Hey Black Girl, with the big name, make them respect your name!
Hey, little girl, big girl, and women everywhere with the big name, the unique name, the ghetto name, the name your momma gave you that doesn’t fit the white standards. The name that people laugh at or tell you, you shouldn’t tell people your real name. The name that you are scared to put on a job application because you think they will think it is “ghetto.” The name is yours and should be honored. Always and I mean always, correct them when they say it wrong. Your name is your power, and they can’t take that by renaming you. Tell them how to say it, sound it out for them every time they say it wrong. Make them say it the way your parents intended. Let them know that respect will be given.
I don’t have a big name, but I do have a unique spelled and pronounced name. It’s close to another name, but it’s not that name. It’s the name they always choose to use. And I can see how they could mix it up. They both are three syllables. T-R- RA, and T-AIR-RA, but there is a difference between the two. A huge difference. It’s subtle, but it’s essential. It’s the difference between them and me—the difference between taking away my power and respecting my power. TiArra is my name. T-R-RA. The capital A is significant, it’s also silent when pronouncing my name. It’s the difference between T-AIR- RA, and T-R-RA. TiArra is pronounced like Tiara, the British- English word for Crown. Tiara spelled like the British- English word for Crown, is usually pronounced T-AIR-RA in English. This similarity has caused my unique name to be mispronounced and misspelled all the time.
Most times, it’s an innocent mistake, they assume it’s T-AIR-RA because that’s usually what it is, and most oblige when corrected, but there are those that make it their duty to steal my name. Imagine being in 5th grade and having a racist teacher. They are like cops; everyone believes them because of the title they hold. Now throw in having a unique or deemed by them a “ghetto” name, and you have a recipe for disaster.
Every day the person that was supposed to teach me made it their mission to humiliate me. At 12 years old, I didn’t realize what was happening when I had to correct my teacher’s pronunciation and spelling of my name every day, sometimes multiple times a day. I didn’t know until a parent-teacher conference when she made the mistake of slipping up in front of my mother—something she had made sure not to do in the past. Any phone call or letter home, she always made sure to use the correct spelling or pronunciation of my name, but that night she emphasized the AIR that is not in my name with a smile on her face, triggering the momma bear in my mother.
I joke to people that they should not mispronounce my name in my mother’s presence. Since I was a child, my mother has had complete meltdowns on people for mispronouncing my name. The minute the AIR comes from their lips, she was on it. No hesitation to correct them or, in most cases, scold them for their mistake and scold me for allowing it. For a long time, I didn’t understand. I didn’t see it as a big deal if they called me T-AIR-RA and not T-R-RA. To me, it was close enough, and for someone with a unique name, I didn’t want to spend my whole life correcting people. At least that is how I felt before that parent-teacher conference.
You can chalk it up to a long day or the teacher just not caring anymore, but she and I learned a valuable lesson that day. After dropping her famous line, “It is T-R-RA. Three syllables. It’s not hard. Think of a crown, if you get confused.” My mother turned to me and ripped me a new one for allowing it. She didn’t understand. Her name is Cheryl. Someone might spell her name with an S instead of a C, but she didn’t have to deal with her name having to be corrected daily. She didn’t have to sound it out all the time or tell them the A is capital. And she didn’t have to hear people make fun of her name or call it “ghetto” either.
That day, my mother got to witness firsthand how my power was being taken from me five days a week. Silencing the teacher and focusing solely on me, my mother listened as I, with tears in my eyes, recounted all the times this woman called me T-AIR-RA and laughed when I corrected her or called me TARA and told me if my mother were smart, she would have named me that instead of a ghetto name that would never do me any good in life. Hearing my recount of the torture I was enduring, my mother did the only thing she could do. She turned to that teacher and taught her and my 12-year-old self, the power in my name. She broke down the meaning of my full name and why my mighty name would carry me into anything I wanted in life.
That day she gave me a power I didn’t know I was missing. A passion and a sense of confidence in who I am that I carry with me to this day. TiArra Ellaura Shepherd is who I am. Crown The Beautiful Shepherd is what my name means. The crowned leader of the flock is my purpose.
When our ancestors were forced onto this land, one of the first things taken from them was their name. Suppose you recalled the scene from Roots when Kunta Kinte became Toby. It was a common practice among slave owners to rename their property. Stripping our names to them was like stripping us down to nothing, and if we were nothing, we could be property. Stripping our ancestors of their birth name stripped not only their power but also their identification and homeland’s identities, traditions, and ancestors. It was a tool in the dehumanization processes, one of the first tools used to break down our psyche. A tool still heavily used just masked under smiles and awkward laughs.
My mother taught me that my name and people taking the time to know it and pronounce it right was a sign of respect—the first sign of respect someone can give. When someone mispronounces your name after repeatedly correcting them, it means they don’t respect you. When they rename you for their benefit or because they don’t want to take the time to learn the proper way to say our names, they are dehumanizing you. If someone makes fun of how your name is spelled or pronounced, they are telling you, you are no longer a human but a thing I can rename, a thing I can own. Most importantly, if they deem your name ghetto, they are trying to say you are a savage; because what is ghetto other than a fancy word for savage?
Like everything else we deal with as black Americas, we still fight the battles of our ancestors. Battles, we don’t even realize we are fighting. Psychological conflicts have become custom practices in the corporate world, in the job market, in schools, and even in our community. Our names are our power, our strength. And more than our identities, they are the identities of our ancestors. So remember them when you are correcting someone about your name or scared to put your name down on a document. Remember, your ancestors never had the chance to correct their oppressors. They never got to stand tall, chest out, and say my name is… So, even if you don’t want to do it for yourself, do it for them. – And don’t forget the swirl in your neck!