Call Me By My Name

This is part prose, part essay, part reflection.

Scene One: I walk around with a last name full of syllables. It uncomfortably sits in peoples mouth’s like something sharp. My name isn’t palatable, doesn’t slide on the tongue like something silky and exotic. It sticks and pokes–I can see it on their faces when they hesitantly spit it out. “Martin?…Moore?…O..Ok…um?” In my haste, I run to catch my name before it falls discarded to the floor.

“It’s Okonkwo. My name is Okonkwo. Present! No, it’s fine. You can sound it out, try it with me! O-kon-kwo.”

I have been Okinawa. Okonokwo. Okeydoke, when they thought they were being funny. I am still, after nearly 32 years, amazed when people say my name properly without my help.

Scene Two: High School, 11th grade English–full of people two sets of school days away from legalized adulthood. She walks to the front of the room, olive-toned and slight. She says, “my name is Ms. Tashjian. For this class, you may refer to me as Ms. T if it is easier for you to remember. Never one back down from a language related challenge, I pronounce it in the mirror, determined to get it correct. I will not be like the others. I will not take the easy way out. Tash. Jee. Ahn. Tashjian. I got this. Simultaneously as I push my tongue to a new plane, one of saffron and turmeric, I slip that little nugget away for later. I can make my name taste better by presenting it as an appetizer, not an entree. I can make it–me–palatable.

Scene Three: Non J JCC employee can pray in Hebrew. Black girl sounds good pronouncing the ch in Pinchas and lechem and the zh in Yitzhak. No, you won’t be Pinny and Yitzy. We still stumble over Okonkwo, though.

Scene Four: At work, I pull out the appetizer trick before the school year even starts–give them a taste. Stephanie Okonkwo becomes Ms. O, and before my eyes I watch the tension leave shoulders when they realize that the jawbreaker of a name has softened into something that they can manipulate with their tongue. We feel the air change–the same shift that causes Ikenna to become I.K. on a game show, Ifeoluwa to go by Luvvie and why Firoozeh wanted to become Julie in Funny In Farsi. It feels nice–I even adopt a cheesy little chant: “go for O!” when they call me on the radio. It is funny–until it isn’t. Until kids make African jokes–something that still stings even though my relationship with my diasporic-ness is complicated at best. Until people ask what the O stands for, and wrinkle their nose when I tell them–“yeah, I’ma stick to O”. Why did I give them an easy way out? Until I notice the ease with which people say the things that they want…to say. I resolve to make people say it next school year. Call me by my name in all of it’s different, jollof and egusi glory.

Scene Five: Camp begins, and I notice offhandedly that Olamide is listed as an intern. I hear everyone refer to her as “Ola-ME-day“. Then, completely by accident, I call her name one day with a task attached:

“O-LA-mih-day, can you bring me the water bottles to label please?” 

Belatedly, I recognize my mistake:

“Oh, I am sorry, did I say your name incorrectly? Please tell me if I am.”

” “No”, she says, “You actually said it right. It’s just easier for people here to call me Ola-ME-day, so I just go with it.”

“What does your family call you at home, though?’

O-LA-mih-day.”

“Oh, ok.”

Sis hasn’t learned yet to make them get it right, that your name is your identifier, your identity, your birthright, your legacy. Olamide means “my wealth has arrived.” Ola-ME-day means “my comfort is more important.” Sis needs to stand her ground. Sis is me. I am sis.

Scene Five, also:  Bre**** came to private school. She goes by Bre now. It’s easier.

My name
Something intricately strung together like the beads on mgbaji
Not here for your comfort
Taste and see that the world is good.

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