What’s In a Name? Kind of a Lot.


This post originally appeared at Uptown Magazine.

I watched every piece of the Oscars Sunday night, from pre-shows to the very end, which means that I was in front of my television for roughly 23 hours.  My viewing experience began in anger and fury, and it ended the very same way.  And thanks to some despicable behavior from the internet, that anger and fury is persisting hours after the show has ended.

It began when I heard Ryan Seacrest say that “they” (meaning, I assume, he and his E! red carpet cohorts) had decided to call Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old dynamo nominated for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, “Little Q” instead of her actual name.  Here’s a quick breakdown of the problems with this:

1.  That isn’t her name.
2.  To my knowledge, neither Quvenzhané nor her family OK’d this nickname.
3.  That nickname wasn’t given to her out of love or adoration; it was given out of discomfort around something “other.”

Naming and names are important because they are entwined in our ownership of ourselves and our bodies.  We name things that belong to us.  We name our children.  We name our pets.  We name our cars and our plants and our stuffed animals and even our hair.  The act of naming and/or re-naming something is absolutely about power and control, and this is something that slave owners knew very well–a standard practice in “seasoning” and “breaking” a slave was assigning them Anglo-Saxon names.  This established that those men and women were, without a doubt, property of their purchasers, and completely severed them from the identities they knew.  Further, the names that were assigned to enslaved black men and women were often diminutive versions of common names–Billy instead of William; Donnie instead of Donald.  These were verbal reminders that you were not a whole man or a whole woman, that you were not fully human.  And when that wasn’t enough, they were stripped of those names and called “boy” or “gal,” because acknowledging a person’s self-approved name is to acknowledge the humanity in someone.

This is still the function of naming, and precisely why the insistence on not learning how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name so crazy-making.

Not saying Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness.  Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce.  There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal.  Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there’s long been backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.).   The insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.

 It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters.  And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable.  She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be.  Their answer?  Let’s make her more palatable.  If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.

Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort.  The problem is not that she has an unpronounceable name, because she doesn’t.  The problem is that white Hollywood, from Ryan Seacrest and his homies to the AP reporter who decided to call her “Annie” rather than her real name, doesn’t deem her as important as, say, Renee Zellweger, or Zach Galifianakis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom have names that are difficult to pronounce–but they manage.  The message sent is this:  you, young, black, female child, are not worth the time and energy it will take me to learn to spell and pronounce your name. You will be who and what I want you to be; you be be who and what makes me more comfortable.  I will allow you to exist and acknowledge that existence, but only on my terms.

And as if calling her “Little Q” wasn’t enough, The Onion took it to an entirely unnecessary level by calling her one of the most deplorable, abhorrent words there are:  “c-nt.”

The outrage was swift, and rightfully so, but so was the defense. Instantaneously, Twitter became flooded with tweets explaining the function of satire (as if those who were upset didn’t already know) and protecting The Onion’s tweet as a simple joke.

The underlying message there? If we package it the right way, we can still call you whatever we want, whenever we want.

Not all of us have the space or luxury to see this kind of attack as “just a joke,” and make no mistake, this was absolutely an attack.  On the surface, it was a bit of poorly planned satire that missed its mark by a million yards.  Quvenzhané was a prop in, not the subject of, a very tasteless joke.  As a writer and humorist, I understand that.  Sure, it was “just a joke,” but it was a joke constructed of venom that black women have had to withstand since the beginning of our time on American soil.  Beneath that joke is a culture that has made the lampooning and mistreatment of black women a perfectly acceptable thing, and this is where the attack lies: in the residue of an era that permitted the systemic rape and murder of black women even as the protection of the cultural purity of white women was viciously protected, claiming the lives of countless innocent black men in the process. The attack lies in the space that allowed anyone to ever think that a statement like this would ever be accepted, and in the realization that a lot of people not only accepted, but defended it. The attack is that we are always attacked.

Black women are routinely stripped of control of ourselves and our bodies.  We are “Little Q” on the red carpet.  We are “c-nts” on the internet.  We are “baby/honey/sugar/shorty with the fat ass” on the street as we go about our lives, minding our own business.  And when we open our mouths to speak against it all when it seems no one else will, we are charged to defend our defense of ourselves.

