BY MARIA D. JAMES — A few years ago, my brother, my sister and I decided to go visit our late father’s brother for a family get-together. A visit to my Uncle Bernard’s always meant laughter and a delicious meal, and this visit didn’t disappoint. As we ate, the conversation transitioned into a discussion about our family history. I learned that, during a previous family reunion, a relative researched our genealogy. My uncle pulled out a thick booklet that contained the James family history — even my name was included. As a lover of history, I looked through the pages of the book in awe. Then my fascination turned to pride, sadness and frustration, all mixed together inside of me.
One name triggered this tumble of feelings: Africa James. She is the first recorded member of my family to come to America as a slave. Not only was she likely robbed of many things in her life, but what stood out to me the most was that her birth name was stolen from her. I’m certain that “Africa James” was not the name given to her by her parents.
On Jan. 11, I was reminded that names do have power.
In a closed-door meeting with a bipartisan team of senators to pitch a compromise immigration deal to protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals participants while increasing border security, President Donald Trump, according to various sources, rejected the compromise and allegedly said, “Why do we want all these people from s***hole countries coming here?” The president then allegedly asked why we want people from Haiti and more Africans in the U.S. He reportedly stated that the U.S. should get more people from countries like Norway.
Our president has been recorded as saying some pretty awful things. But I was still surprised that the person in the role of president of the United States would give such a hateful name to certain countries. Then I asked myself the question, “What is in a name?”
Let’s be clear — the president’s statement was not intended to be a compliment. Many people were highly offended, and rightfully so. This was not the first time in American history that names were used to dehumanize people of African descent. Black people have often been referred to by ugly names, such as the N-word. During the Jim Crow era, adult men were forced to call their white counterparts “sir,” while they themselves were called “boy.”
Generations of black people have used their blood, sweat and tears to contribute to American society, some willingly and many by force. And yet, in 2018, the president reduced their positive and meaningful contributions to American society to a connection with “s****hole countries.” The comparison to people from a European country made it clear to me that this was a racist belief. For a moment, I felt sadness and frustration, but then a warm sense of pride welled up. The same tumble of emotions as when I encountered the name Africa James, but this time, my pride lingered and then strengthened. I was proud to see people of African and Haitian origins turn the president’s disparaging remarks into a hashtag as they shared photos and words displaying pride in their heritage, their achievements and their contributions to the world. They decided to flip a negative name into positive reflections of pride.
I still believe there is power in a name. But I also believe that the name you’re called doesn’t have to be the name that you accept.