In a recent interview with the Improper Bostonian, Emmy Award-winning star of Orange Is the New Black Uzo Aduba recalls telling her mother of a childhood desire to be called “Zoe,” a name more easily pronounced than her given Nigerian name, Uzoamaka. Aduba’s mother offered the following reply: “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
Like Aduba, many first-generation African Americans have straddled dual identities with their names as a tipping point. I am no exception. Despite my Ghanaian parents’ urgings, I allowed and encouraged my name to be mispronounced as “Mamie” instead of “Mame” (mah-may) for nearly 25 years. I was named after my paternal grandmother, Mame Manu, but by the first grade, I dreaded my teacher’s daily roll call.
Had I come of age in Ghana, no teacher would flinch at seeing “Mame” on her roster. But as I sat in Houston classrooms with Ashleys and Amandas, I thought “Mamie” (though antiquated) to be familiar and less likely to incite questions about my background—even as I insisted on spelling it M-A-M-E and asked others to emphasize the long vowels.
This insistence on being called “Mamie” infuriated my father, who couldn’t understand why I didn’t defend “Mame” with the same fervor. When I was born, my father sought to honor the woman who had given him life by giving me her name. He also stood in staunch opposition to calling his children by the same monikers plantation owners bestowed on African slaves centuries before. My sisters were also the namesakes of women in our family, and unlike their big sis, not one of them adopted more American-sounding or incorrectly pronounced versions of Afua, Nana or Yaa.
For a number of black parents, names are more than identifiers; they are a form of social, cultural and historical currency. During the height of the civil rights movement and through the 1970s, many African Americans gave their children names with varied religious and pancultural origins, lending rise to a generation of girls named Aisha, Nia, Ebony, Ashanti and Aaliyah.
More-inventive monikers took hold in the 1980s as parents extracted elements of common names and added prefixes like “La-” and “Sha-” to suffixes like “-iqua” and “-isha” to create unique signatures for their baby girls. I spent suburban summer nights playing four square with many a LaTasha. During my freshman year of college, I befriended a girl named Omunique, which was designed to sound like “I’m unique” when pronounced quickly. She had her friends call her “Nikki” for short.
Nikki and I were part of that class of ’70s and ’80s babies who applied to college and drafted professional résumés during the early 2000s. It was within this period that researchers assessed the effect a name has on its bearer’s professional success, hypothesizing on a kind of racism in which employers discriminated on the basis of the name atop a vitae, not the color of an applicant’s skin. A 2003 study titled, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” (pdf) found that applicants with black-sounding names were 50 percent less likely to receive a callback than those with white-sounding names, even if their résumés echoed comparable education and experience levels.
Hearing about this study a few years ago ignited a swell of guilt for me. By then I’d already turned a college degree into a résumé, and a résumé into a communications career. But in the years between the first grade and my first job, I’d continued to introduce myself as “Mamie.” I later read an article highlighting the psychic implications of hiding racial markers in résumés and other interactions, noting that within the seemingly protective behavior is an act of self-denial, a form of “pretending [ourselves] away.”
My guilt was based in something greater than an ostensibly diminished sense of cultural pride. In contorting vowel sounds, I’d also been abdicating an honorable nod to my nonagenarian grandmother, whom I’ve never met. There was a spiritual element to my unspoken shame. And quite honestly, my grandmother would never answer to “Mamie.”
I’ve reclaimed “Mame” in the last several years, quick to correct a mispronunciation and to inform childhood and college friends that though I’d allowed them to be wrong all this time, they need to get it right. Upon moving to Chicago in 2011, I left every relic of “Mamie” in Texas, proud to respond to my name as it should be.
Names are not always simple. For my parents and me, it’s an homage and a spiritual connection to my ancestry. And for a number of African-American parents, naming their children is not about imposing an impediment on their futures. More than a combination of letters listed on class rosters, printed atop résumés and embossed onto business cards, names are about grace, inheritance and legacy.
Nana, my 17-year-old sister, recently told me about a Mame in her class who, as I did, insists that she be called “Mamie.” Nana has seethed about this silently, eventually letting Mame know that there is no need to pull the “Mamie” ruse. At least not with her. And hopefully soon, with no one else.
The essay was published on TheRoot.com on Sept. 1, 2014.