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Archive for the tag “Uganda”

How I Fell in Love with “Shaniqua”: Why African-Americans DON’T Need New Names

I spent my formative years in the small predominately black city of East Saint Louis, Illinois.  I grew up with friends whose names were Shaunta, Kwintessa, LaCreshia, Tameka, Ariana, Tanisha, and Miesha.  The boys who chased us had names like Lamont, Tyrone, Demetrius, Terrell, Malik, Darnell and Jamal. Everything about what we called each other felt right.  These were our names and we carried them with pride, correcting pronunciation when warranted, enunciating each consonant and vowel, spelling it when the listener didn’t return the right phonetic sounds associated with our identity.     

It wasn’t until I moved to the suburbs that I realized the shame that had been misappropriated upon such names.  How both black and white folks with plainer names snickered at those of us who had more intricately “ethnic” names. It was when I shared classrooms with the Sarahs, Emilys, Kates, Connors, Dustins and Lukes that I embraced nicknames—dropping “-nique” and adding an extra “e” to “Ze” or taking on the highly regarded Buddhist term which also happens to be the first syllable of my name. 

As I got older and my social circles continued to diversify, I became more lenient about how others referred to me, readily offering “Zee” as an alternative during quick introductions and in insignificant small-talk interactions. 

Then, last year, these things happened:

  • A reporter dismissed Quvenzhane’ Wallis’ name altogether and wanted to call her by the character she will play in an upcoming movie   
  • Following that debacle, this quote from Somali poet, Warsan Shire surfaced:

“Give your daughters difficult names.

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.”

  • At an event, a stranger scolded me when I allowed a man to automatically shorten my name after I had uttered my full first name to him twice
  • I spent two weeks in Nigeria and attended a workshop in Lagos with Damilola, Okechukwu, Timendu, Kelechi, Arinze, and Uchenna who represented the Igbo, Yoruba, and Hausa tribes
  • And then I went to Uganda for three months and hung out with Margaret, Ruth, Alice, Ben, Mark, and Alex – my Baganda, Bakiga, and Acholi friends who preferred their “Christian” names versus the names of their ancestors
  • I had a conversation with a close Ugandan friend who gave her daughter an African name after a talk with her husband where he suggested that they give their children African names. She quoted his question, “Why should we take on the names of white people? Would they take on ours?”

Somewhere in the midst of these experiences, I began to see the beauty of African-American names, both subtle and extreme.  Yes, even the stereotypical “black” names that are used in sitcoms and parodies—the Shananaes and Shaniquas and Tyrones; the names we chuckle at when reading it on applications and Facebook profiles; the names we laugh and ask, “Now what were his/her parents thinking about when they named that child that?”

I will tell you what they were probably thinking: They were probably thinking of a unique and royal title for their child—something strong, significant, and complicated, much like our history, our legacy, our obstacles.  They were probably thinking of a name that curls and catches on the tongue with the clicks and slits reminiscent of the languages we lost long ago.  They were probably proud of their blackness, their heritage, their culture and they made the decision NOT to give in to the societal pressures of dumbing down a name to something common and insignificant to appease the naysayers.

Today, I think these names deserve an apology and applause—even if only in our hearts and even if these are names that we wouldn’t choose for our own children. Let us uplift the parents who are brave enough to bestow such a brand of names on their children who, in turn, should be able to bear them proudly.       

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Confession in a Parked Car

Day 4. a poetry class journal entry. Circa 2009

 

There is only stale air and failed words

Between us

There has been no truth for days

Now silence

Endless deliberation

Be honest or tell lies?

Lies

That have fallen flat for days

And widened the chasm

Between us

He sits up straight

Separated

only by the inches

Between us

Steering wheel in hand,

His head low,

He confessed.

I cried.

Four months apart

Had been too long.

Of Silent Types

Day 3. Poetry. Circa 2009.

Lately,

I have tried to refrain

from saying I love you

and, instead, be like you.

Lately, I see

that love ain’t about

the words formed

in my mouth

or in cursive

on little lime-green post-its

that I have placed

in your brown bagged lunch with chips,

but on your face

and in your eyes

when you pick me up

on rainy days.

The (Online) Diary of a Mad Black Mzungu

For those of you who don’t know, my title is a spin off of the Tyler Perry movie, “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”  I’m not really “mad”.

Today is the first day of my Indiegogo campaign, The Black American Mzungu Literary Project, to raise funds for my trip to East Africa and to reopen a school for Ugandan girls with special needs in Mukono.  Ironically, this is also my first entry on this blog page which I started five years ago while studying in Uganda the first time.  Because of the campaign and because my time away is solely about writing, I thought it would be a great idea to give myself a weekly assignment of keeping an online diary where I can keep folks informed on what’s happening with me as well as make a personal writing commitment where I am somewhat held accountable by others.

Blogging has always been a little daunting for me– especially when you are considering submitting work to be published widely.  How does one decide which thoughts or moments are fit for an online rant versus a real story that could be later developed into something substantial and meaningful?   Does blogging imply that you think so highly of your thoughts and writing that you want it on the web for everyone to see? Will I feel like a loser if my only followers are my parents and siblings who wouldn’t necessarily read my rants, but have to follow me just because it’s the right thing to do?

Truth is, it’s hard for me to write so openly, so regularly.  I do, however, frequently journal (is that a verb? If not, you know what I mean)– it has helped me sort out my thoughts and frustrations over the years and has also been a great reference when writing about my time in Africa.  I find that keeping a journal (the old-school leather -bound books of lined paper– I faithfully use Moleskines, btw) is one of the most stress-relieving exercises one can commit to.  I believe it so much, in fact, that I recently inquired about leading an extracurricular journal writing workshop with the incoming students of the Uganda Studies Program later this fall for which I was approved.

But to blog on the internet, whether it is an open or private forum, means to be vulnerable with both friends and strangers about what I feel.  It means I have to decide if I will censor my thoughts or be candid about my views, and with whatever I decide, be okay with the feedback that comes along with it. IF, that is, there is any feedback at all.  What if no one cares about what I have to say? Will that be the ego-bruising moment for me? To log on and see that there is no one following, no one reading, no one commenting?

I’ve been contributing to 215mag.com, a digital magazine in Philadelphia, for over a year now and a few things I’ve learned are 1. write your best 2. proofread your work 3. build an audience 4. be ready for scrutiny.   I am still working on the 3 & 4, but these days I think I am ready to strut my stuff online– whether my audience is 1 or 1000.  I think I can handle readers’ comments– whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent.  I’m not sure what my theme will be yet, but I think it’s cool to figure that out along the way.

So here it goes– from journaling in Moleskines to blogging online, my life is really about to be an open book.

 

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