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Chapter 3: What’s in a name? A lot!

November 28, 2017

What’s in a Name? A lot!

“Anni, are you sure you want to use that name? Don’t you think there would be a better name to choose? Don’t you think you might want to pick a different name?”

“Yes. Ahmad is going to be his name. We decided on names, and this is the name he is going to have when he is born. He is going to have my dad’s middle name, but Ahmad will be his first name.” I was beyond annoyed at this conversation.

Soon after I found out I was having a boy the above conversation occurred. I was 22, had been living in Chicago for about a year and a half, and had just started dating my soon-to-be baby daddy and husband. At the time of this conversation I had just returned home from my first ultrasound. My fiancé, a musician, was not home nor did he go with me to the appointment. I was sitting in my garden level Chicago apartment in Boystown. I truly believed I was going to save the father of my child from a life of poverty, drugs, and alcohol.  We were going to build a life together. We were going to be happy. He was going to be the dad I had and the father he never had growing up.

When I found out I was pregnant I was living and working in Los Angeles for the summer. I remember calling him on one of my breaks and telling him that we were going to be parents. I was ecstatic, but also had some mixed emotions. He, on the other hand, was less ecstatic. This would be his second child and my first. He had another child (girl) who lived in Croatia from his time traveling the world as a musician. I was ready to be a mother. I was ready to be a wife. I was ready to move on with my life and grow up.

When I got back home from my summer job in Los Angeles we went to a chain restaurant to have a nice meal in the suburbs. During this dinner we decided on baby names. It was easy, it was simple, and there was nothing climatic about it. We decided that he could pick a boy’s name and I could choose a girl’s name. Whatever the gender, we had the name picked out.  If we had a girl she would be named Ava and if we had a boy he would be named Ahmad. I loved that name. When I lived in Kenya I lived in a predominately Muslim community, where women were fully covered and men prayed five times a day. The name was not something I thought twice.

In March of 2009, just 4 months after the United States elected their first black president, Ahmad was born. At the time of our naming discussion my husband was a self-proclaimed non-practicing Muslim. While Ahmad is a traditionally Arabic name meaning, much praised, my husband also stated that he chose the name because of a famous musician, Ahmad Jamal.

“You know he is going to have a hard time as he gets older with that kind of name.” I still didn’t understand.

So, I asked, “What do you mean?”

“Well, you know. A Muslim name such as Ahmad, well, don’t you just think something else would be better?”

“No.”

At the time of my son’s birth I had life experiences, but very few around the prejudices based on one’s name. Since my son’s birth I have become acutely aware of the prejudices that exist. There have been events, mindsets, and statements about people with names that sound like or are Ahmad’s name. Admittedly I have, at times, contemplated changing his name to Drew (variation of his middle name), just to make it ‘easier’ for him. But then I question this thought, “Why change who he is to make everyone else feel comfortable? If he chooses to one day in his life, I will support that but I am not doing to make the decision for him.”

Regardless of my parental fears or maybe even my white fears of who will discriminate against him not only for his skin color but also for his name, my parenting style is one of choice. There are things in life that he does not have choices on, but he does have a choice on his name. That is who he is. That is his identity. That is how he knows himself. I have left it to him to decide who he wants to be. How he wants to be known. And, what is the identity he wants to build for himself as an individual in a racialized America.

 

So, my ultimate question. What is in a name? A name provides identity. A name provides context. A name provides a history. My son was named by his father, after a beloved musician, and a middle name after my father. Names have a history. However, names also provide an avenue for outsiders to make judgments. When people hear or read a name, conscious and unconscious judgements are made. Even though judgments are based on our internalized stereotypes, it is always good to question, to reflect, and to ask yourself if the judgment you made is a fair judgement to make. And I can tell you from experience, it usually is not.

Now, many years after my son has been on this planet, I view names differently, his name specifically. I can tell when people question his name. I can tell when people truly try to get to know him and learn how to pronounce his name. If you do not try to say a name correctly, his or someone else’s, it is disrespectful to the history, the identity, and the person who embodies that name.

At times, if I am honest, I like to make people feel uncomfortable around the idea of a name. When people are put in an uncomfortable position they are more likely to remember the situation, the feeling, and the message. I want people to question their idea of a normal name in America, which often comes down to the idea of a Eurocentric sounding and spelling of a name.

 

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