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The Gift of a Name

31 Aug Posted by in • Jewelle Gomez | Comments Off on The Gift of a Name
The Gift of a Name

My name has been on my mind all of my life.  It’s not like when you’re called Mary Jones…perfectly lovely name but not uncommon.  Gomez isn’t that uncommon either actually; even Gomes (which is the original spelling) isn’t unusual, especially in my father’s Cape Verdean culture.

Jewelle, however, is out of the ordinary.  I didn’t meet another Jewelle until I was in my 30s and I’ve only met one other with the same spelling.  We grow into the shape of our names, I think.  I had to live up to being called “Jewelle the fool” when I was 9 years old. And I did.

African slaves were stripped of their names when forced onto these shores and often saddled with others that were comical or that chained them their owners.  European immigrants are often encouraged to ‘simplify’ their names as if people in the US are not bright enough to learn to say anything with more than two syllables. And why couldn’t Norma Jean be famous without being called Marilyn Monroe?  What is in a name?

In the 1960s the Black Power Movement encouraged Black Americans to reject old slave names and embrace traditional Africans…there were a lot of Nefertitis in my ‘hood. Then in 1970s the Women’s Movement inspired feminists to shake off the oppression of male names that signified our symbolic and actual status as appendages and create our own, more joyful names. I considered Lilac Doloresdaughter but by then I’d become Jewelle Gomez.

I was raised by my great grandmother who had a fabulous name, Gracias Sportsman Morandus.  Kind of like some old royal family.  And she was—married to a direct descendent of the Wampanoag ‘chief’ for whom Massachusetts was named. She, her daughter, Lydia and My mother looked like they could have greeted the Pilgrims as they stepped off the boat. So this July, as my mother did before she died, I went back to Massachusetts, or what the Pilgrims had left of it, to land that has been occupied by the Perry Clan of Wampnoags for hundreds of years for my naming ceremony.

I was anxious for many reasons…I was bridging a cultural gap between my varied ethnic roots—Cape Verdean, Wampanoag and Ioway. I would meet clan members I’ve never known and trusting a member to pick a name for me.  The day was like any family reunion—90 degrees, carefully chilled salads and children in a plastic pool.  The difference was the extensive conversation about ancestors and lineage laced in with the sports, kids, unemployment and fashion.  To my relief, I wasn’t the only queer person there, although still in a minority among the 50 or so folks.

But in our commonality we remembered each other as a people who’ve known an earlier time before we were only mascots for sports teams or invisible.  My friend, Mineweh, had studied my writing, talked with me and thought on who I might be so she could find my Native name. And I was called Still Waters.

Naming is such a mystical thing, so I’m still settling into it and exploring what it says about my essence.  I feel lucky to get a chance at another name at my age and without having to become a movie start which would require it.  A name that grows out of some sense of my inner self at this moment is a bonus.  Adding a name is like getting a new tattoo—it’s not a small matter; it brings new worlds to you, new considerations and perspectives and new responsibilities. But the gift of a name is that it connects us with others, with the past as well as with ourselves. I look forward to shaping who that self will be.

Jewelle Gomez is the author of 7 books including the lesbian vampire classic novel, The Gilda Stories.  Her new play about James Baldwin will be produced in September 2011. Follow her on Twitter: VampyreVamp.  Or her website: www.jewellegomez.com

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