Not as Sweet: Self Naming in Africana Womanism
Charles and Carol named me Cristin Noelle.
Cristin, and this particular spelling, is a Latin derivative meaning “follower of Christ” or “Christian” in the feminine form. Noelle is the feminine French derivative of Latin origin meaning “birth/first birthday/Christ’s birthday”.
It should be no surprise then that lifelong Lutherans would name their first child a name rooted in their deepest belief.
Nobody asked me what I wanted my name to be, however.
In elementary school, I abhorred the spelling of my name. One of my friends, the jewel of my classmates and Girl Scouts because of her Hawaiian background, was named Karla. Karla, with a K. Everyone loved Karla, including myself, and I believed it to be because there was so much power held in that letter K. So what did I do?
I started spelling my name with a K.
It didn’t last long. I wasn’t consistent with remembering that I was undergoing this self-directed metamorphosis in name and persona. I was so accustomed to being Cristin with a C that Cristin with a K wasn’t naturally imprinted from brain to hand. It never stuck.
As I merged into middle school, I remember one of the first days–where insecurity and silk shirts created a perfect storm of fear–a teacher blurted during roll call “Christian? Is Christian here?” I didn’t respond because she didn’t call me. As she continued down the roll, I became increasingly nervous. Did she mean me?
The teacher finished roll and began with an activity that was pressingly important to her. I hesitated before speaking, sure she would notice that I was sitting in her room, and yet she hadn’t acknowledged my presence. I raised my hand, and when she failed to see my plump, brown arm in the air, I looked at my seatmates for a bit of back up. I managed to bark out “Excuse me…I think you forgot me while taking attendance.”
“What’s your name?”
“I did call you.”
“Oh! I’m sorry!” My classmates were of no use, and the beginning markers of inattentiveness were heard with the clinking of binder rings.
“So is your name Cristin or Christian?”
“My name is CRIS-tin.”
“Are you sure? I think this is a misspelling.”
I paused here, because no one had ever asked me if I was sure of my name. It was my name. Carol and Charles gave it to me. It has been mine since before I was me.
“You need to tell your mother to check she spelled the forms correctly with the office.”
I said nothing.
Did I go home and tell my mom that she was accused of not spelling my name correctly? Not quite. I didn’t want her to call the school or the teacher, so I threaded the interaction in a way that wouldn’t warrant her to be charismatic about the situation. The remainder of the year, the teacher intermittently called me Cristin or Christian, without rhyme or reason on why she would choose one over the other on any given day. I let it slide, though it gave me great angst at the miserable age of thirteen to think that I was inexistent from such a dominant figure in my life.
For many of us, we are given nicknames by family, friends, teammates and colleagues. In my lifetime, I’ve been coronated with; Boogie, Shug, KC, Auntie, Cris and likely some I never knew I was called and probably better off for not knowing.
In thinking of the naming process, I am struck by Ralph Ellison’s narrator in “Invisible Man” who goes completely unidentified for the entirety of the book, even when given a new name when he becomes a part of a socially progressive organization called “The Brotherhood.” How does one exist in a world without a name? They don’t. They are invisible. Ellison makes the case that it is to the benefit of this particular Black man to ultimately remain non-existent in this world, I pose a counter argument that for the Black woman, it is a detriment. To be unnamed in a world that functions from the labor and creative offerings is to be nothing more than a machine, void of any essences of humanity.
We, too, are invisible when we don’t declare our name, and that determination is solely to the one who will bear it. Society would have us believe that these are labels, and we shouldn’t conform to labels. Easy for society to say, when composed of those who have had control of binding the dictionaries of words and thoughts and ideas! It is for this reason that to proclaim our rightful existence, we pick at will what we want, and to hell with what society says about labels.
My parents named me Cristin Noelle, and though I may have tried to be another version of that at one time, I accept it for myself now. If I didn’t, maybe I’d name myself as the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, by attributes of self or nature. Or maybe I’d name myself as associated by relationship, activity:
In these names, we identify, though briefly, who we are. It’s an announcement to the world that we exist in these spaces, in these parts, and though it may define us in part, it gives an aspect to the whole.