That Quvenzhané’s skin and gender are seen as permission to treat or call her however they wish is a jagged pill to swallow.  Let’s not get it twisted: calling Quvenzhané Wallis a “c-nt” is deplorable, but ignoring what she wants to be called and giving her some cutesy little nickname because you can’t be bothered to learn her name is every  bit as bad.

“Give your daughters difficult names,” Warsan Shire wrote. “Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name makes you want to tell me the truth. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right … Give your children difficult names, so the world may learn how to unfurl its tongue in the direction of our stolen languages.”

Beware of anyone who looks at you and says “I am going to call you what I want to call you in spite of what you call yourself;” they mean you no good, regardless of how big they smile at you when they say it.

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Brokey McPoverty

Brokey McPoverty, aka Tracy Clayton, is a writer and humorist from Louisville, KY. She currently writes for BuzzFeed and lives in Brooklyn. Follow her on Twitter.

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  • Hema

    I agree with the majority of this article, but disagree with the fact that it’s just about race. I’m an Indian woman who works in a bar where the clientele are predominantly black. Many people try to give me a different name or straight can’t be bothered to learn it. And these are black people with ‘difficult’ names too. Yet I do my best to learn theirs. So it’s not just a race thing (although that’s definitely part of it). It’s an arrogance thing. It’s a lazy, egocentric generation thing. Which brings me to your point that I wholeheartedly agree with- I’m just not worth the time and effort it takes to learn my name. Extreme arrogance! Wake up people! Our diversity serves our unity.

    • i’ve never understood the “but black people do it too” argument in conversations about race. you can’t discuss race without also discussing power. history matters; pointing out what black people do, in this argument, ignores history and power completely.

      • plasterandsand@gmail.com

        It looks like you completely ignored what Hema said. She’s not saying “but black people do it too”. She’s saying on a person to person basis, she experiences the same thing.

        • i didn’t ignore it so much as i colored it with some of my own bias. folly on my part.

          im very sensitive to the ‘it’s not (just) about race because it happens to me too’ interjections in this discussion. all kinds of people get their names mispronounced all the time, which i know. but i didnt want that fact to water down or downplay the effect to which this–Quvenzhane’s specific case–*is* a racially influenced phenomenon. my argument is not that this is ONLY about race; this article is a discussion of the ways in which it *is* about race.

          & of course, everyone deserves to have their names handled with care regardless of race or anything else. i hope i didn’t give the opposite impression.

    • Huma except that is still about race… It’s clearly something your patrons have been taught, “If something is not important enough to get right just find a shortcut, at the expense of this person’s respect.” I’ve had people of all ethnicities do the same to me so I understand.

  • Thanks for the article. The introduction helped me understand why it was that I couldn’t stomach taking my husband’s name when we got married. You articulated it well by making the connection with ownership & identity. I didn’t mean for the name issue to be a “feminist” issue. I couldn’t even put my finger on why having his name was so difficult for me (I took his name at first, but was miserable about it & eventually changed it).

    Something I couldn’t articulate about prodded me uncomfortably the whole time I went under his name. Eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and changed it. I’ve faced antagonism for it, but I can say it’s well worth it. I love him, but that wasn’t my identity.

  • Love, love, love this article. My real name is Alecia (pronounced ah-lee-see-ah), but damn if people don’t insist on calling me ah-lee-sha. And misspelling it in written correspondence, even though both my email address (and signature!) contain the correct spelling. Last fall I interned at a courthouse down in rural Georgia and when I met the judge, THIS happened:

    Me: Hi, my name is Ah-lee-see-ah.
    Judge: Alisha?
    Me: Ah-LEE-see-ah.
    Judge: How do you spell it?
    Me: A-l-e-c-i-a.
    Judge: Oh, Alisha.

    And he proceeded to walk off to the courtroom. I was so furious I couldn’t even speak. Fortunately, I spent most of my time in the staff attorney’s office and he never had cause to speak to me again, but I’ll never forget that moment.

    • Alecia

      I have the same name, spelling, and pronounciation. I get really bothered when I’m called Allison, Alexis, or Alisha. Happy to know I’m not by myself!

  • The name is unpronounceable, and is actually holding her child back.

    Excuse me, holding her back? From what? What is this child supposed to have done that she hasn’t done yet? What nine-year-old is she losing to? Are you implying that she would have won the Academy Award for Best Actress, instead of just getting nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress, if she were called Lauren?

