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​What’s In a Name?

It doesn’t quite sound right. Every time I introduce myself to people here, I feel as if I’m purposely forgetting an essential part of me. As if my mouth is betraying the rest of my being.

Coming to college is about starting anew and taking the opportunity to recreate yourself while remaining true to who you are. Before I arrived here, I promised to be boldly unapologetic about my identity: Christian, woman, black, and African all at the same time. Yet, I feel as if I’m not completely being true to that promise when I tell people my name.

My first name, of Nigerian descent, means Love of God. It is representative of the trials my parents were going through when I was born. Names with that much history, that much meaning and weight, shouldn’t be treated lightly. But after seeing the difficulty it presented people, I almost resented it a little. I used to think it wasn’t aesthetically pleasing; it did not have catchy initials; its letters did not look pretty when written. When I was younger, I decided I would change my name as an adult. Being a bearer of many names, given by multiple family members, is typical for Nigerian people. But, I was one of those who hadn’t also been given an English name. Watching my parents change their names when they were officially sworn in as U.S. citizens made me think that was eventually what I would have to do.

By the time I reached high school, I was tired. My name had passed through too many lips that were all too careless with it. I felt as if it had lost its magic. Too many adults had stumbled across its letters, after apologizing for the train-wreck that was about to come out of their mouths. They left in their wake a mangled version of me, trying to conform itself to more palatable English standards. My name quickly became the obstacle that I had to get through every time I met someone new.

Even my longtime friends, after witnessing others’ failed attempts, would ask me again how to say my name, wanting to confirm that their version was right. I never knew how to tell them that they had never had it right in the first place. My response instead was to tell them I didn’t care. At that point, as long as people weren’t blatantly making a mockery of my name, they could call me whatever was easiest for them. As if my name were meant to be a convenience.

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I am ashamed to say that in college it hasn’t been much different. But now, I am not so much angry as I am expectant. I used to cringe as I heard the pause while the speaker did attendance, followed by the perplexed and, at times, apologetic face. It was a relief when I could catch them in that moment and introduce myself first, before they had a chance to ruin it. After all, I’d surely pronounce their typical English or American names without hesitation, regardless of their “unique” or “original” spellings.

Popular culture dictates what becomes familiar. The books Americans read and movies they watch feature people with English names, while if someone with a culturally distinct name is even present in these mediums, their name is usually made to be a joke or to portray some negative stereotype. Consequently, this sends the message that these names, and by extension the people that own them, don’t matter. There is no obligation to better know or even have respect for a name like mine, a name that is usually crucial to cultural identity.

This may seem inconsequential to some, especially those who have no cultural or historical attachments or even family ties to their names. For most of us who weren’t born here, though, our names serve as a tangible reminder of our foreign backgrounds. Every time someone mispronounces my name, it becomes even more apparent that I am an outsider. If America is really this cultural mixing pot some may or may not appreciate, shouldn’t we all care to check our multicultural knowledge or lack thereof? Simply because, it is this great diversity that is truly representative of the America we live in today, a land of immigrants.

There is power in the utterance of a name, and the beauty in mine is something I have never forgotten. Taking the time and having the patience to work through its pronunciation with people, only to have them continue to say it wrong or make some rude joke, almost stripped that away from me. But what I call myself is the most palpable part of the core of my identity, and it anchors me in the struggle of being both Nigerian and American. I have long stopped wishing to change my name, but passively allowing it to be pronounced incorrectly is no better. I can no longer accept that my name isn’t just as important as anyone else's in the diverse makeup of this nation.


Ifeoluwa T. Obayan ‘19, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Hollis Hall.

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