It’s All in the Name

I’m not that attached to my first name. It’s Felicia. I mean, it’s symbolic of a once-together family, in that it begins with the letter “f,” as my mom and dad’s names do and it’s pronounced Fe-LISH-a “like Phylicia Rashad,” but it’s pretty ordinary otherwise. Nothing like North.

Even so, like most born-and-raised Americans, I couldn't ever imagine my given name changing as a matter of course. My surname, sure (marriage, slave-name rebellion, daddy issues, etc.), but never my given name. So when a colleague told me that, after immigrating from Vietnam, his parents instructed him in lower school that he’d have to choose an English name, preferably a biblical one (they were Catholic), and he’d tried a different one each week until settling on one, I started thinking about how the mutability of given names is a part of the day-to-day experience for a significant group of people in this country — and not in a Facebook-famous kind of way. For those whose families — or who themselves — have come here from other places, pieces of their immigration experience, and their identity formation as Americans, are often memorialized in the histories of their first names.

Busayo’s Story

For some reason, not so long ago, I found an email forwarded by my fashion designer friend Busayo that implied that her first name was actually Michelle. I was momentarily confused and a little concerned, but I never asked her about it, until now.

Michelle is my given name. In Yoruba culture, you’re named by your paternal grandparents and you have to be named eight days after you’re born. Because I was born in Boston and my grandparents lived in Nigeria, they had to send my name by mail, or with friends or family who were coming to America. On the eighth day, the name still hadn't shown up so my parents named me after my paternal grandfather, Michael. When the name finally showed up, it was Oluwabusayo, or “God added to our joy.” So that became my middle name, but it’s not on my birth certificate or anything.

Shortly thereafter, Busayo moved to Nigeria.

In Nigeria, I was always called Busayo. I had one aunt who was very sophisticated and she would call me Michelle. She probably still does, but she was really the only person who did.

I was twelve years old, about to go into the eighth grade when we came back to this country. When we went to register at school, I remember wanting to be American more than anything. So I made the decision to be called Michelle. That decision didn't stop me from being picked on and mocked relentlessly, by the way. I went on as Michelle throughout high school and my first year of college (at the University of California, Berkeley).

In my sophomore year, I decided to change my name back to Busayo. I knew another black Michelle; it was one of the most generic American names and it just didn't fit me. I went around and told everyone to stop calling me Michelle and to start calling me Busayo. It’s the hardest thing to change a name. People think you’re a little crazy. It causes a lot of confusion. I had a group of friends who called me Mo. It was a term of affection and their way of showing love and support for me, but I had to tell them, “Guys, don’t call me Mo anymore;call me Busayo.”

But the name is so friggin’ important. I was being Berkeley-ized at that time. I was developing a consciousness around being an immigrant, being proud to be an African. The shame came. I was embarrassed that I’d fallen into that category of people — people who appeared in books like The House on Mango Street and The Joy Luck Club, who culturally assimilated. I struggled with whether I was one of those kids in those books: I’m not proud of my culture, I’m going to hide it.

As for the email address that I saw …

A friend of mine sent a Gchat a week ago saying that she’d gone into one of the stores that’s carrying my clothing line and said, “Oh my God, this is Busayo’s line!” The buyer said, “You mean Michelle.” My friend said, “No, her name is Busayo.” They went back and forth, with my friend becoming increasingly upset.

What happened was when I started my line, I wanted some separation between my identity as a person and my business [“Busayo”]. So I just opened a Gmail account under Michelle for my business, not at all thinking that it would cause problems.

I always correct the people I email, but they always call me Michelle anyway. It’s annoying, but it’s also a self-created problem. Michelle is a much easier name to say. We shouldn't underestimate that. It’s much easier and much more comfortable for them to use. But when I hear it, I don’t like it. It’s silly. I’m like, “Who are they talking about?”

On why Busayo chose her given name to be the name of her brand

I wanted something that reflected the intersection of America and Nigeria. What the brand is about is that meeting place between Africa and America. And my whole life is really at that center. So I went with that.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell that story. I don’t think I've ever told it before.

Ramesh’s Story

Back home in South India everyone has one name. My name is Ramesh. They’ll call me KR Ramesh. K stands for the family name, Kandallu. Everyone in my family has K as their first initial. My father’s first name is the second initial.

