From the age-old question implied in Robert Frost’s poem, to these contemporary insinuations of labels (RINO, DINO–Republican and Democrat In Name Only respectively), the question of “What’s in a Name?” continues to trouble us as individuals, communities, and members of the human race. When one questions why a rose is called a rose rather than a tree, there is a continuum of understandings. Without getting into the debate of word roots and etymology, on a basic existential level, a rose could have been named a tree without losing any of its essence as rose. That’s for starters. In this case, it could be said there’s nothing to a name, any name for that matter. However, once words, names become part of a socio-cultural context, they acquire not only denotative meanings, but also highly complicated connotations. In that case, while “rose” represents this flower of many colors etc, its connotations compound from positive to negative. We associate roses to love, beauty, romance and yet to pain (thorns), and death (funerals). So words do carry meanings.
That’s just the background as we confront America’s dilemma with a president with “funny names.” Of course, for many people it’s totally innocuous. With a name such as mine, I know and we have experienced repeatedly the connotations of bearing difficult- to -pronounce names. A few years back, Bill Cosby energized a controversy over names Americans who are also Black often give their children. His implication was that potential employers may exclude a qualified candidate by merely associating the name to a race, ethnicity, or socioeconomics. Last year, my then twelve year old “proved” Cosby right in a funny turn of events. He had made up his mind to “jump start” his lawn mowing business around the neighborhood and proceeded to create flyers. When I saw the final flyer, I thought what I suspected was true and noted to him that he had misspelled his name. He non-apologetically informed us all he didn’t want potential clients having any trouble pronouncing his Igbo name so he created a business name, Chris! The savvy business mind of a twelve year old overshadowed any personal heritage and identity issues his parents could lay claim to!
Notice I said Americans who are Blacks because that’s part of the difficult conversation Americans continue to shy away from. The use of hyphenated American identifiers (African, Mexican, Asian, Italian, and Chinese -American) has continued to create controversy. You are either just American or not. Why must people continue to link themselves to another non-American identity? Of course, such comments are expressed with little understanding of what goes into people’s self and group identities. Similarly, the label “Negro” on upcoming census forms recently elicited such a controversy, even within the said group of Blacks. For fear of oversimplification, the term “African American” may at this point in America really represent nobody. I’ll take that back. It’s just a tense label. Whereas many native born Americans have shelved that term in preference for Black, some others continue to use it because they want that link to Africa to maybe fill an identity void. On the other hand, when African-born citizens are asked to identify themselves, the divide reappears but for different reasons. For some, the label truly depicts their reality as both African and American and for others, it’s a term that separates and isolates them from the native born. Personal and group identities are truly complex.
And so back to Pres. Barack Obama. For the first African American president to not have one single English or “Western” name is . . . curious, mind boggling. God’s ways indeed are not ours. “How did America let this happen?” one blogger asked. With the anonymity blogs afford people to hide behind an unknown screen, blogs can be a rich source of unadulterated emotions, opinions, and irrationality. When Glenn Beck therefore recently confronted the question of Pres. Obama’s personal journey with his names, it was a blogoshere treasure. According to Beck, Pres. Obama’s change from his birth name to an Anglicized version, Barry, and back to Barack was an attempt to purposefully not fit in, to disassociate himself from mainstream America, and to identify more with his “radical Kenyan father.” Of course, Glenn Beck would not understand this journey because he, Beck, represents the “normal” America with typical American names. I dare him to check out Comedian Garcia’s parody of English names on Youtube! In Beck’s worldview, therefore, there is no room in the U.S. for foreign sounding and strange un-American names.
I am yet to attend a naming ceremony, Christening, or baby presentation in any culture, race, or faith where the baby when getting named by the parents suddenly spoke up and rejected the names. When my parents gave me a first name that is French, it meant something to them just as we in turn have given our children names that have personal meanings for us as parents and implicitly for them too. As an adult, I’ve held that choice to keep my first name or choose any of my other names or whatever other identifier I wanted. Any curious person may ask me to defend that choice but it still remains mine to make. It is not for the likes of Beck or anybody else to interpret why I continue to use a French name!
Beck isn’t the first to vocalize and instill fear in others about the President’s names and identity. In 2008, Cincinnati radio host, Bill Cunningham, drew some ire about the middle name Hussein. Then presidential candidate John McCain quickly disassociated himself from such foolishness. Americans didn’t buy it and overwhelmingly voted Barack Hussein Obama into the presidency. Beck was therefore left with just the first and last names to work with. And so all the associations to “Kenyan this and that” from Alan Keyes and the birthers. It is the same fear of the unfamiliar, of not knowing, that underlies the “Take our America back movement,” hiding under “Anti-big government” slogans. It is truly a reflection of not knowing how to deal with a new reality.
It is about time we confront this new reality of our multiple realities — that these names, these multiple identities, these mixed heritages ARE American. A few years back, an American Black had pointed out to me that my children born here in the United States could possibly not be the same as those Blacks with “slave history” ancestors. I lay it all out as I did to her then, that my children, just like Barack H. Obama can, will, and should take their place in the life, conscience, and history of this nation as first class citizens. Period. Whereas I cannot run for the presidency, they can. While I’m at it, I’ll order ten copies each of their birth certificates. Not that the birther movement will last another twenty or thirty years, but we can’t say we haven’t learned.
People who don’t seem to get this message are the ones who are not American. Ok, I’ll soften it: they just have a myopic view of what it is to be American. Our differences make us unique and stronger, not fearful and weaker.