Many cultures treat names as an important aspect of identity but in many cultures individuals have no say at all on what becomes their names.
‘Shed that name they put you in.’ —Obongjayar, ‘New Man’
It is a new day.
For the last two or so years, I have called myself, been called, and gotten published under the name Grey Atanda. Before that, in 2017, I was Atanda Obatolu; a young man with a new image of himself, having only just come to terms with his queerness. And before that, I was Faruq Obatolu, my legal name, cishet and stiff, in a long, problematic heterosexual relationship that destroyed me when it ended. Now it is 2022. I am 24 years old, gender nonconforming and more confident in my body than ever before. I am more aware of myself, more deliberate and intelligent—and I have decided to adopt a new name, Ìjàpá. Ìjàpá Ọlọ́gbọ́n-Ẹ̀wẹ́. The cunning tortoise.
THE ESSENCE OF NAMES
As soon as a self is born, it is branded with a name. Most times, the name is afore chosen, waiting, and after birth, the name is wrapped around the new self like a shawl. Amongst the Yorùbá, of whom I am descended, there is the concept of –orúkọ àmú t’ọ̀rún wá. This translates into ‘preordained name’, the idea being that certain children, by virtue of how they are born, must necessarily be called certain names. For example, I am called Òjó, one of my many birth names, because I was born with the umbilical cord wrapped around my neck. Children born in the footling breech position are called Ìgè; twins are called Ìbejì, and each of the pair is called Táíyé and Kẹ́hìndé respectively.
Yorùbá people understand that names do not function merely as a form of identification. We believe that names carry individuated value, surrounded as we are by the superstition that a child’s various names are linked to its destiny or serve as translations of its ‘selves’. This is what we mean when we say, ‘orúkọ n rò ẹ́’, which roughly translates into ‘your name burdens you with this.’ It is so important to get the names of a child right that, in the old days, parents consulted the oracle before naming their children. As though to wear the wrong name were a terrible thing indeed, some kind of curse.
Nobel laureate Toni Morrison also understood this well. In her decades-long career as a novelist, she could never write a character properly unless she had given them the correct names. For her, a character’s name was a crucial piece in the puzzle of their personality, and it was important to get it right in order to be able to properly represent the character. When she used the wrong name, the character would refuse to come alive on the page, remaining resolutely elusive until she found a fitting name.
THE YORUBA EXCEPTION
There is a new scent in the air.
These days, because of the tyranny of Abrahamic religions, the wisdom of the oracle is widely disdained. Still, Yorùbá people observe the process of name-choosing carefully, often conducting research into family histories and traditions. And naming ceremonies remain every bit as ritualistic. Except that now, instead of the oracles, elders in the family, friends and loved ones, come forth during the ceremony to give the child their own special name. The result is that most Yorùbá children end up with multiple names, even though they can only be legally documented following the Western naming convention of ‘first name—middle name—last name’.
I, for example, am legally represented as ‘Faruq Adedoyin Obatolu’, but have over twenty other names, more names than any of my siblings. It used to be a source of pride for me when I was younger. I imagined a future of endless possibilities: I could wake up one bright happy morning and attach some random personalities to some random names—and those personalities would be available to me because those names were in fact my own. I don’t know all my names—I don’t think my parents do either—but the story of how I came to have them is one that fascinates me.
I was born in 1998, the first child of my mother, who was then unmarried in her thirty-second year. Even though she was already seeing my father, it wouldn’t be until another nine or so years before they became officially married. At the time, it was considered an unfortunate thing for my mother to still be single and without child at that age. I hear she had been trying for a few years to conceive—having most certainly been pushed, even within a society so reverent of matrimony, into the conclusion that her childlessness was a more urgent state of affairs than her singleness. Before me, she had had a few miscarriages, so that when she became pregnant with me, there was the fear that this one, too, would go the same way. My mother’s best friend told this story at my mother’s fiftieth birthday party, her voice booming with power and overwhelming me to the point of tears. She talked about how, once, on a bus, she grabbed my mother’s arm and pulled her up into a sort of squat to keep her belly safe each time the bus fell into potholes and threw the passengers every which way. So serious was the fear of another miscarriage that when I finally arrived, there was general relief and rejoicing. And everyone wanted to put their mark on this new survivor child—to brand it in their own way.
