“Say it Right”: Unpacking the Cultural Significance of Names

July 27th, 2018

Ever since author Matthew Kay read abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech about the scourge of slavery, it’s been stuck in his mind. With its eloquent and unsparing accusation that the United States was betraying its very essence by perpetuating slavery, Douglass called for Americans to confront the country’s “revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy.” Kay draws on his nearly ten years of teaching high school English and leading discussions on race to write Not Light, but Fire: How to Lead Meaningful Race Conversations in the Classroom. He shares actual classroom discussions on such topics as the N-word, cultural appropriation, and pop-up conversations about sensitive, timely topics. In this excerpt, he talks about how he tackled the thought-provoking topic of names.

“Say it Right”: Unpacking the Cultural Significance of Names
By Matthew Kay

My mother Sherrill Kay taught third- and fourth-graders at Loesche Elementary in Philadelphia for thirty-six years. Each year, she would ask students to bring in a dish that represented their cultural identity and describe it to the class. When it was my class’s turn, it resulted in a feast of revelations. I had my first potato latkes with applesauce, my first curries. It was fascinating that my friends, when they went home to be with their own people, ate these different foods. Everyone lived in their own tasty universe, foreign from mine…and if they ate different things, what else did they do that was different?

As I grew up, this perspective stuck with me: somewhere, even close to my home, people are doing things differently than I am, and these things are as normal to them as my habits/values/routines are to me. This stance undergirds both the humility and empathy needed to engage in loaded conversations about race.

It instilled in me the importance of making time to actually appreciate our differences.

In my own high school English class, every couple of days, we pick a different element of culture—names, languages, music, art, religion, etc.—and we discuss the contributions made by these elements to our own cultural identities. If properly executed, these exchanges encourage students to thoughtfully challenge any lingering fear of differences.

We started with names, and I asked students to write about their relationship with their name. Did they like it? Not like it? Are they aware of its meaning? How has their name affected their movement through the world?

To spark the discussion, I handed out an elegant poem, “My Namesake,” by Hiwot Adilow, a former mentee:

i am tired of people asking me to smooth my name out for them,
they want me to bury it in the english so they can understand.
i will not accommodate the word for mouth,
i will not break my name so your lazy english can sleep its tongue on top,
fix your lips around it.
no, you can’t give me a stupid nickname to replace this gift of five letters.
try to pronounce it before you write me off as
lil one,
afro,
the ethiopian jawn,
or any other poor excuse of a name you’ve baptized me with in your weakness.
my name is insulted that you won’t speak it.
my name is a jealous god–
i kneel my english down everyday and offer my begging and broken amharic
to be accepted by this lord from my parents’ country.
this is my religion.
you are tainting it.
every time you call me something else you break it and kick it—
you think you’re being clever by turning my name into a cackle?
“hewhat?”
“hewhy?”
“he when how he what who?”
my name is not a joke!
this is more than wind and the clack of a consonant.
my father handed me this heavy burden of five letters decades before i was born.
with letters, he tried to snatch his ethiopia back from the middle of a red terror.
he tried to overthrow a fascist.
he was thrown into prison,
ran out of his home—
my name is a frantic attempt to save a country.
it is a preserved connection,
the only line i have leading me to a place i’ve never been.
it is a boat,
a plane,
a vessel carrying me to earth i’ve never felt.
i speak myself closer and closer to ethiopia by wrapping myself in this name.
this is my country in ink.
my name is the signature at the end of the last letter before the army comes,
it is the only music left in the midst of torture and fear,
it is the air that filled my father’s lungs when he was released from prison,
the inhale that ushers in beginning.
my name is a poem,
my father wrote it over and over again.
it is the lullaby that sends his homesickness to bed—
i refuse to break myself into dust for people too weak to carry my name in their mouths.
take two syllables of your time to pronounce this song of mine,
it means life,
you shouldn’t treat a breath as carelessly as this.
cradle my name between your lips as delicately as it deserves—
it’s Hiwot,
say it right.

Then I showed a clip of her reading the poem in her viral 2012 YouTube video. We watched the video twice: the first time just to enjoy and absorb, the second time to highlight the lines of her poem that the students related to. I asked them to pair off and share their selected lines with their partners. The hum of conversation was predictable, but after a few seconds, started to rise exponentially. Not quite realizing what was going on because I had turned my back to cue up the next video source, I gently admonished them to keep it down. Then, after a minute, another burst of sound caught my attention. I turned to see my students—every one—engrossed in fifteen of the most focused one-on-one conversations I’d ever seen.

In Not Light, but Fire, you can find out how Kay moves this classroom discussion forward, as students explore ethnic names, nicknames, “passing,” concatenated names, “ghetto” names, and more.

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