I love it when doyens of freedom of expression such as Eminem(yes, really) compose songs that land themselves to good use in the wonderful world of literature. If you don’t know who he is or his critically acclaimed hit ‘My Name Is’ I suggest you leave it at that because obviously cultural art laced with a few profanities is not your thing, and we don’t want you blaming me for introducing you to Mr Marshall Mathers III if you are not ready for him. Just in case you are wondering, I’m only borrowing the title of his song, ‘My Name Is’, and not the lyrical content.
I’ve never really had a heart-to-heart with my dad as to why he christened me Sydney, but I’ve always answered to various versions of the name. Sidi, Masidi, Syd, and the streetwise Signature, said with more emphasis on the –nature part, Sig-NATURE. If you really wanted to prove your township street-cred to me you would call me M-sig-Naro. And lest I forget, Smith, like you would normally say Smith, no twisted phonetics there. But that’s just it, I am Sydney, I own the name, in all its varieties. So what, you are asking yourself, or you should be if you’re not.
On two occasions recently I’ve been ‘insulted’ on social networks (okay, Facebook) for answering to a ‘colonial’ name, Sydney. On both occasions I’ve simply let the insults slide because I considered the insults water off a duck’s back. Only, I couldn’t resist raising my silent (or is it invisible) middle finger to those people. For me, once a person resorts to insults in the course of a discussion then it says more about their (flawed) character than yours and it’s best to exit the discussion with your dignity and reputation intact. I find my silent mental insults more dignified. Besides, I find it a whole lot easier to apologize for a mental insult if it turns out it was misdirected, silently.
Imagine my indignation this week when a Facebook post of an acquaintance sent my mind scuttling back to those two insults. The essence of the post was “if there is a black parent in South Africa today giving their child an English name then there is something wrong with them”(read ‘mentally enslaved’). This was a third insult and I could not let it go unanswered, three-strikes-theory sort of thing. Pent up anger is dangerous, I might raise more than my middle finger if I ever meet those individuals so I decided to do what any self-respecting writer would do, WRITE about it. Cathartic I tell you.
Look, I’m well aware of the role words have played in the continued subjugation of people throughout the world. Virtually every former colony’s vocabulary has a word that when used against the indigenous or oppressed population conjures up years and years of denigration and countless insults.
Names being words could not escape the bastardization that human beings seem to impart to everything they touch or look at. Like Maya Angelou put it in her short story, “My name is Margaret”: “Every person I knew had a hellish horror of being “called out of his name.” It was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting because of the centuries of their having been called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots and spooks”.
The only reason I’m responding to the said insults is because the people doing the insulting have taken on a mantle of being self-appointed spokespeople of the Black Consciousness philosophy, seeing as the demise of formal structures like the Black Consciousness Movement left the philosophy without formal custodians. Like every well-meaning philosophy or religion, Black Consciousness has not escaped being twisted to imprison those that it originally sought to liberate . It’s only a matter of time before children are abducted in the name of ‘freeing black people from colonial mentality’.
First things first, the liberation struggle has its boundaries. There are boundaries that it cannot and must not cross. I’m reluctant to quote the US Declaration of Independence for fear of being accused of being a ‘House Negro’ who has been culturally brainwashed to think Uncle Sam has an answer to everything. I bring this up because the right to name your offspring is not a legal one nor a cultural one, it cannot be dictated to by a phase of struggle or life philosophy, it is a natural right, an inalienable right. The words ‘unalienable/inalienable rights’ have come to be synonymous with the said Declaration of Independence, but are available for use to everyone, even those bearing colonial marks on their foreheads or Identification cards.
Some very enterprising parents have chosen to name their offspring after liberation heroes, so a Samora (Machel) is not uncommon. Some have chosen to name their children Freedom and Liberty, using the African version of the names of course. I know you’ve focused on Samora, Liberty and Freedom but the operative word there is ‘chosen’. The right to choose a name for your offspring, be it English, Xhosa, Tsonga or Russian is a right that must never be linked to legal rights.
In the course of fighting for a people’s liberation it is very tempting to want to become a custodian of ‘their total liberation’ because they cannot see that they are oppressed. Big mistake. The total liberation of a nation cannot come from outside, like personal liberation it has to come from inside. A liberator is one who would ‘educate’ the oppressed and lead them in the direction of their choice or urging, not one who anoints himself or herself to the point of declaring ‘English names are a sign of mental slavery’.
These self-anointed exponents of Black Consciousness or Pan Africanism are always on about how ‘you’ve let the enemy live inside your mind if…1) you give your child an English name, 2) appreciate elements of western culture etc. The list is endless. Yet no one judges them when they extract what they can from Western culture but condemn others when they do the same. Hypocrites!
Personally I’ve always been suspicious of anyone who boasts about something they had no part in acquiring. Maybe your parents named you Kunta Kinte or Sandile for instance, yes it’s African, but what freaking role did you play in acquiring the name?
Lest I sound like an angry child deprived of his favourite treat, I wish to indicate to you that I absolutely love beautiful names, African or otherwise. Both kids that I have been blessed with the opportunity to call mine bear African names, more than one in both cases. But the naming of my children was never a site for the struggle of the emancipation of colonially enslaved African minds. They were simply names that meant the world to me and my family.
I might add that our first-born, in addition to his two African names also answers to an English name. The reasons for him bearing that name would never in a million years be subject to “mental emancipation rules”, I would give him the name over and over and over again and …, you get the point, right?
Like I said, I don’t know why my old man chose to name me Sydney but I absolutely respect his right to have called me what he chose to call me, political and cultural emancipation not withstanding. I will proudly answer to that name and all its versions till my walk on this earth is concluded.
For those who choose to use the naming of their offspring as a site of cultural and post-colonial struggle, good luck to them. I respect their right to ’emancipate their minds’, my dearest wish is that they could respect everyone else’s right to do the same, choose what to call their children freely. Choosing without the threatening insult of being declared a ” colonial slave”.
Which makes me think, surely there is a word in literature somewhere for one who sees the enemy in every corner they look, imaginary or real? This enemy lives in the mind of the said ‘liberators’ that they find a reason to fight for liberation everywhere: in love, in the bedroom, in the naming of their offspring. These people are seduced by the idea of a struggle, a struggle against an enemy that lives in their minds whispering, “fight, fight, fight, fight…”.
Emancipate yourself from mental slavery….