A piece by Songiné Clarke
“This day, Eccoah was lying in the slim shade of a palm tree. Effia had helped her coil her hair the day before, and in the sun, it looked like a million snakes rising from her head.
‘My husband cannot pronounce my name well. He wants to call me Emily,’ Eccoah said.
‘If he wants to call you Emily, let him call you Emily,’ Adwoa said.” -Yaa Gyasi
The above passage from “Homegoing” by Yaa Gyasi is part of a conversation among a group of women who were the “wenches” to white men who wanted these Black women to be their own. A lot of these men had wives back in Great Britain, but while they were in Cape Coast, they decided to “take” women with whom they could conveniently make another life and home — even though they apparently couldn’t give them the courtesy or dignity of correctly pronouncing their names.
In her debut novel, Gyasi tells the story of two half-sisters born into different villages who end up leading vastly different lives, and effortlessly weaves their narratives with that of their descendants through eight generations. The lives that are portrayed have a common thread of ancestry, but there is another common thread. Each character is influenced not only by their own perception of themselves, but also by how others perceive them. As we saw in the opening excerpt, one way that outside perception was imposed was via something intrinsic to each of us: our name.
One’s name says so much about who you are and who you are becoming, and despite the circumstances that these women were in, I believe those men should have respected that part of them – at the very least. It also got me wondering about how much people value their names and what they signify.
This hits particularly close to home for me because of my first name — Songine’ (Sawn-ji-nay). It’s not the easiest name to say, something I have known since grade school. On the first day of class, the teacher would go through the roll, pause just a little bit longer when she arrived at the Cs, and then simply call for “Ms. Clarke,” after which I raised my hand and correctly pronounced my first name.
I never shortened it, preferring to leave it as is. Though I have a family nickname, one I made up for myself in junior high, and an easier-to-pronounce middle name, I decided back in about the third grade to stick with Songine’. At the time, I didn’t realize my decision had any meaning other than personal preference.
It’s true I was tired of my name being so hard to pronounce for others. My classmates all had easier names to pronounce, and mine was often misspelled too. For a time, I briefly considered going by my middle name, Alexis, until one day in class I learned the meaning of the word “unique.” Merriam-Webster defines it as, “Being the only one, being without a like or equal.” When my younger self heard this, I knew that this unique name of mine was special, and that I couldn’t go by anything else. Now that I loved the unique name that I was given, I had to learn to love the unique person that came with it.
Just like some of Gyasi’s characters, my teenage mind was usually preoccupied with thoughts of how others saw me, and I allowed these perceptions to sway my view of myself so much so that, eventually, what I thought of myself was skewed. I allowed the media to tell me that as a dark skin Black girl, I was not beautiful but that the girl with lighter skin in the music videos was. I allowed the ideas of my classmates to make me hide that I liked to read, go to art museums and that I was a fan of both Lil’ Bow Wow (a Black rapper) and Aaron Carter (a white pop singer).
To make matters worse, it seemed as if other young Black girls were okay with being called “redbone” or being classified as pretty “for a dark-skinned girl” or being reduced to their body type. I can’t help but think of the words of Malcolm X when he asked, “Who taught you to hate yourself?” But those words weren’t going through my teenage brain — or a lot of my peers’ brains either. We just wanted to fit in, we wanted guys to like us, we didn’t want to disrupt the mold of what was normal or acceptable. We didn’t realize that our physical and mental features were for far more than the human gaze; they were what made us unique.
Now that I’m 27 and a bit more solid in my identity, I wish I had believed in myself more fully then, and that I didn’t let the perceptions of others influence me so heavily. I wish I had known clearly that who Songine’ is and is becoming is beautiful and unique — just like my name. I wish I understood to my bones that my name carries a beautiful story that is still being written like Effia’s, Abena’s, Akua’s and the other descendants in Gyasi’s book. Like her characters, my story will also be carried on through my descendants. Despite what the media may say about Black women, no one else can write our story better, no one else can create our narratives. We are here and each of our lives have a beautiful story written out for each and every one of us.