My Name is My Name

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My Name is My Name

Books That Place Significance in Names

Names can often carry heavy significance. They can be descriptive, oppressive or liberating. Here are some stories that actively or passively, do interesting things with naming.

Ms. Marvel Volume 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
In comics, it is not uncommon for superheroes to bestow their monikers unto another or for another to temporarily wear a hero’s mask. Sometimes it’s a short storyline to spice things up, and sometimes it’s permanent. There have been several Robins, Spider-Men other than Peter Parker and several Green Lanterns. So while Kamala Khan taking up the “Ms. Marvel” title vacated by Carol Danvers may not seem significant, it’s quite revolutionary. You see, Danvers is a white, blond womanthe archetypal American female image that is worshiped domestically and exported to the rest of the world. Kamala is not. She is brown, Muslim, and American. Yet, she is still Ms. Marvel, just as Danvers was. The name carries weight. (There’s a whole bunch of cool superhero stuff, too.)
 
“Jeff” from Large Animals by Jess Arndt
What’s the real difference between “Jess” and “Jeff”? How significant are the “ss” instead of the “ff”? Can such a minute distinction change how someone is defined, how someone sees themself? Can someone really like “Jeff” that much more than “Jess” even if they’re the same person? In this short story, Arndt’s narrator is mistakenly called “Jeff” and this mistaken identity seems to follow her everywhere.  It haunts her. People even seem disappointed when she says she isn’t Jeff. It’s a charming yet despondent dive into the relationship between our names and our bodies. It’s a story about those who are queer, gender-fluid, nonconforming, whose names and bodies aren’t in (cis) harmony and whose names or identities don’t quite fit the ones we want to place upon them.
 
“The Church Fight” by Ruth Gaines-Shelton from Black Theater USA edited by James V. Hatch
Here is the list of characters for “The Church Fight”: Ananias, Investigator, Judas, Parson Procrastinator, Sapphira, Instigator, Meddler, Experience, Take-It-Back and Two-Face. If you have even a faint familiarity with black churches, then you can probably figure out what this play is about: church politics. One of the earliest plays written by black women, it’s not a dramatic focus on racism like almost every other black play of the time, but a satirical take on the often petty, bitter infighting amongst church goers. Even if it’s about as subtle as a Tyler Perry production, it’s a funny and interesting glimpse into early black theatre outside of the prism of racism.
 
Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
The unnamed black protagonist is a nomenclature consultant, one who names things for a living. He is hired to choose a new name for the town of Winthrop (or keep it unchanged if he decides). His choices are “New Prospera,” a name that evokes a sense or prosperity and good fortune, and “Freedom,” the original name of the town when it was founded by newly freed blacks. This is no trivial matter. From the town name, to the characters, to the various products our protagonist names for his job, names signify in a very Morrisonian way. It’s a very funny, interesting book about power of names. It’s pretty good.
                                                                                                            
The Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Speaking of Morrison, her third novel places a huge emphasis on names, official written ones as well as ones that are spoken, like nicknames. Our official names can often be oppressive, especially for black people. Like Macon Dead, we often carry names the names given to us by white slave owners and passed on to each successive generation. Our nicknames and colloquial names are often more descriptive and carry more meaning. That is what is at the heart of this book, shedding your oppressive name and finding your real one.