What’s in a name?

A couple of months ago, I started writing a story with flashbacks to the Jim Crow South. The flashback scenes were of two children of sharecroppers – one white and one black – and a relationship between them that they re-access later in their lives. When it was pointed out that I had oversimplified the relationship between the children, I paused. I’ve been steeped in race as a white woman raising bi-racial children in the South, had I ever really researched it like I would any other subject I wanted to write about? I put the writing on hold and put a call out to my network: What should I read to understand this era?

The first recommendation I got was the Library of Congress American Folklife Center collection of the voices of slavery.  As an admitted information junkie, I spent a couple of days lost in it! Many of the recordings were hard to understand but there were transcripts! It was amazing and informative.

As I ranted about the glory of my newfound archives on Facebook, a friend reached out. “You have to remember that these were white people sitting in black people’s homes asking them questions about slavery. The people answering those questions knew that over-stepping their bounds could cost them their life. There are things unsaid in those interviews.”

History is written by the winner, right?

So back to my network: Who really gets race right in their writing? That’s how I came to have the stack of books beside me right now: Growing Up Jim Crow by Jennifer Ritterhouse; The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson; Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell; Blues Done Signed My Name by Timothy B. Tyson and on and on.

I started with Growing Up Jim Crow since it’s focused on the era and about children during the era. I find myself reading sections, then re-reading them after they’ve had a chance to sink in. Today, I hit on a couple of things that I want to share (with all two of you who read) that connect to real-life for me.

As is my way, I will start with a story: Twice in my professional life, I’ve been involved in interactions between a white woman and a black woman in the workplace that felt icky. I wasn’t able to unpack them at the time, but I felt like there was something racial going on and that we should take the time to understand it as such. The first situation was when a white woman at a high level in the organization repeatedly shortened the name of the black woman who didn’t work under her but was at a lower level in the professional hierarchy. I noticed that the black woman didn’t introduce herself as such and asked whether she preferred the shortened name and she said, “No. That person is the only person who calls me that.” The next time I heard the white woman use it, I said, “You know, she doesn’t refer to herself that way. You should call her by her full name.” And that was the end of it. My intuition told me there was something powerful behind it that I didn’t understand, and I didn’t explore it further but I wish I had.

Fast-forward a couple of years and a black woman in my department (the only person of color in the department at that time) asks to be referred to as, “Ms. Smith” (not her real name). She introduces herself as such, refers to herself as such on her voicemail, etc. The big boss gets wind of it and tells her to stop, stating that the organizational culture is informal and asking to be referred to with a title puts a wedge between her and her customers. This time, I did say to the boss, “You know, there’s a lot of power behind titles and names in the African-American community. There may be more to this than meets the eye.”

Today, I was reading Growing Up Jim Crow and came across this: about post-emancipation:

“In our part of the State…the death of slavery is recognized, and made a basis of action for everybody,” he (South Carolina slave owner) informed northern journalist Whitelaw Reid. “But we don’t believe that because the nigger is free he ought to be saucy.”  (p. 28)

Rittenhouse goes on to say that one of the most contentious changes after emancipation was that freedmen and freedwomen were demanding to be referred to as Mister and Missus. In some cases, to escape the names they were called during slavery, they took on new names altogether. But if they became “saucy” by becoming angry or daring to not answer when called by their slave name, they risked the violent wrath of white people who may have been following the law of the land, but made it clear that their former slaves were inferior and not worthy of respect.

“It is hard to have layed our loved ones in the grave, to have them fall by the thousands on the battle field, to be stripped of everything. But the hardest of all is nigger equality and I won’t submit to it.” – Savannah white woman, 1865 (p. 28)

The first thing that occurred to me is how “ethnic-sounding names” are often publicly ridiculed by white people. How if you have a name that sounds black, your resumé somehow goes to the bottom of the pile.

Isn’t this a modern-day way of keeping black folks from getting saucy?

This is the level at which we white folk need to check ourselves in the continuing fight for civil rights, I think. Things that seem so small, something as insignificant as calling a person by their preferred name is a small step toward returning power to the people we disempower with our jokes, our misunderstanding and our refusal to take the time to understand a reality outside our own.

~ D


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