I Cannot Pronounce My Own Name
Say My Name — Pt. 3
this is an article about the time i rode in an uber and learned a life changing lesson from the driver: i cannot pronounce my own name. but before i get into that story i need you to understand something about me. most of my deepest cultural experiences happen in ubers. my first couple times ubering i had some ridiculously enlightening conversations with the driver and so for the longest time i was convinced that the ride-share company was secretly training its drivers as psychotherapists. to get a job at uber, i think there are 2 criteria: 1.) you have to own a car that is not a smelly hooptie and 2.) you have to master an ancient tradition of philosophical wisdom; Confucianism or Mdw Ntr.
after asking a few uber drivers about their backgrounds, and every single one of them denying that they were a guru, i settled on a much more ordinary explanation for these recurring deep conversations. there is something about the intimacy of driving with a stranger in the privacy of their own car that sets the stage for sharing personal stories. the phenomena of the taxi cab confessional is heightened by the fact that the driver is shuttling you around in the same car he uses to pick his kids up from school. he is in his own element.
another unique part about the uber experience is by the time the rider hops in the car, both parties have already had a few minutes to ponder the other’s name and face. you have the time to form curious questions in your mind about the other person. you think, “i wonder where this dude(tte) is from?” or “i wonder if (s)he knows anything about the politics in x region of the world or the neighborhoods on x side of chicago?” so by the time you get in the car you are already sufficiently curious about this person. your curiosity is mostly based on stereotypes but the point is you are curious.
these were the types of questions i was pondering a week ago when my uber app informed me that we were going to be picked up by Jean-Guy. actually my first thought was that maybe he was shamelessly promoting himself as “the Jean-Guy”, the dude that comes in the barber shop selling denim not to be confused with the DVD-Guy or the Fugazi-Rolex-Guy. but then i realized that Jean-Guy was in French. was he a Haitian musician Jean like Wyclef? was he a French philosopher like Jean-Paul Sartre?
when we got in the car Jean-Guy proceeded to speak ONLY in French. unapologetically. there was something about the way that he was speaking French so naturally and cheerfully with me that made me think “Jean-Guy must think that i speak French.” in fact, i actually had to convince this man that i did not speak French with lots of helpless shrugs, looks of confusion, and pleas of “i do not speak French.”
finally he spoke English, “where are you from Kalonji?” i replied “my name is from Congo but my family is from Ohio?” apparently Jean-Guy happened to be Congolese and it was unthinkable for a man named Kalonji to not know French. but then when he figured out that i was not actually from Congo he thought it even more exciting and absurd that Black Americans were giving their children names from his part of the world. after giving him a short synopsis of the naming traditions of africentric black folk in America he then realized that he had to tell me everything about where my name was from. he told me about the Luba people, the largest ethnic group in Congo dating back to the 5th Century. i learned that one of the Luba clans was called the Bakwa Kalonji and that there are tons of people with that surname, including the ironically named Congolese pop star Bill Clinton Kalonji. we even ended the ride with him scribbling down a few sources to look into for more information. once again, i left an uber as a more enlightened person than the human being that stepped in.
the most striking thing that this uber taught me, however, is that i cannot pronounce my own name. my name is of congolese origin and i have only heard a person from congo pronounce it three times. three times in my entire life. one of those was Jean-Guy and one was on a digital recording. i could tell you maybe 5 other words from this region of the world and definitely am not qualified to correct your pronunciation of Tshiluba, or any other Bantu language for that matter.
so why do i get so perturbed when people mispronounce it? how insanely hypocritical of me. i guess when it comes down to it, i don’t want you to pronounce it like they pronounce it in Kasai or Kinshasa or Lubumbashi. i don’t want you to pronounce it like Jean-Guy. i want you to pronounce it how we pronounce it in Lil Africa, the havens we constructed in every hood in America. in the next section of this article i will hopefully convince you why it is crucial for you to pronounce my name in the way that i pronounce it, even though Jean-Guy (a much more authentic source) has told me that i have completely butchered the pronunciation…
when i travel to any black American neighborhood from east flatbush to east palo alto, and i run into a person with a name like amari or akilah i feel this instant feeling of kinship. i give her the hotep head nod. we brush the shoulders off of each other’s dashikis and do the black power fist bump. now when akilah is in mixed company and she volunteers her name, she is almost always asked “where are you from?” but when she pronounces her name to me for the first time, i know immediately from her accent that she is from Lil Africa. real recognize real.
when you are the descendants of black slaves in america but you introduce yourself as hamadi or hadiyah, i automatically know something more about you. i feel like you probably grew up with a framed picture of malcolm x in your house. your parents were probably a little militant and maybe fell in love at an anti-apartheid rally or reggae night or at a nikki giovanni book signing. you might have even been to a kwanzaa celebration or two. i know that we probably suffered some of the same speeches about “the ice man theory” and “house negroes” and “dolls that look like you.”
