“I’m not the name you call me but the name I answer to.”
I first heard this phrase during a church service at First AME in Los Angeles several years ago. The statement gave me pause. From then on, I decided to choose to which names I answer. I realized that answering to some of the more deragatory names gives the caller power — allowing him/her to define who I am. I will have none of that.
Here are some of the names I’ve been called over the years and my answer to each one:
Athletic – A couple of people called me this name — a colleague and a fellow volunteer. My muscles certainly aren’t bulging thorough my outfits but I do have rather pronounced calves and a decent butt. How did I get this fabulous physique [insert laughter]? Well, I haven’t been to the gym in a while but I do bicep, tricep, and deltoid work. Plies and tondues for the legs. What about the abs, you ask? Some standing core work but that’s about it. My abs are the least toned part of my body. Perfection is so yesterday.
All-American – When given this name several years ago during my pre-natural hair stage, I was quite baffled. A middle-class white woman, former Wall Street investment banker, calling me “All American?” The moniker seemed more appropriate for a girl called Suzy rather than Carla Ray. I am an American — no hyphen needed. But do I embody what is considered All American — bland, homogenous, middle of the road, suburban? I think not.
Christian – I believe in God. In my everday day life, I base my decisions on “What Would Jesus Do?” But am I a “Christian” in the hard-core fundamentalist sense of the word? I am not so certain. If the deifinition of Christian is “caring and charitable with a focus on God as one’s source of strength and supply,” then I am a Christian.
Hustler – My uncle called me this name. He found my ability to find work quickly in a town — Montgomery – where I knew no one — quite puzzling to say the least. I guess he assumed that I must be pulling a fast one. Not so. I am a “hustler” but not in the barely legitmate, back-room dealing, gold-chain wearing sense. The “hustler” that is me is hard-working, perservering, enterprising, seizing on every opportunity presented and creating opportunities where none exist. Yeah, I am a “hustler” baby.
Articulate – Oh, the other “A-word” . Usually, I am called “articulate” by well-meaning whites who believe they are giving me a compliment. And in truth, they are. I am never called “articulate” by blacks. When I speak, many black people just look at me oddly, like I am a mutant of the Negro race or a sistah from another planet, just passing through until my spaceship arrives. Or they the become quite annoyed at my very presence and start speaking to me in harsh tone of “Who the hell do you think you are b**ch? My people. My people.
N**ger – Yes, I have been called, the Ultimate Epithet. Three times in my life. All from passing cars. The locations: Bergen County, NJ, Evanston, IL and Marina del Rey, CA. Never in Montgomery, Alabama where I lived for over five years. And no, I am nobody’s n**ger.
Nappy-Headed – Finally, who knew that nappy-headed would become an N-word. For the uninformed, like the other N-word, the word, ” nappy-headed” is used widely used in the black community. It’s an example of black self-loathing. Coarse — nappy-hair — according to most in the black community — is bad hair, undesirable hair. And the good hair? Curly, straight, soft and long — anything but nappy. Years ago, while in graduate school, I produced a documentary about hair called The Root of It All. It featured a group of black women talking about the subject. And a sensitive subject it is. The word “nappy-headed” reminds many of us of the earliest rejection of our beauty. And this rejection didn’t come from strangers or the random white man with a mic but from family and close friends. Am I nappy-headed? Yes, and proud of it. I love my coarse resilient natural hair. No one will make me ashamed of it.