My full name is Bolaji Aduke Odunola Ayeni Williams.
Williams is not my “real” surname. When my father Bolanle was studying for his PhD, he decided to change it to something more Easily Pronounceable to satisfy a sometimes unforgiving North American culture where Unusual Names automatically designate you as “Other.”
Our family surname is Elegbeyele. We’re descendents of a somewhat impressive African lineage that doesn’t necessarily include slavery. I’m part Nigerian and part Jamaican on my mother’s side. [Yes, it is unusual for Jamaican women to marry Nigerian men. No, my father is not a polygamist]. My name means "born into prosperity." I have two sisters, both of whom have African names, Aiyemobisi [Bisi], and Bosede.
My husband, Djen also has a “different” and “unusual” name, as do our children, Ayomi Real and Jola’de Love [Jola]. That’s right, “Real Love” like the Mary J. Blige tune. You can practically see people break into a cold sweat when Djen makes the first of several introductions of his name. The “D” is silent.
By choosing these names for our children, my husband and I are apparently setting ourselves up to be the object of scorn or ridicule on parenting websites where the biggest joke is the “unfortunate” child who has been “saddled” and “burdened” by her hippyfied, “cre8tive” parents who have deigned to give their offspring a “yoonique” name.
Thing is, I’m biased. And I happen to like my name. A lot.
I was born and raised in Winnipeg, Manitoba Canada. Our family was maybe 1 of 3 or 4 Black families in our community straight through from kindergarten to high school. As a result, we had friends from every shade and hue and diverse background imaginable. To say that our multi-cultural existence was “no big deal” is to say that we were not particularly ostracized or singled-out for being Black.
When it came to our names, however, let’s just say that this is where the fun began! If you’ve ever heard a western Nigerian person speak, you might be familiar with the sing-song cadence that manifests as a slight lilt in the voice. I find it quite beautiful. This is why I love the way my father says my name.
However, try as I might, I have no discernable Nigerian accent, so when I say it with my Canadian accent it sounds French. True Story: I’ve had people call me “Beaujolais” on occasion. And to that I say, um, sure, whatever works.
My Jamaican mother quite obviously has no Nigerian accent, and thus she has never been able to pronounce my name the way it was intended. To recreate her version of my name, you would need to stuff a golf ball in your mouth and proceed accordingly. My mother calls me BALL-A-GEE, which I rationalized was the Canadian/Jamaican pronunciation. And so growing up, I was BALL-A-GEE.
I used to overcompensate for people refusing to learn to say my name correctly by suggesting they use the mnemonic device of practicing to say, “Biology, without the “i.” This they could handle. When I left Winnipeg for Lille, France after high school I no longer had “issues” with my name. It was interesting to hear the French say it as they seemed to embrace it wholesale, no questions asked. They’re sophisticated like that. When I arrived in Toronto a few years later, I decided that I was tired of telling people to call me BALL-A-GEE, due to the fact that people endeavoured to pronounce it phonetically anyway. Interestingly, it came out sounding “almost” like the way my father pronounced it, which pleased me.
I certainly never felt traumatized, or belittled or unusual because I had a so-called different name. I wasn’t ever made fun of, or demeaned, or bullied, or “othered” because of my name. And if you innocently butchered my name, I didn’t mind giving you the benefit of the doubt because I assumed you meant well. Most people do.
More importantly, and unlike this article suggests, it never occurred to me that my future as a productive human being was compromised or somehow diminished because folks couldn’t, or wouldn’t accurately pronounce my name. It’s never bothered to repeat myself several times. Nor did I acquire a chip on my shoulder for having to tell people what my name meant. [Much in the same way that being asked what my cultural background is, or what nationality the father of my children are -- he’s not Black[! -- I fully expect that there will be questions, so bring it].
I find it interesting is that much ink has been spilt lambasting and mocking what other people name their children, as if it’s any of other people’s business in the first place! In fact, many adults go to great lengths to vilify and ridicule members of this growing club, debating the merits and in turn predicting the liabilities and pitfalls of the so-called unfortunately-named. Which begs the question: “WHY DO YOU CARE?!”
Here’s what I suggest the next time you feel inclined to shame that person with the unusual name, or if you find yourself or someone you know feeling deeply offended that a child has a name that you yourself would not have chosen: Get over it. Open your mind, close your mouth, and quietly look the other way.
Regardless of whether you approve or not, my child will either grow to love or hate her name depending how good she feels about herself, and not the adult who feels inclined to shame her into feeling otherwise.