For someone who is still a long way from the prospect of marriage, I spend an excessive amount of time thinking about what I am going to name my children.
It’s a thought that crosses my mind more often when I’m required to confront the complexity of my own name. Like on FDOC, when professors take attendance and stop dead in their tracks upon reaching my name on the roster.
“Adew…yeah, I’m not even going to try that one. Do you go by something else?”
I usually respond to this with a feigned smile and insist that they call me Yemi—which people still get wrong sometimes. I rarely point out that my full name is pronounced phonetically, because it seems to embarrass people when they realize that any human being who has completed the first grade should be capable of saying my name.
But I still take pride in my name. For me, it symbolizes the importance of a culture that has impacted my beliefs, values and aspirations. And that’s something I don’t want my children to forget.
So, for a long time, I used to think that, if I ever had a daughter, I would have to name her Oluwadamilola. Not because I particularly like the translation—“The Lord gives me wealth”—but because it would be easy for her to truncate while still having a decidedly ethnic name to remind her of her roots. Rather than having to hear her beautiful name tossed dangerously between unprepared tongues and palates, she could conveniently adopt the last part, Lola, as her primary moniker in everyday settings. It’s unassuming enough that, when she introduces herself to strangers, she would not stick out like a foreign sore thumb. People would tell her that her name was “pretty” rather than “exotic,” and no one would think to ask her where she was from originally—and when we go on family vacations, she would have a fighting chance at locating a keychain with her name on it at a souvenir shop.
It wasn’t until recently that I came to terms with the inherent paradox in my reasoning. As a citizen of a country that champions cultural diversity, why am I compelled to efface parts of an identity to fit into a more conventional mold? It could be that Leti Volpp was right—perhaps being a citizen requires us to rid ourselves of “cultural excess.” But I hope to God that she’s wrong.
I don’t want my children to have to deal with the social complexities of being an African in America. I don’t want them to constantly feel like a minority within a minority group. I want them to be able to proudly display their names on resumes without fearing it will hinder their chances of getting the job.
But, despite my best efforts to protect them, they will still have to confront their identity on their own at some point. They may wonder why people make fun of their names or why people feel the need to ask if they speak the “click” language.
But I trust they will have the good sense to exercise their right to be different without giving up their right to belong. This is easier said than done, because they will be born into a society that, by default, holds these rights to be mutually exclusive.
And maybe it is naive of me to think that my children will face the same social obstacles I face today. As an African immigrant, I may never fully understand the experience of a black American. Laying claim to an identity requires me to simultaneously take on the history and heritage codified in that identity. For me, my heritage lies in Nigeria, in the Yoruba tribe. But I have spent the majority of my life in America, and sometimes I am not sure how heavily I am expected to weigh my Nigerian identity in relation to the other identities I lay claim to.
Race and ethnicity can often feel like a performance. For an African navigating different cultural spaces, the spotlight seems to scrutinize every word, action and thought of the players who are forced onto the main stage. But I feel as though my education affords me the privilege of awareness about these constructed identities. Is it really an advantage to know what one’s identity means in the world? Maybe ignorance really is bliss, and not knowing allows us to detach ourselves from the invisible expectations that society creates for us.
Perhaps I should just pray that my children are born into a society where they will be given the chance to define themselves.
Adeyemi Adewuyi is a Trinity sophomore. His column is the second installment in a semester-long series of biweekly columns written by members of the Black Student Alliance.