when you introduce yourself with these names it signals to me a particular sect of blackness. you are part of a group of negas that took issue with the fact that simmons and franklin became attached to our families generations ago. the only reason you bore this name was because some of your forefathers were the property of massa simmons. and so your parents or grandparents found salvation in the languages and cultures of the mother land. the fact that you have an african name signals to me that there was an intentional moment when somebody in your lineage reclaimed it.
but the sect of negroes from lil Africa is peculiar because our names are not spoken with the accents of the language that they originate from. when my homegirl hanifah says her name, it does not have the phonetics of any dialect of arabic from africa or the middle east or south asia. native speakers of any one of these arabic dialects may find it annoying and maybe even offensive that their language has been butchered. but there is nothing that makes me happier than when a name like hanifah is spoken with an accent from east oakland or nawlins. i love when it sounds more like it’s related to shaniquah (made in America circa 1983) than khadīja (خديجة / the wife of the prophet circa 555). it just warms my heart when ta-nehisi has been transformed to tah-ne-hah-see.
our tongues have been shaped by the drawl of the mississippi delta. our oral kinetics trained by slinging the slang of the south side of chicago, the dialects of detroit. and we even reluctantly owe some credit to the king’s english. my name is of congolese origin and i have only heard a person from congo pronounce it three times. three times in my entire life. and one was on a digital recording. but i wish a native speaker of Lingala or Tshiluba would tell me that i’m pronouncing my name wrong. sorry fam, the Lil Africa pronunciation is just as “correct.” it locates the origin of my name in a particular moment of time in black american history that is magical in its own right.
when i was marinating in the womb, my parents were reading books about african history. they happened upon the name kalonji in a “book of African names” and they chose it because of what it meant: man of victory. giving me this name was like they were raising their little simba over a cliff and telling me the streets of old town east columbus was my kingdom. they were christening me into the communion of Lil Africa. there is something brilliant that i find in the intentionality and agency of afrocentric black folk. many of their acts of self-definition were done after intense academic study. and their decisions about what they named their kids, what they celebrated, and even what they put on their dinner tables were informed by what they read, instead of by pure family tradition. my mom’s book shelf to this day is filled with texts written by black americans that were trying to make sense of african culture and history. naim akbar and marimba ani. they were trying to decode ancient wisdom and translate it in a way that was useful for negas in the 70s and 80s and 90s…
people often criticize our customs as contrived: “yo kwanzaa is a made up holiday. how can you celebrate some shit that was created in 1966?” when i hear this i smile. i know when kwanzaa was made up. i have even seen with my own eyes the dude who invented it. maulana karenga is his name. please pronounce it with the twang of west baltimore. i heard him give a speech about what he intended in designing the ritual of kwanzaa. he spoke with the wisdom of the wisest sage. this is a man that has a near photographic memory of the texts and history of ancient egypt. his mind is uncanny. but he is not a superhuman. he is more like a karl marx than a jesus. more like thomas jefferson than a joseph smith. he is more intellectual founding father than receiver of prophesy. but maybe that’s because we don’t recognize the prophets that are born to sharecroppers in baltimore maryland.
i know, that because of karenga’s mortality and fragile humanness, kwanzaa may one day die out. every winter when i go back home to the community ceremony it seems smaller and smaller. i wonder if when you make up your own “holy” days, do they lack a lot of the ingredients that make culture last? there is some sense of unquestionability that is signaled when your customs were designed by God, by a prophet, by ancient ancestors, or by the state. i never had the pleasure of being inducted into a tradition so stable and unquestionable. and thus all i have is questions. i can’t even go to kwanzaa half the time because all i have is questions. why not this? why not that? every ritual is questionable. i sometimes wonder if i am adding to the death of my own forefathers’ contributions by asking so many damn questions. but Lil Africa was built on a heap of questions. research questions. and research is me-search.
because of my peculiar upbringing i have always been confident that it is under the discretion of everyday folk to design their culture. to search for it and reconstruct it. we make it up as we go along through philosophical interrogation, creative imagination and everyday necessity. we design culture to serve the needs of the people, to feed them, and to nourish them. from the fragments of previous generations’ artifacts, each family and each individual will use our common sense and experience to decide which practices work for us. this doesn’t mean that nothing is sacred. it means that our own inner voice is just as important as the outer ones when it comes to identifying the sacred.
maybe the names of Lil Africa and their ghettoized pronunciations have become sacred to me. maybe i want you to say these names, because i think it will force you to honor the brilliance and self-determination of our naming ceremonies.
so shout out to bakari, amari, shareef, hanifah, rahani, and so on and so on and so on and dooby dooby doo because quite simply, black names matter. at the end of the day, i guess what Jean-Guy the uber guru has taught me was that all my attempts to correct your pronunciation of my name wasn’t really about phonetics at all. when i correct you, i really just want you to care. what i really mean is, in the great words of bryan “birdman” williams, PUT SOME RESPECT ON MY NAME.