Naming – and calling it like it is

I’ve used numerous blog posts to focus on words and their meanings, usage, and etymologies. It’s interesting to see how words develop and how their use and people’s feelings about the “proper” usage can cause heated debates and fierce controversies, such as with the words alright vs. all right and anxious vs. eager.

Names and naming can also cause controversies, as we see what Michael Hanchard describes as a correlation between the politics of language, the politics of meaning, and the realpolitik” (“Identity, Meaning, and the African American” 230). Chants and signs at recent civil discourse rallies (protesting institutionalized racism and police brutality) have changed from calling out the name of George Floyd (the black man killed by police officers in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020) to “Say My Name.” This post discusses some insights by a former Writing Workshop participant and some important essays in the area of naming – and calling it like it is.

The workshop participant, a memoirist and letter writer, shared a couple letters she wrote recently. One was a letter to the official magazine of her sorority which had recently begun acknowledging its history of racism. The writer recounted her experience in the early 1960s, when the national organization expelled a chapter for allowing a black woman to join. At that time, she had stood up in her chapter meeting urging that they petition to the national organization to reconsider their decision. She was met with silence, so she decided to write on her own.

The second letter is one she wrote to her granddaughter for her 10th birthday. It recounts the memoirist’s experiences around that age when she was living in the Montgomery, Alabama, in the 1950s. The conscientiousness and activism of the young college student had its root in the child. She saw the evidence and effects of racism and even then sought ways to speak up, to make a difference.

Intellectually, she “knew about ‘segregation’ laws that forced Black people to keep separate from whites. Signs ‘COLORED’ or ‘WHITE ONLY’” – but when she encountered the discriminatory instances, she reacted viscerally with horror and shame. In the same way, she felt it was “horrid disrespect” that they called their cook by her first name: “Children in those days called adults who were not relatives either Mr., Mrs., or Miss. Adults also called other adults who they didn’t know well by the same titles.  But back then, even in the North, whites called African American adults by their first names as if they were children.”

The chants and the memoir pieces recall to mind the widely anthologized essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “What’s in a Name?” (originally published in Dissent Magazine, Fall 1989). Many people know Gates as the host (since 2012) of the PBS television series Finding Your Roots. Gates is also a Distinguished Professor at Harvard and Director of its Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

In the essay, Gates relates an incident when he was walking at about 5 or 6 years of age with his father. They encountered a white man, Mr. Wilson (who “uncannily resembled” Gates’ Uncle Joe) and who always spoke to his father (and his father always spoke to him). The young Gates is puzzled that Mr. Wilson calls his father “George”:

“Doesn’t he know your name Daddy? Why don’t you tell him your name? Your name isn’t George.”

He knows my name, boy,” my father said after a long pause. “He calls all colored people George.”

Gates’ essay (and memory) was sparked by an article by Trey Ellis “Remember My Name” (in the Village Voice, June 13, 1989) that listed pejorative terms for blacks, including darky, Tar Baby, spook, porch monkey, homeboy, and George.

Taking issue with what he calls a dichotomy that scholars and commentators construct between these names/namings which are “the superstructures of black social experience” and the “real problems at the base, Hanchard claims that one cannot separate a racial epithet from the social context in which it is uttered:

“Certainly an n, i, double g, e, and r in unlinear sequence has not, in itself, harmed anyone. What has brought harm are the violent intentions that this linguistic ensemble mediates and the physical violence that often accompanies its use.” (233)

As discussed, the name of George Floyd became a rallying cry for equality and justice. But as BBC.com news noted on June 7, 2020, other names have been chanted by protestors, including Breonna Taylor (a health worker shot eight times by police who entered her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky on 13 March, 2020). In particular, “[activists are calling on people to “Say Her Name” as part of a movement to remember black women who have not attracted the same attention as other cases.”

This brings up the complicated intersections in a society, indeed a world, which is racist and misogynist. It was only with my most recent re-reading of Gates’ powerful essay that I realized that this essay leaves out black women, despite – or maybe because of – the words of Gates’ father: “He calls all colored people George.” Surely, black women were not being called George, though they may have been called by their first names, or by “Mamie,” or by whatever name the white employers decided to call them (as the memoirist noted).

The other classic and frequently anthologized essay called to mind is Barbara Lawrence’s “Four-Letter Words Can Hurt You” (originally published in The New York Times on October 27, 1973). Lawrence, who wrote frequently on questions of language, was a professor of language and literature at the State University of New York at Old Westbury. In her essay, she talks about how obscenities, especially those “four-letter words,” dehumanize people in general, and women in particular, by reducing them to purely physical terms.

Since the essay was first published, the use of crude language has become even more commonplace and even seen as “liberating,” but Lawrence’s deconstruction of their meanings show that our objections should not be considered simply in terms of outdated middle class prudery or feminist anger. In particular, she examines the sources and functions of “the best known of the tabooed sexual verbs” (without naming it), as well as those of its equivalents like “screw” “bang.” Lawrence shows that in its origins and imagery these words are brutal and “carry undeniably painful, if not sadistic, implications, the object of which is almost always female.”

As we begin to confront systemic racism, we should keep in mind her assertion that sexual vulgarisms and obscenities also deform identity, deny individuality and humanness, and promote violence in ways similar to racial and ethnic pejoratives. We need to “Say Her Name” as well as his name and the names of all victims of systemic discrimination.

Returning to my Writing Workshop memoirist, she also met Rosa Parks, who was an “alterations lady” at the fancy Montgomery department store and who helped her mother with sewing projects at home. As a 10-year old, she didn’t pay much attention to Parks, but she knew she was different: “she spoke like any other educated lady, so she seemed like one of Mother’s friends.” And she was always “Mrs. Parks.”

What is in a name – and how and when we say it? Naming – and calling it as it is.

(Hanchard’s essay appears as Chapt. 12, Dangerous Liaisons; Gates’ essay accessed in PDF; Lawrence’s essay is available in a preview through Google Books; Letters of Sarah Walker Birn, Writing Workshop memoirist, [Feb. 2020 and June 2020 unpublished at date of blog]; BBC.com/news.)

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