No one ever expanded my initials. I really had only one name: Ramesh. No one in India asks what the initials stand for. No one really cares about that. Perhaps at work, someone might call me me Dr. Ramesh, or in a formal setting, Mr. Ramesh. Informally, my mother will call me Ramesh.

When I came here and went to the American consulate to fill out the immigration papers, they asked, “First name? Last name? Middle name? Surname?” I thought, “What the heck is that?” I was confused. So I just expanded my initials. Kandallu became my first name and Ramesh my last name. I didn't realize that the last name was the family name here.

I have to tell people, “Just call me Ramesh.” I don’t like it when someone calls me Kandallu.

No one advised me among my community or my friends before I came here. So I told my brother before he came and he correctly put his last name down as Kandallu. My kids can change their last name back to Kandallu if they want to. I’m going to suggest that my son change it back. Only the South Indians got messed up in this way.

Arinze’s Story

I was born Arinzechukwu (“Gratitude for God”) Nzubechukwu Onugha. I went by Arinze for short. It wasn't until I was twelve years old that I looked at my birth certificate and discovered that Arinze was not, in fact, my first name. My birth certificate had my middle name as my first, and what I had been using as my first name was actually my middle name. I was so confused. I asked my mother what had happened. It was insignificant to her. She didn't care what the paper said. She advised, “We all know what your name is. It’s Arinze.”

Nzubechukwu was my first name according to my birth certificate, so when I got a bank account and a driver’s license, I had to use Nzubechukwu. But then my social security card said Arinze N. Onugha.

On top of that, having an odd name was not cool coming up. So I would go by Ari. The whole attendance thing: “I’m looking for Ar, Ar, Ariinn….” I would always interrupt them and say, “Just call me Ari.”

When Ari was in his junior year in high school, he was part of a rap group and took on the stage name “Talon.”

Once I got to undergrad I started introducing myself as Arinze. I liked it better. It felt more unique than Ari. I was maturing. I was appreciating my uniqueness more and more. The simplicity of a name wasn't as important to me as I got older.

In college, I decided to formally change my name. It was a process. I figured it out all by myself. I got all suited up, went to the township clerk, and explained why I was doing it to the judge. They made an announcement in the local newspaper and eventually I got my new birth certificate.

Talon was still my stage name though, until one day, when I was dancing on stage, my brother yelled, “That boy is talented.” He said, “You dance, you rap, you’re getting good grades in school, you work out. It’s beyond rap!”

From that moment on I was Arinze, artistically known as Talonted.

In the last six months, I really started to want to change my stage name to Arinze. I was getting into other musical genres in a way I hadn't before. I had appreciated different styles of music for a long time, but I found myself wanting to create music within them, and the artist who would do that was bigger than Talonted.

Then I started to embrace my culture more. What I've always wanted to do is share my culture with the world. People, even other Nigerians, had told me, “You might be made fun of if you change your stage name to Arinze. You should assimilate. You know how people feel about Africans.” It wasn't an easy transition. I thought about the consequences.

So I went through this whole rigmarole and came right back to Arinze. Here I am avoiding it for thirty years, and then it ends up being the dopest name I could’ve asked for. No one ever gets it right when they first read it. Who cares if I have to explain it? They eventually get it. I feel like I've finally arrived. And, of course, my mom loves the change.

Zuhirah’s Story: A Note on Nicknames

Black people call me “Z” a lot. I didn't give them the name — they give it to me. White people usually make an attempt. It bothers me when people don’t try. It’s a refusal to recognize one’s difference, a refusal to engage. A professor of mine recently reminded me that nicknames in literature signify the diminutive. I remember, at my nursery school, my teachers started calling me Zuey because they heard my parents call me Zuey. I protested, “Only my family calls me Zuey. Please call me Zuhirah.”


When someone asks that we call him by a certain name, I suggest that we call him by that name pronounced that way until he gives us permission to do otherwise. Consider that behind a moniker, there may lie an entire series of specific choices connected to that person’s identity. To call him by anything else simply because we’re unfamiliar with certain linguistic sounds or too lazy to hazard pronouncing them is to diminish his sense of self. When we get a name right, we not only recognize the beauty, value, and history of our differences, but also reinforce our common privilege to choose exactly who we want to be.