The Story of A Name...My Name

Note: This piece originally appeared in a slightly different form on my blog on October 6, 2015.

The name that I was given at birth was "Ebony Donnette Ellis." I've always liked my first name; easy to spell and pronounce while being classy and elegant, my first name has that post-modern edginess that only an "ethnic" name can provide. My middle and last name, though, not so much.

I never cared much for "Donnette." First, it was much too similar to "donut". Second, it was given to me in honor of a friend that my mother fell out of touch with sometime during the seventies. I didn’t like feeling obligated to bear the name of a woman that I had no conscious recollection of ever meeting. And third, it was downright superfluous. As I was the only "Ebony Ellis" at school--and usually the only "Ebony," period--I didn’t need a middle name to distinguish myself from others.

"Ellis" was also problematic. It took me a long while to understand why, however.

The first time I can recall questioning this name was in kindergarten. The public school I attended required all kindergarten students to practice printing their first name. At the beginning of the school day. Every day. My mother, who was in the habit of inspecting my school work, expressed annoyance that we weren't being taught to write our last names as well.

"Do you even know what a last name is?" my mother demanded.

I truthfully replied that I did not. She explained that people had three names — a first, middle, and last. Then she asked if I knew what my last name was. Once again, I replied that I did not.

"It's Ellis. E-L-L-I-S." At this point, she grabbed the workbook that had all those handwriting sheets inside. "Write it."

I was in no mood to practice handwriting, but, given my mother’s fearsome temper, I knew better than to say so aloud. I knelt in front of the coffee table and did as she asked. Once my mother was satisfied that I knew how to spell and write my last name, she then explained how people got last names in the first place, telling me that children were "supposed to" have their father’s last name. She then went on to explain that women who married were "supposed to" change their last names to match their husband’s.

I thought about this for days. I mean, it didn’t make sense. Not to me, anyway. While I didn’t yet understand the intricacies of human reproduction, my mother had been pregnant enough times for me to know that women gave birth. Wouldn’t it make more sense for children to have their mom’s names? And why did women have to change their names? Why didn’t a newly married couple simply switch names? And what if the man decided that he liked his wife’s name better? How come he wasn’t allowed to use her name?

I'm sure I asked my mother about this and I am sure that she answered this question. However, that conversation has been lost to time.

Flash forward ten years. I am now a sophomore in high school doing research for a class I no longer remember taking. I am at Pollard Memorial Library, the one and only library in all of Lowell, Massachusetts.
Although I am in the library looking for another book, I come across one that explained how medieval European social customs continued to influence modern-day Western cultural norms. Intrigued, I forgot all about the book I had come there for and found a quiet spot to read the one I’d just found.

It was an eye-opening experience. According to the author, the practice of female name-changing upon marriage originated in Medieval Europe when coverture laws codified women’s transition from people to property. Under coverture, unmarried women were regarded as the property of their fathers. After marriage, ownership of the woman transferred from her father to her husband and his family. Abandoning a "maiden name" and taking on the name of one’s husband signified this change in ownership.

After reading a little more, I made a vow to myself. I wouldn't be anyone's property and I sure wasn't going to act as if I had become property by changing my name upon marriage. I would be "Ebony Ellis" forever and any man I married would have to accept that.

Flash forward a little more than a decade. I am now living in New York City. Having always felt an affinity for the women's rights movement and being absolutely infuriated by the woman-hating actions of the Bush regime, I joined the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. When it came time to fill out the membership form, I wrote the name "Ebony Edwards-Ellis."

More than ten years later, I am not sure why I did that. "Ebony Edwards-Ellis" wasn't my legal name, wouldn't be for quite some time, and I hadn't ever used that name before.

I guess because the whole "keeping my name" business had been niggling at me for awhile; I didn’t feel that I had gone quite far enough. While "Ellis" was indeed my name, it was a name that I had inherited from my dad, a man. While I love my dad, it just didn’t seem fair that I was only acknowledging descent from him and his side of the family; after all, my mother was the one who had endured the emotional upheavals and physical discomforts that accompany pregnancy and childbirth. And high school biology class had taught me that I had inherited just as much DNA from my mother as my father. Consequently, I was as much an "Edwards" as an "Ellis."

The fact that I was sitting in the same room with a bunch of passionate feminists most likely brought all those semi-subconscious quibbles to the forefront. And, because I was now an adult who could call herself whatever she wanted to, I went with it.

A few years passed and a workplace snafu regarding my Social Security number prompted me to complete the transition legally. One downloaded name change petition and a few hundred bucks later, I was legally "Ebony Edwards-Ellis."

Now all my papers (state ID, debit card, Social Security card, etc.) bear that name. It is the only name that I have ever used on social media sites. It is the name emblazoned on the cover of my debut novel. It is the name on my resume, my lease, my W-2's. And, whenever I introduce myself to strangers, I put equal emphasis on both halves of my last name, making sure that the person knows that a hyphen marries the two.

Sure, there have been some minor aggravations to go along with this new last name. Having people only use half my last name (“Ms. Edwards”), being addressed as "Mrs. Ellis", and being forced to use computerized data entry sheets that don’t accept "special characters" in the name box are all the annoyances that come along with a twelve letter hyphenated surname.

But I love my new name and, finally satisfied that I have gone "far enough," plan to keep it. In addition to its alliterative qualities, my name looks good on a business card (and book cover). And, hopefully at some indeterminate time in the far-off future, on a tombstone, too.

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