Tuesday, July 8, 2008

For Shaniqua

What's in a name?

A recent post on Racialious got me thinking about names, tears and everything that happens in between.

I cried once during my time in Jamaica. Amid all the craziness -- the predominantly white group of American students who were in my study abroad program, the rampant homophobia of my Jamaican ally's -- there was only one time I broke down in tears.

It happened because of the name 'Shaniqua'.

After our mandatory SIT Gender & Development seminar, where we studied among ourselves and didn't interact at all with the rest of the University of the West Indies student population, the group of ten white women and myself made our way to the campus bookstore. I was annoyed, as always. My feelings were a mix of anger and confusion. I was angry because there were no other down students of color who I could bond with. Angry at the sense of entitlement that accompanies a white face and a liberal arts degree. Angry at the fact that these same white women who knew the lyric to every Bob Marley song that blared from their iPod speakers could look at me like I was crazy when I bonded with my Black Nationalist friends.

But I didn't want to be left out. So yeah, maybe I secretly wanted to know those random ass indy rock references they made. Or maybe I wanted to have a story about drug binges and beer pong to match theirs. But all I had were stories of the second-hand weed I smoked with my folks, and our late-night ciphers where we reminisced about childhoods, hip-hop and white people.

So on this day I weaved in and out of conversation with the attention span of an assassin. I participated from a distance, but paid attention to every word, every move. And then it happened.

"What would make you stop being my friend?" asked the white girl from San Francisco.

"I can't think of anything outside of you killing my family or something", replied the biracial (but always passing for white) girl from San Rafael.

"Hmh...what if my name was...Shaniqua!"

"Ugh, I'd kill you if your name was Shaniqua!"

In an imaginary world, I spoke up. I told them how fucking racist they were, how they were nothing but insecure little brats who deserved to have their asses kicked, their cameras stolen and their Visa's revoked. "Don't you know that Black women are killed everyday because of shit like that? Because of attitudes like yours? Because their names are Shaniqua's, or Tenisha's, or because they're too Black, too fat, too loud, too silent?"

But in the real world, I didn't say shit. I averted my eyes, swallowed my voice and stood there, in shock. By the time I processed what had been said, they were already on our chartered bus ready to go back to the program office. In that moment I hated being the only one to say something. Afterall, being brave is lonely. And as a Black girl, I guess I was used to being silent. Instead, my anger manifested itself throughout the rest of the trip, as I averted my eyes, disengaged from the group, and turned up my headphones.

The next morning I woke up from a bad sleep. Thirty five hundred miles away from home and everything that was familiar, music was my only salvation. So I turned to the only song I knew that addressed the issue I couldn't get off my mind: Talib Kweli's Black Girl Pain.

Black Girl Pain - Talib Kweli

This is for Aisha, this is for Kashera
This is for Khadijah scared to look up in the mirror
I see the picture clearer thru the stain on the frame
She got a black girl name, she livin black girl pain

Then came the tears. I thought about all the girls I knew growing up: Myesha, Tasheanna, Chika, Naima. My best friends from childhood. I thought about how many times I wanted to go by my middle name "Nicole" when I was little because "Jamilah" was 'too ghetto.' I thought about how many times I had to slowly pronounce my name, or correct people when they mispronounced it. I thought about how many times I let people mispronounce it. I thought about Noah's bagles, or Jamba Juice, where I became "Jamie" our of 'convenience'.

And then I thought about what 'too ghetto' really meant, and if it was such a bad thing after all. Hell, it was the ghettoist girls I knew, named after democratic ideals, African goddesses or female versions of baby daddy's nicknames, who I could rely on when my mom drank too much, or who understood the concept of making a home out of mismatched nik-naks from Ross, broken dreams and laughter.

Now that I think about it, it would be wrong of me to place this just on white people. The pervasiveness of white privilege, and racist domination, most definitely. But it was my Black Jamaican host mother who called me "Jamie" for three months because it was 'easier.' And it was her cousin visiting from DC who laughed at my name after meeting me.

"That's an amusing name" she said.
"Excuse me?"
"Oh, well I thought it was a play off of "Jam" in "Jamaica" and something else."
"No. It's Arabic. It means beautiful." I said.

More and more, it's people of color I hear who want to name their children the whitest names possible to save them from possible embarrassment. I was on that bandwagon for a long time, too. Now I realize there's something incredibly beautiful and empowering about names that can't be found on amusement park keychains. And that a name, along with someone simply being, is one of the strongest acts of resistance around.

So five, maybe ten years from now, when you meet my baby girl Sorraya, pronounce her shit right!


Sky said...

Damn. I was just thinking about this today. Naming plays such an important role in my life. I feel like if I ever write a novel, naming would be one of the motifs. But today I was thinking how I just let my name be mispronounced...how I just let people put the emphasis on the wrong syllable and how if I pulled that shit with a white person ("hey KaTHEY") I'd get laughed outa town. Or if i just looked at it and shook my head, like "there aint no way I'm gonna be able to pronounce this!".

And before this name? before "sky" I had "sunset/dusk", and I pretended most of the letters in my name were silent for the majority of my life. And it became a game to them. "No, but say your REAL name." It was this daily and public taunting cloaked in curiosity, and adults were as guilty of it as children. And so when I finally stood up and owned my given name, they were content to butcher it. I finally developed a pict-o-gram because I decided that if I could say their names, they could say mine, since all syllables were more or less echoed in the English language.

Anyway, my names aren't "ghetto", they're "ethnic", "exotic", "foreign", "interesting", and "strange". They're beautiful, and they're mine. And I've come to own my right to be called the name I say--whether given or chosen, "real" or nickname. And I don't always have to give ALL of my names over to strangers. I can save one for public, one for convenience, one for business, one for pleasure, and one at home, in an old shoe box, marked "S.", for sentimental value.

goc said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ima said...

hella powerful.

kg said...


Anonymous said...

u are awesome.


Grace said...

I must have missed this when you posted it. This is a great post. I'm glad you shared it with us.