The Whitney Museum chooses silence in an effort to displace, downplay, and negate valid public outrage regarding their policies, ethics and leadership. By Jamara Wakefield May 17th marked the start of the 79th Whitney Biennial. The Biennial is a contemporary art exhibition, featuring typically young and lesser-known artists, at the Whitney Museum of American Art […]
I Have No Shame In My Difficult Black Girl Name
I wish that my name, and the rest of my existence, was untouched by white colonialism.
My name has nine letters and three syllables, and is an amalgamation of the names of my parents: Shirley and Ronald.
It is not hard to pronounce for most able-minded and able-bodied adults with typical linguistic capabilities. Most children struggle with it before they have a good grasp on verbal language, but that is forgivable.
I have this name that is relatively simple to say. Many words have nine letters and the amount of three-syllable words in the English language is abundant. We use them daily. And yet, there are people who find it immensely difficult to struggle all the way to the end of my name. For them, it seems to be a grand undertaking, or even a massive inconvenience.
“Can I call you Sherry?”
You can, but I will not answer to it.
“Would you mind if I called you Ronda?”
Yes, I very much would mind, actually.
“Is there anything else you go by? Sherronda is kinda long.”
You kinda have to get the fuck over it. Either call me by the name that I was given, or don’t speak to me at all.
These questions offer me an out — a way to abort my name. The people who ask them seem to think that they are doing me a favor, though it is immediately clear that they are, in fact, asking these questions for their own comfort, satisfaction, and convenience.
One day, an older Black man, whom I was meeting for the very first time in a professional capacity, made the unwelcome comment that I have “one of those weird names” after we made our introductions. I knew exactly what would come next because, unfortunately, I had been in such situations before.
“Is that one of those, what do you call it, uh, ‘African’ names?” he asked.
“It’s just a name,” I responded. “And I like my name just fine, thank you.”
My name doesn’t mean anything. Tracing its etymology will mostly likely not translate to anything profound in any African tongue, but, sir, you still gon’ respect it.
“Oh, okay.” He raised his hands as if to surrender. “I’m just saying that it seems like every time I meet a young girl these days her name is ‘Sheniqua’ or ‘Sherronda’ or ‘Keniah.’ Ya know? You never meet a ‘Mary’ or a ‘Sue’ anymore. Those are hard to find.”
My facial expressions are notoriously far beyond my control, and in this moment, my Resting Boss Face held and unyielding glare with his beady eyes. I am a woman without decorum and rarely is there a modicum of “chill” or proprietary felt in my bones. Especially not on this day.
“Names don’t have races, and I really don’t care whether or not my name meets anyone’s liking.”
I think I felt the temperature in the room drop.
“Okay,” he tried again. “I’m just saying. I think the names are pretty. I’m just saying–“
I interrupted him.
“I know exactly what you’re saying.”
It took me years to love my Black-ass, “African-sounding” name. I had to dig to find the value in it, beneath thick layers of white supremacy, anti-Blackness, elitism, colonialism, and misogynoir. This was true labor, and I refuse to relinquish its fruits.
I wish there was more to be found. More letters and syllables, like Quvenzhané and Uzoamaka and Chimamanda and Mahershalalhashbaz. I wish that my name, and the rest of my existence, was untouched by white colonialism.
I have no shame in being a “difficult” Black woman, especially given the way that misogynoir tends to define anything outside of aligning with arbitrary respectability politics and heteronormativity as “difficult.” Likewise, I no longer have any shame in having a “difficult Black girl name”.
I realized some time ago, after yet another person asked for permission to amputate my name, that I rarely hear my own name said aloud. I hardly know how it sounds in someone else’s mouth, carried on someone else’s voice, other than my own family and closest friends. I will likely never know what it’s like to have my name said by others with the ease that most three-syllable words are afforded. That is the sober truth.
Warsan Shire implores us to “give [our] daughters difficult names,” and I say, be intentional in avowing those names. Be deliberate in celebrating the fullness of them. Every letter, every syllable. Affirm every Black-ass name. Revere the ones with carefully-placed hyphens, accents, and spaces, whether or not they have roots in an African tongue or possess significant meaning. So that when Black folks are inevitably asked to shrink themselves and their name for the comfort, satisfaction, and convenience of someone else, they will have the certainty and conviction to refuse this demand.
Photo by Quentin Keller on Unsplash