I was born in June of 1981. One of the hottest on record. It was four years since the premiere of Alex Haley’s ROOTS airing on ABC. I remember when I started school five years later, I remember that was the first time I was told this by another little girl in Ms. Algae’s kindergarten class at Bryan Hill Elementary School, Room 105, this:
“You gotta white girl name.”
In my five-year-old mind, I couldn’t understand the phrasing because I wasn’t anything close to white. In having a black girl tell me that my name was a white girl’s name, I went home to ask my mother what this all meant–this dirty business of names and color and black girl acceptability. In the age of burgeoning, edifying blackness–where every girl in my class had a name that either began or ended with an a, i, or y–I asked my mother why my name didn’t have an ‘a’ in it. My mother told me with the deft, perhaps with the same power Uzoamaka Aduba’s mother did when confronted with a similar question in the same time frame, told her puzzled daughter this–“I wanted you to be able to spell your name, that’s why.”
I don’t know why that quote settled my heart, but it did. Perhaps because it was my mother who didn’t regret naming me what she did–and amazed someone else’s black child would tell her black child she had a white girl name!
Now, this is not a dig towards the young woman that tweeted this. I mean, you can see what her name is. I know only a smattering of black girls named Britini/Britney/Brittany (insert other cool spellings here). I know even less black girls named Jennifer. I used tohate my name until I did just a little research…
My name has Welsh-Cornish roots from the name Guinevere–most notably Queen Guinevere from the Arthurian legend. I found out in middle school in German my name meant white fire. And in Welsh again, it meant white spirit, white wave. My name appears in a story for D.H. Lawrence in its traditional spelling. I found out from a professor whom asked me my name last year my name had two additional meanings from the first four letters and the last four letters: honeybee and poison.
I am aware of the politics that goes into naming a child, especially when that child is not white. The benefit of a name grants certain privileges. Don’t debate me on this. I am aware that some of the success that I have had in school and even professionally is because my name sounds less black.
However, this does not diminish my blackness nor will I allow it to be diminished. From that vantage point of being both child and mother now, I can tell five-year-old Jennifer this, and other little girls at this intersection:
That is her experience. She has never met a black girl, a girl that looks like her, without a name that didn’t sound like hers. You must understand, your name is a black girl’s name because you are a black girl. You control how people respect your name. You are a gorgeous black girl–don’t allow a little girl that doesn’t know you, to knock you off your square! You will encounter people like her all your life, without the benefit of the ignorance of youth. They will dislike you because you are smart, gifted, female and black all at once. You will encounter those who want to shorten your name to Jenny–don’t let them. Make them use their entire mouths to say your entire name. Don’t be ashamed of who you are! You are Jennifer, a black girl. Go forth and be amazing.
Now, I bristle when (white) people whom do not know me try and shorten my name to “Jenny” or “Jen”. I think of my foremothers and forefathers whose names were shortened from Virginia to Ginny or Teddy instead of Theodore–name shortening or nicknaming is a privilege few people get with me, partly because of this history.
What is in a name, indeed. What I have learned in this journey of names and naming is there will always be those who will try to classify me based on these first eight letters they read.
But its not what they call me, it’s what I answer to–and it’ll never be Jenny.