Them: “Oh is it the English version of Natalie?”
Them: “That’s hood. Did your mother make it up?”
Them: “Can I call you Laysia instead?”
Me: “Hell no.”
My name is Natelegé Aisha Whaley. It is pronounced Na-Ta-Lay-Ja. There is a whole story behind my glorious moniker and I’ll tell it a little later in this piece.
I love my name, but after 26 years, I’ve come to the conclusion that people and society make it hard to have it. First days of schools, work or meeting guys are awkward memories. Every new school year, I’d sit uncomfortably in my chair as the teacher would read out attendance. I always knew when Mr. or Ms. came to my name on the list there would be a long awkward pause followed by, “Naaata-lie…no…errrr.”
“Na-ta-lay-ja,” I’d say confidently, though feeling a bit singled out. By middle school, my classmates would chime in correcting the teacher. That was helpful.
These days it’s always interesting meeting new people in a group. Everyone goes around saying their names, then it’s my turn and I think to myself, “will these people be cool or absolute idiots in reaction to my name?” So far it’s been 50/50. My name has been a great way to test other people’s mindsets when I first meet them.
Then there are those sometimes weird scenarios at parties: Guy introduces himself. I get close to introduce myself: “I’m Na-ta-lay-ja. My friends call me Na-Tee.”
“You mean like, Natzi? Like Hitler?” or my other fav, “Is it ‘cause you’re naughty?”
Most of the guys that are date-able on a basic level would say they loved my name or look to memorize it as quickly as possible. Others would say it’s too hard to remember and are super quick to call me a nickname, which they would make up on the spot and I’m like hol’ up I don’t even know you like that.
I employ rites of passage when it comes to using my nicknames. First you need to learn my real name. Then as we get acquainted you have the privilege of calling me something that I assign to you.
Usually, if the person is respectful about my name, I’ll let them call me Nat. Most of my co-workers and casual acquaintances do. But if you’re family, sister-friend or brother-friend, you know me as “Natee” (“no dred.”) If you call me “Nad-dy,” you prob knew me since elementary. Future BAE can call me what he wants. But let me keep this PG.
THE POLITICS OF BLACK NAMES
Another side of having this big beautiful Black name is deciding how to present myself to jobs and also through my own personal brand. It’s been four going on five years since I graduated from college and I can’t say that my name has hurt me. And it’s sad that I even have to consider this. But the stats have made me consider changing my name for job applications.
A job applicant with a name that sounds like it might belong to an African-American – say, Lakisha Washington or Jamal Jones – can find it harder to get a job. Despite laws against discrimination, affirmative action, a degree of employer enlightenment, and the desire by some businesses to enhance profits by hiring those most qualified regardless of race, African-Americans are twice as likely as whites to be unemployed and they earn nearly 25 percent less when they are employed.
The above stats are from a report published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2003. Presently, they are roughly the same. As of September 2015, Blacks were still twice as likely to be unemployed than whites, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Those who were following last week’s news cycle, likely saw when “She whose name I refuse to speak” frowned upon hiring people with Black sounding names. Many found it interesting since she has a super Black name as well. It doesn’t surprise me, as many Black people are afraid to name their children anything close to sounding Black for fear that their lives will be made harder. Do what you must do to get by in this society.
However, that does not mean that you demean others for having those names because the mainstream society is not accepting. In the end it is really they who have the problem — not me — my name is perfectly normal. It may seem unique from the lens of an American who is closed off to the fact that there are people all over the world who don’t even consider European names. In many places “Jack” and “Mary” are foreign and “Jamal” and “Aaliyah” are much more common.
The late great Nelson Mandela wrote about the erasure of his birth name “Rolihlahla Mandela” as a student in South Africa’s education system, in his book Long Walk to Freedom.
On the first day of school, my teacher, Miss Mdingane, gave each of us an English name and said that from thenceforth that was the name we would answer to in school. This was the custom among Africans in those days and was undoubtedly due to the British bias of our education.
Orange is the New Black star Uzo Aduba, recently spoke on breaking this cycle:
My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka, which means “The road is good.” Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”
The most important thing to know is that my name has a special meaning behind it.
Natelege means “Joy” and has origins in Central Africa. Joy is also my mother’s name. My middle name is Aisha, which means “Life” in Swahili. I am African-American and Jamaican, so I have no direct ties to any African country culturally (meaning my my ancestors going back a few generations were slaves), but I appreciate that my mother took the time to research a name and reclaim a part of the motherland. Long story short, there was a time my mother was uncertain that she would be able to have any more kids. Then I popped up. My full name is “Joy of Life,” which is what my mom felt after being blessed with another child after years of difficulty.
Through the internet, I have met others with my name. We had a Facebook group at one point I was part of. Another cool fact is that I share my first name with Bandia-princess Natelege, who lived from 1855 to 1900. She was a bad ass who transcended the restraints of patriarchy to become the first woman-chief among the Nzakaran people and whose name was loved, respected and called upon for guidance for generations after. “Her example opened the way to rulership for other noblewomen,” according to Women in Tropical Africa, a book I found after doing some research on my name.
RESPECT THE NAME
All in all, I love my name. It’s annoying at times to see it spelled incorrectly in emails and to deal with folks who act as if their brains shut down after hearing four-syllable words. I’ve thought about changing earlier in life, but with folks like Quvenzhané, Ta-Nehisi, or even Beyoncé out here making it big, why should I? Learning my name is the first step in showing me respect. That’s the least you owe another human being. So shout out to everyone with non-Eurocentric names out there whose names come with stories too but are often made fun of, butchered or erased. I know your pain, but don’t let them get you down. Love yours!
P.S – confession: I’m bad with remembering names myself, but I’m definitely working on it. 😉
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