By now, many of us have heard about the ugly insult hurled at the wonderful Quvenzhané Wallis, who, by virtue of being talented and Black at the same time, has become another symbol representing our society’s insufferable addiction to misogyny and racism (among other things). Even more unfortunately, what happened to Quvenzhané is not surprising, and some would say, in many cases expected. Frankly, our country, and accordingly its national consciousness, is afflicted with the diseases of racism, homophobia, and misogyny, and so violent jokes shrouded in the excuses of satire are merely symptomatic of deeper and more troubling issues that must be resolved. But what I think was so particularly insidious about what happened to Quvenzhané, and what struck a cord with many Black folks, was that she was slighted in a way that speaks to all of us. She was called “out of her name.”
Our names hold some of the greatest weight of who we are. Our names, like our race, are usually decided for us, and yet we come to love and cherish our names. Our names are often the first way we begin to share ourselves with the people in our lives. When we give our name, be it our birth name, a nickname, or a changed name, we are setting the terms and the standards by which people should interact with us. It is our names, and our relationship to them, which allow us to apprehend the world. What I allow you to call me is a manifestation of how I behold myself.
Now, for Black people especially, names gain a different and more resonate gravity. We have a heritage wherein our names were often negligible, and we were reduced to being called ‘boy,’ ‘nigger’ or ‘mammie’ regardless of what care our parents took to name us. For many of us, our last names carry the legacy of slave owners. Even today, part of society’s great joke about Black people is the tendency to make a mockery of the names we have given to our children, particularly our little girls. We are constantly fighting to be called by our rightful names, and not be forced into stereotypes and archetypes created by some strange someone elsewhere.
Thus, Quvenzhané Wallis, who has continuously told people on camera how to pronounce her name, was also assaulted by another attempt to rename her; an effort to steal away the beauty of her own name and presence in the service of “comedy.”
But appropriately, many responded with love, and that’s what should be remembered about this moment. What we must learn is that we must be diligent about our names. We must be diligent about what we respond to, and we must be steadfast in cultivating and retaining the right to our names. In these strange and frustrating moments, we must remind ourselves who we really are, and who we always were.