I stood in that hallway. I could have been standing in the middle of a four-lane expressway with cars zooming past me at 100 miles per hour and it wouldn’t have mattered. I was somewhere out in the wild. And if it all felt so foreign and a bit unnerving, maybe it was because I was indeed foreign. I had been foreign for a few months. And if there was ever any sense I could somehow shake this awareness, this consciousness—my daily pilgrimage into the heart of the beast crassly disabused me of such fantastic idea. I was fresh off-the-boat, literally. A 16-year-old African boy in an American high school. It was my 11th grade year.
That first year was full of battles, and looking back now, I’ll say I lost most, if not all of them. It was the constant struggle to belong, if not for anything, just so not to stand out—in any odd sort of way. The sort of way in which you are at an elegant event, and the camera suddenly zooms in on you and the overhead projection screen shows you feverishly picking your nose in a room full of nicely dressed folks. Yes, that sort of odd.
It was a majorly all-black school. And even though I joined a supposedly all cerebral extra-curricular activity like the chess team, I increasingly found it soothing and convenient to abandon all sense of grammatically-correct English. My un-American accent already made my English extra-noticeable, why compound my conspicuousness? I eagerly and happily embraced the loving, unjudging warmth of Ebonics. I spoke it so often and profusely that even when at home, I found myself consciously battling to reset back to default.
It was a furious determination to fit in. My name gave me away every time I had to introduce myself. It loudly announced to teachers, students, and administrators that I was not from these shores. But if only I was able to speak just like them, if my accent became American somehow, then, no longer will there be a second to contemplate how different I was or ask me to explain the origin or meaning of my name. For me, throughout that first year, I had found the perfect road map for survival and I’d be damned if anyone was going to take it from me.
My 12th grade and final year of high school was next, and there it was, I had a “Paul on the Road to Damascus” moment. Well, it was more a series of moments, a series of awakenings. It somehow began to sink in and weigh heavily on me how lost I’d become. Africa was high on my mind. Nigeria was high on my mind. But my new-found identity had a low tolerance for dual consciousness. This Americana identity I was laboriously trying to perfect had only one seat available in the lifeboat. I could no longer claim I was a bona fide son of the land of my birth if the identity of old is anathema. Something had to give.
I had to choose which was more important. I still have to live in America, after all. And there was no deceiving myself, I knew either way, the sacrifices resulting from my choice were going to be substantial and everlasting.
I slowly began to dismantle the house I had built. It became more important to me that when I spoke to you, you realized that I was “ethnic.” That my accent told you I’m indeed from a faraway place you might not have been before. That I would have to grudgingly speak a little slower so you can understand me. That it was okay that my name is “Pelumi,” and not “P,” or whatever other bastardized name you’d rather choose to address me by.
It has been a journey ever since then. And it has not been easy. I have in recent past, on occasions introduced myself as “John” or “Jonathan” to a stranger, who at an event asked for my name. Just because at the moment, I did not wish to provoke a conversation on where I was from or what my name meant. Or maybe, unsolicited, I wrongly put it upon myself to save the stranger the hassle of struggling to pronounce “Pelumi.”
These were undeniably guilty moments. And I quickly afterward silently repudiate myself for a gross lapse in consciousness and a cowardly attempt at conventionality. I have long come to realize my name, my accent, my African identity are more than jigsaw pieces to an identity, but incontestably symbols of a resistance. If I am so visibly invested in an African renaissance, how can I persist or assist in the subjugation of a people, a continent, by conforming to foreign dictates which devalue and trivialize the African aura, the African persona?
And this is not to declaim that one cannot hold dual citizenship. I believe one can, but I also believe it is impossible to hold an equal level of devotion and loyalty to both. In any moment of truth, one will have to suffer for the other.
Identity is important. Barack Obama came to this same crossroads over two decades ago. On so many occasions, he introduced himself to new and old friends as “Barry” and told teachers to call him thus. Even his grandparents and mom affectionately called him “Bar.” By his own acknowledgement, it was easier than having to defend or answer questions about his ethnicity were people to call him Barack.
He soon found himself lost at sea with no mast, no sails, and no winds favorable. There was an inner struggle to own up to self. To step out of the shadow in which he had created for himself so he could be easily accepted.
After his second year of college, he told friends and families no more. His name was Barack and he was to be addressed as such. Friends and family were put on notice. And of course, the consequences of such a decision were not lost on him. Sitting on Oprah’s couch some years ago, Barack recounted how a campaign adviser told him that in American politics, one is only allowed to have one funny name. “You can’t bear both ‘Barack’ and ‘Obama’,” the adviser said. He had to choose one. He was to Americanize a name. Then, at that moment, memories of “Barry” came flooding back.
Barack refused. He understood then more than ever, the acceptance of his ethnic name gave identity to who he was as a person. It infused him with a sort of existence that has been absent in him his whole life. No confidence ever comes from conformity. Today, the man is a two-term president of the United States of America.
So if you were to ask me some years from now, “What’s in a name?” I’ll simply tell you this: Nothing … Only everything.