear before continuing: I am ashamed of that thought process. I always pictured myself as accepting, open-minded and tolerant. And for some parts of my life, I also considered myself black American. Yet, if you did not know who was speaking, those comments could easily have come from a prejudiced bigot. If her name was Stacy Smith, I would never have given a thought to her parentage or to her race. To think that I could sum up an entire person’s life based on her name, and also use it to comment on a group numbering over 30 million people is bordering on absurd. And yet there it is.
Now I will spend a brief moment introducing you to Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe. In her brief career she has been part of three award winning movies, Beasts of the Southern Wild, 12 Years a Slave, and Annie. She has personally won 13 awards for her acting from various film associations with over 20 nominations, making her the youngest celebrated actor in Hollywood. At ten years old, she has gone farther than most actors three times her age will ever go. She has broken most gender, age and race records before hitting puberty. This is not at all what we have been taught to expect when we hear such a name.
I judge myself harder than most because I grew up and with black Americans of all walks of life. I had friends with names like Cavontay, Shakiesha and Dontelle (the irony is with a name like Aima, I was the odd one out.) These students were smart, talented, came from good homes and went on, for the most part, to live the American Dream. So I know firsthand that a person’s name is only one of a million factors that determine who they will turn out to be, and it certainly does not define them. So what is it about a name that encourages seemingly well-adjusted people to give in to stereotyping?
In Nigeria, we are definitely not immune to this phenomenon. We associate certain names with social status. For example, a driver named Friday or a house girl named Ekaete. What would be your first thought upon hearing about a person named Blessing or Righteous? And not to name names (pun intended) but I have been there when people’s names have been the source of humor. I remember a friend calling me from the passport office with a disbelieving tone in her voice saying, “His name was Omnipresence! Can you believe that?”
If we had an open call for funniest Nigerian names, I can only imagine the entries we would receive. But it is not just that the names are considered comical; it is also what we assume the name says about the person: uneducated, unexposed, parents did not know better than to name their child a funny name. A little over a year ago, an employee of my mom had a son and named him Joyful. I was surprised to say the least. Here was a well-paid, well-traveled, middle class family and they were choosing such a, well, local sounding name. I tried to urge her to at least call him by his native name, but no, Joyful it was. Fast forward to the present and when I find Joyful zooming around the house with his chubby yellow body with his loud giggle and a personality that fills up a whole room, I cannot imagine him being named John or Bob or any other name inadequate to describe him. But I wonder what will happen twenty years from now when he joins the workforce. Will he be (wrongly) stereotyped because of his name? Will that prevent him from going as far as he could?
I realize that Quvenzhané is not the only time I have used a person’s name to pre-judge them. And I know I am not alone. One of my favorite books, Freakonomics (Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, 2005), attempts to apply statistics to everyday situations and make conclusions. They carried out a study where they sent out identical resumes to hundreds of different companies that posted openings. The only difference was that one resume had a distinctly white sounding name (think James Collins), while the other had a distinctly black sounding name (think DeShawn Williams). On average James was offered an interview up five weeks before DeShawn, which can be a lifetime if you are looking for work.
A different study, also in the book, points out that there is a correlation between a child’s name and their socioeconomic background. Chances are a child with a distinctly black name comes from a lower-income and poor familial circumstances. If such a study was carried out here, the result will probably be similar. However this cannot be a reason to continue the stereotypes. Our names are an indicator of who, where and how our parents were at the time of our naming. They do not, however, hold a magic mirror to our futures, our potentials and our abilities.
It was only very recently I embraced my middle name, Glory. To me it was the epitome of local and village. How could I, world traveler plus, have such a name? I wished for an extra ‘a’ so I could be Gloria, which is much more acceptable. But then I found out that my grandmother named me, just a few years before she died, and she said that God’s glory would shine through me. With a history like that, how could I not be proud? How could I not embrace the hope and love that comes in any parent looking down and attaching a name to a brand new baby?
Perhaps where the black American names their child in an attempt to create identity and heritage (after all, most English names are of Hebrew, Latin and German descent, with little to do with the African people), Nigerian people choose names based on a hope for the future. That is where we get Good News and Godly and Godsend and Noble and Victorious and a host of other names that populate our society. And yes, sometimes a name is odd or unexpected or unpronounceable, but we should all keep in mind that a name is usually the first gift a parent gives their child. It is given as a blessing to the child, not with the intention to curse. Let us remember this the next time we come across a name that is less than orthodox. To misquote a great singer: I am not my name; I am the soul that lives within. And to misquote another great writer: A rose by any other name would still smell as sweet, and an actress by any other name would still have her golden globes.
 Name changed to protect the identity of a thoroughly lovely little boy.