    You do know she can’t be elected President for another quarter-century, right? That’s not her mother’s fault. That’s in the Constitution.

    Maybe when she gets out of middle school, she can become Secretary of State, like that woman, what’s her name….

    This is ridiculous. If she had a made-up name like Caylee or Jayden (or Apple) nobody would be freaking out. And her parents are obviously doing just fine.

    • also, the fact that she herself can pronounce her name kind of makes the argument that her name is ‘unpronounceable’ completely untrue.

      • Yes–I mean, you lay all of this out in your article, but the word really means “unfamiliar [to me]:” unsafe. She should have an unthreatening anglo name. Like Michelle Obama, who as we all know is never viewed as threatening by anyone, especially racist people.

    • mike3

      Trouble with this argument is that some might think the “name holds back” argument may have more force when applied to children who _haven’t_ achieved such levels of success, even though it doesn’t.

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  • This reminds me of those fairy tales where if someone takes your name, they gain power over you, but when they give it back you are enpowered.

  • che

    Great article. It was really inspiring to see Brokey lay it out so succinctly and to make explicit these very important, generally implicit — and therefore denied and deniable — connections between race and gender and the ongoing legacy of slavery. I was so stirred I took Brokey’s lead and wrote a blog post of my own about it. Keep up the great work…we need all the light we can get!

  • A.

    I agree with the majority of this article, but I think it’s worth mentioning that the “Annie” part was probably due to the recent news of her landing the role of the Annie movie remake, not any attempt on the reporter’s part to take anything away from Quvenzhané. Not to mention the reporter appears to be a woman of color herself so I really don’t like the comparisons to the laziness/disrespect on the part of Seacrest and others in white Hollywood.

    Also as someone with a “foreign” name herself (but born and raised in the U.S.), I’d like to point out that it’s not only a race issue, but often a “American” vs. “other” mindset that leads to these types of situations because frustrations re: my name happens just as frequently with other people of color.

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  • Chad

    Thanks for an insightful article. As one who didn’t watch the Oscars and one who has not been in on this debate to this point, I think it would be helpful if you included an indication of how her name should be pronounced.

    Having never heard it pronounced, and wanting to take your article seriously, it was difficult for me to continue reading her name without knowing what it *should* sound like.

  • Oh my… I’m probably in love with you! Well, at least your writing… Definitely!

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  • Efegholo Egbeighu

    After reading the responses to my post I find myself compelled to apologize for the ignorant things I previously said. I want to make it clear that I feel it is inappropriate to make value judgements on a person based on their name. I can’t deny that my earlier post was nothing but a sweeping and stupid value judgement on not just Quvenzhané Wallis’ name, but also an entire group of people’s names. This stupid over-generalization does indeed seem racist. I don’t want people to be prejudiced against me for my non-anglicized, foreign name; perhaps the first place to stop unfair biases is within myself. I have the power to stop prejudice by being less prejudiced.

    Quvenzhané Wallis has not been “held back” by her name, she is far more talented and accomplished than most people I know; namely myself. Her performance in “Beasts of the Southern Wild” was Oscar worthy. Her name makes her all the more memorable and unique. Above all she deserves to have her name pronounced correctly, just like everyone else. I have often said that my own name is “unpronounceable”, which is just an out I give people who say and spell it incorrectly. Deep down it hurts when people refuse to respect me by refusing to learn my name.

    I hope that my previous comment can be retracted. I am truly humbled in this moment. This is the first and last time I will ever reply to blogs. Sorry for my disrespect/ignorance/abrasiveness

    • Janet Thompson

      To Efegholo Egbeighu: Thank you for the beautiful apology you wrote. But please don’t learn from this that you should never reply to blogs again! The Effegholo Egbeighu who wrote that apology is fully capable of being a valued contributor to discussions such as this. Welcome back!

    • Janet Thompson

      P.S. to Efegholo Egbeighu: And now I apologize to you for misspelling your first name!

  • Tom

    Interesting article… It didn’t tell me how to pronounce it, so I googled and found this (http://jezebel.com/5982589/quevanzhane-wallis-adorably-teaches-us-how-to-pronounce-her-name) which indicates that she said her friends call her Q. I don’t think that dismisses the underlying point of your post, just putting that out there.

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