Naming Names

I feel like not enough people in the world understand the concept of nomenclature, particularly in African countries. Or, perhaps I mean, in my city. Or in my circle.

Let me start at the beginning.

A year or so ago, I attended an event with a friend. This event is championed by black creatives in Cape Town and is an incredible space for sharing and learning from black excellence in a city where black creativity is known to be stifled or sidelined. I could tell so many anecdotal stories from the three hours I spent in this space, but the most relevant one for this discussion, was triggered mostly by my general extra-ness. In isiNdebele – my mother tongue, I suffer from a condition known as ‘amawala‘. I don’t think before I speak, I don’t know my place, and I am most likely going to be sent back to my parents after wreaking untold havoc in my marital home because I am generally ungovernable. Perhaps the word I am looking for is ‘impetuous’. I don’t know.

Towards the end of the session, the programme director asked for my name after a brief exchange (which won me a bottle of alcohol, so point one for amawala). My name is Rebecca. Nobody calls me that. I go mostly by Becky. I have answered to Becky since I was a child and only as I grew older, did I realise that there were people who had no idea that it was a nickname. So, when asked for my name, I answered, without a thought, ‘Becky’. I was unprepared for what followed.

There was a collective eye-roll from the room which was vocally expressed by the programme director when he laughed into the mic and said something along the lines of ‘your name is Bheki‘, and if I remember correctly, something that had connotations of ‘don’t be fancy’. My heart sunk a little and I went into defence mode and immediately explained, tripping over my own tongue – after the laughter had died down, that my name is Rebecca – ergo, Becky. But the damage was done and my spirit was annoyed.

Let me break it down.

By altering my name to vernacular phonetics, he was insinuating that I, as a black person, was somehow embarrassed or colonised, so much so, that I was not proud of the ethnic name I had been given by my parents. So, I altered it to ‘Becky’ to sound more ‘white’, for reasons ranging from identity politics to spinelessness. Who knows?  And this assumption is not unfounded. There are people all over the black (non-English) world who, because of factors such as where they went to school, have altered their names, to make them more palatable to the foreign tongue.

Samkelisiwe becomes ‘Sam’. Bajabule becomes ‘BJ’. Qhubekani becomes ‘Q’. Because the tongues which mould us, or influence the spaces in which we grow, cannot wrap themselves around the rich languages which name us. And that’s not OUR fault. But we can remedy it by REQUIRING them to learn how to. Because the same tongues which stutter at ‘Nomthandazo’ – a fairly easy name, can learn how to pronounce expensive French desserts after hearing them once. It’s disrespectful. It’s a constant micro-agression that we have to endure and it permeates every space we occupy. Think of work related emails. A person will sign off an email with their name and the reply will have the name misspelled.

ALL YOU HAD TO DO WAS COPY AND PASTE.

It speaks to the disregard that is carried by certain races for the significance of getting names correct. CERTAIN names. The names of their childhood friends and classmates. The names of their teachers and coaches. The names of the women who helped raise them. The names of the neighbourhoods in which they grew up or the names of the streets along which they rode their bikes. The names of their favourite rugby players.

Then they applaud when a white person speaks a vernacular language fluently. Non-English speakers have been breaking their tongues and cracking their lips for centuries to pronounce words they do not know the meanings of. Where are our news headlines?

It’s even more incensing when you consider that, (at least in Zimbabwe, my home) the same people attended Ndebele (insert alternative compulsory language) classes from grade one to at least Form 2 (that’s grade 9 for the muggles). It means that those classes were so unimportant that the basic language lessons that could have equipped them with the tools needed to pronounce a name correctly, flew in one ear and out the other. Because, ‘when am I ever going to use isiNdebele’, right?

Back to my story. I was upset and annoyed because;

(a) If you do not know a person, whatever name they give you, is their name. You have no right or reason to question the name of a stranger. Get off your entitlement horse and say, okay. That’s her name. Deal with your misfiring braincells quietly. Don’t challenge me on my name. Don’t do it.

(b) The exchange required me, the affronted, to explain myself. To explain my name. Something I don’t know that many people have to do. It is also something I experienced for the first time when I moved to South Africa. I would meet a person and we would introduce ourselves. I would then be asked ‘don’t you have a black name?’ To which I would automatically respond ‘Nomthandazo’. It too, is my name so, I don’t mind being referred to that way. My problem is, why must it fall upon me to position myself favourably within what is clearly, YOUR bias? However validly (or perceived to be validly) founded, it’s not  my problem. What about the person who only has English  names? Must their identity now fall short of this acceptable blackness standard?

(c) Black people can have non-vernacular names, because nomenclature varies from region to region. For example, millions of Zimbabweans (and other nationalities) who were colonised by Britain, still give their children very English names. It’s not uncommon to find a black boy from the back of beyond whose name is Edward. Edward may not even speak English. Also, religious communities will name their very Ndebele daughters Rebecca. It isn’t uncommon. There are a plethora of nomenclature influences and just because they are unfamiliar to you, does not mean you can use your ignorance to chip at my identity.

I was also frustrated because his ignorance and arrogance centred  ME as the problem, when in actual fact, it was him. A room of educated black excellence didn’t even register that it was not abnormal for me not to have a ‘black’ first name. In South Africa. In 2018. In a room where I was not the only person with a non-‘black’ name.  It didn’t register that in the middle of a cosmopolitan city like Cape Town, there would be foreigners whose names would sound unfamiliar. I don’t know.

Perhaps I’m overthinking it (I assure you, I am not).  Perhaps the nuance of this encounter means that I should have laughed off the dig because it was made in jest. Perhaps (insert all the reasons touted when black women are angry for no reason). The irony of this entire exchange was that the programme director has a ‘black’ name but his nickname is ‘English’ although derived from the former. *sigh*

I have two beautiful names and I weigh them the same. Names are central to the identity of most people, myself included. To some, they are simply a means by which to differentiate. I challenge you to sit with each time you have mispronounced someone’s name, misspelled it, asked them if they had a nickname so they could accommodate the laziness of your tongue.

And change.

Be mindful.

The Empress.

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