This is a pervasive scent. Like a mood.
The Yorùbá convention of naming remains one I find intriguing. I think it has a lot to teach about names and naming. For one, it makes a solid point about the defining power of names. Granted, this is not a novel, or even unique, idea. Everyone knows that names are powerful. They can be adopted to signify political positions (Malcolm X, Assata Shakur), and withdrawn as a form of disempowerment. In a 2020 conversation with Nikki Giovanni and the founders of the Girl Trek Movement, Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison, activist Angela Davis made a statement about how she refused to say the name of the then US president in public because saying a person’s name gives them power.
But the Yorùbá naming practice brings something else exciting to the table. I describe it as a refusal to limit the self. Yorùbá people understand that the self is capable of manifesting in multiple ways and so must not be treated as a singular entity. And names, if we are honest about them, are some sort of brackets into which individuals are summed up, little bubbles of meaning. So, it is not simply that the more is merrier, but that the fewer is insufficient.
Of course, not all of a person’s given names are actually used on a day-to-day basis. Most people are called one or two things all their lives. For me, of all my birth names, only about three are functional, and, as I’ve said, I don’t know most of them. Still, an awareness of them shapes a way of being in the world: you are more likely to imagine and accept the multiplicity of the self if you can match each manifestation of it to a different name.
DEFINITIONS BELONG TO THE DEFINERS
But, for all its sophistication, the Yorùbá naming convention remains inadequate in achieving true nuance, and it is at this point that I diverge from it. Most cultures treat names as an important aspect of cultural identity, which would be a good thing except that it invariably fails to center the individual in the process. This is evident in the fact that names are given to a person, who is then expected to be identified by them forever. This imposition calls into question the power dynamics involved in the very activity of naming. Who names? Who is named? It is difficult not to think of it as a conqueror-conquered relationship, as a form of exercising power, since the person who names must necessarily be more powerful than the one who is named.
Yet children must be named. It is ridiculous to suggest that we abolish altogether the tradition of naming—or naming-at-birth—if for no other reason than that names serve as referential signals. Some cultures have found creative ways around this—the Balinese, for example, identify their children according to birth order, replacing indivualized names with words that signify position, like Wayan (First) and Ketut (Fourth)—but more to my point is the question of approach. How do we approach our names, and ultimately ourselves? Do we treat them with flexibility? As not decided and over-and-done-with but capable of being reviewed, revised, changed? As tentative? Functional only until their bearers can choose their own names for themselves?
I wish we would.
It would address, finally, the question of who can name whom. It recenters the individual in the activity, returning to them the agency to determine their own names and thereby define them-self. Not only is it arrogant that a person should think they have the power to determine another person’s identity, it is imperialist, colonialist, an activity similar to the one that occurred behind closed doors in Berlin in 1884. That is why I have never understood Nigeria’s refusal to follow in the path of countries like Ghana and Zimbabwe, choosing instead to retain its colonial name.
We understand that names are such a vital part of identity; if this is the case, then why should we not get a chance to decide them for ourselves? It is a new day after all, and all over the world young people are insisting on a new order of things. For me, it is a matter of integrity, of taking ownership of oneself: in Beloved, Toni Morrison wrote: Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.’ In other words, the definitions you apply to me belong to you. They have nothing to do with me.
It is also a matter of one’s understanding of the self. And here I wish to make a case for fluidity, taking as my starting point the multiplicity present in the Yorùbá approach to names, and thus the self. Simply put: if the self is multiple, then why not fluid? Some philosophers say that the self is a reflection of reality, but since reality is constantly changing, how then can the self remain the same? As we mature and review our relationship with the world, we must necessarily embrace a new understanding of our self. This is not a novel idea. Buddhists have believed for centuries that the self is in a state of constant flux. And in ancient Western philosophy, Heraclitus’s thoughts on change and flow are illuminating. Yet those ideas do not necessarily influence how we think about names—but I think they should. If we stop treating names as things that are over and done with, then we will be less likely to think of the self they represent in the same way. And imagine if we lived with the ever-present awareness that change is constant, perhaps the only thing constant in a world of multiple realities; that nothing is ever finally decided.
It makes the possibility of discovery more real, more exciting⎈
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