It is here that I will make the case that for women, and especially Black women, it is crucial we name ourselves. Further, not only do we name ourselves, but we must proclaim and state it in every space we occupy. Failure to do so allows others to do it on our behalf, and therefore help to define who we are. Surely you wouldn’t allow store bought potato salad to be passed as your own
As aforementioned, I was a little sister to a fraternity while in college. I joined this organization because it was a sisterhood I could identify with, and its affiliation to the fraternity resonated with what I wanted to do as a college student: be social and active, engage in philanthropic endeavors, and be surrounded by those who shared the same religious theology as I did. It was a perfect fit for me. Soon after initiation and membership, it was quickly assessed that I was the first Black Little Sister. At this time, it was my experience of being the first black anything in a predominantly white space, though not the last. I never felt as an outsider being a young Black woman because in that space, as with other spaces, our unity was founded upon other attributes.
Some time within my three years of membership, I was very affectionately called “Sexual Chocolate.” Was this because I was engaging in sexual relationships with one or any of these young men? Absolutely not. They were my brothers, and though other Little Sisters found life-long mates, I don’t think I was seen as a potential mate, nor was I seeking it through association. Did I act in a manner that exudes a feminine sexuality? If I did, it wasn’t consciously or purposefully. I just enjoyed playing drinking games with my friends. So why would a group of White men call me, a Black woman, Sexual Chocolate? Simply, someone had seen “Coming to America” and relating it to the Black person closest in the sphere, it made sense to apply the term to me for endearing purposes.
At the time I didn’t find it insulting, and maybe to the surprise of readers, I still don’t. I understand the need to classify and make connections as an educator, and I knew it came out of a place of love. We didn’t exist in this space of “colorblindness” that can be pervasive in groups dominated by White people: everyone acknowledged on multiple occasions that I was the first and only Black Little Sister (which at one point, was almost an asset when the fraternity tried to recruit a Black freshmen. I was unsuccessful). It didn’t strike me as unconventional or even potentially harmful until I introduced my now husband/then boyfriend to the group at a football game. When a cacophony of “Sexual Chocolate!” arose, the severe glance in my direction was impossible to deflect. Being the polite gentlemen, however, no scene was made, but a conversation did occur afterward.
While I explained it was a nickname, and a nickname solely based upon a movie enjoyed cross-culturally, I realized I had allowed myself to be branded a name. As I reflect on this time, such an act could have had catastrophic consequences for me. What does that look like for a Black woman to be called “Sexual Chocolate” by a group of White males (and, one Mexican)? What if that name carried on other aspects of the maticulous professional life I was there to sculpt? What if something had happened to me, to my person, and this was the name used to identify me, and later define me?
“Whenever a conscious Black woman raises her voice on issues central to her existence, somebody is going to call her strident, because they don’t want to hear about it, nor us. I refuse to be silenced and I refuse to be trivialized, even if I do not say what I have to say perfectly.”
— Audre Lorde
Existence is the purpose for self-naming. Without the Black woman’s ability to name herself, or change her name at will when the condition allows for it, she does not exist in the world. Instead, she is only present in the context of those who perceive her. Though a presence can be as equally endearing as it can be dangerous, it often isn’t permanent. It is simply ether, and the woman, just like her name, can come and go at the will of another. Therefore, an actual existence must be claimed so that the impact is permanent and felt, pondered and examined, ingested and planted.
“Once you know who you are, you don’t have to worry anymore”
— Nikki Giovanni
In her established existence, the necessity of worry is eliminated for a woman. Worry, being a symptom of the unknown, festers and depletes existence.
For a woman in the African diaspora to exist without worry, she must identify herself, name herself, and be steadfast in ensuring those within her reach acknowledge her existence as she deems it to be.