At my nephew’s Jackson’s graduation last week, the valedictorian–Ivan Alejandro Lopez Castillo–thanked one in particular.
“Mrs. Prothro always called me by my full name.”
The young man had thousands of people listening, and he used that stage to thank a teacher for calling him by the name his parents gave him. Born in Mexico, an immigrant to America, there’s no guessing how many names he’s been called. We can be casual about learning foreign names. Anunziata becomes Nancy because it’s just…easier.
His story reminded me of a day 25 years ago when I was calling the roll on the first day of ENG101 at Auburn. “Srinivas Pochana?” A lanky young man who had folded himself into a desk in the front row raised his hand slightly and nodded.
“Did I say your name correctly?”
“You can call me Tom.”
“Do you prefer Tom or Srinivas?”
He laughed softly. “I grew up in Alabama–I’m used to being called Tom.”
I think of Richard’s grandfather Jack, who was given the surname Grayson by a bureaucrat because it was “more American” than his Russian Jewish family name.
We show respect to one another when we learn each other’s names. I knew Grandmama Irene had accepted Gennaro into the family when she said, “What a minute…it’s not Geronimo….I think of that old movie star Ray Navarro and then I put the G on there….Gennaro!”
Names matter. Learn to pronounce them. Ask what they mean. Ask how your new friend was given that name.
Honor names. If Tiara become Terrence, honor Terrence’s name. His father does, why shouldn’t you?
If we can learn how to pronounce Tchaikovsky, Monet, and Kardashian, we can learn to pronounce Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
I’m all for nicknames and endearments among friends and family. My grandfather called me Punkin Snooter, Miss Priss, or sometimes Lucretia because he said I looked like his mama. He called my cousin Pat by his middle name, Luke, to the point that someone at our family reunion once asked about the twins, Pat and Luke. He himself was named Meredith Gaither Mathews by his own parents but went by Dick. My sister, his first grandchild, was given his name. My brother is Samuel Joseph after our father, Samuel Fuller and his father, Milton Joseph. Joe passed along Samuel to his first son and Joseph to his second. We like family names.
With all this thinking about names, I started watching the reimagined “Roots” tonight on the History Channel. It’s tough to watch but deeply worth it. No fact in it was a surprise. Every story of the slave trade takes us back over the history but this one tells the story with such excruciatingly relatable detail that the story of Kunta Kinte breathed for me. He was a young man in the trading city of Juffure (in Gambia), a man whose father taught him to ride a horse and whose mother sang to him at night. A man who prayed when he felt lost. A young man with a history and a duty to his family. A young man whose family connections got him taken captive and sold as a slave by a family his father had angered a generation before.
Even when Kunta Kinte is enslaved in Virginia, and dubbed “Toby” by the lady of the house, he insists on his own name. It’s not a spoiler (since the original miniseries has been around almost 40 years and 50% of Americans who owned a TV watched the original) to say that even when he is whipped and the overseer screams, “Say your name so you know what you are!” Kunta Kinte will not surrender his name.
Because as his father had told him under the stars back home, “You are Kunta Kinte, son of Amoro Kinte….your name is your spirit. Your name is your shield.”
Our names, and the family they connect us to, are our key to connection and our shield against being lost.
We inherit so much along with our names. This is a photograph of my grandfather’s grandfather, Rufus C McCrary, and his family. Rufus fought for the Confederacy at Gettysburg and was one of the few members of his unit who survived. When this photograph was taken, his eldest daughter Lucretia was already married and away. In 1902, Lucretia gave birth to her youngest boy, Dick, would one day have a girl, Janice, who would one day have a girl, Ashley…whose grandfather told her she looked like Lucretia. Whose father fought in the Civil War.
It’s all that close. Still.