On a misty, humid June day in the back of the bayou, a woman went into labor. It was not long or especially hard–the baby came in the evening. Indeed, it seemed that God himself had deemed it necessary to give the baby easy passage into the world–she would not have an easy life on this side of her mother’s womb, so He granted her reprieve for her journey.
She was wrapped in swaddling clothes in shades of pink and purple; her father marveled at her masses of tight jet black curls; family members came to fawn over her dimples, bringing balloons and stuffed animals to commemorate the event.
What should we call her, dear reader?
My name is pretty white. It comes from the Latin Katharina, which comes from the Greek Aikaterina. It is not hard to pronounce; it is not a name that is especially ethnic or exotic. It is Katherine Marie Powell. I love it a lot.
“Why’d you name me Katherine?” I asked my dad one day, trying to get to the history of my name. He shrugged. “I don’t know. I thought it was pretty. Classic.” When I asked what some alternatives might have been, he told me about the short lived Miracle (because my mother had had trouble getting pregnant) and Derricka (jokingly derived from his own name, Derrick). “Why didn’t you name me that?” He just laughed.
In choosing my Christian name, my Black American father shaped my presentation to the world. I could have been a Shaniqua or Janesha, a Desirée or Diamond. The reason my father didn’t pick those names, and the reason a lot of Black parents don’t pick them, is because they don’t want their children to be viewed as ghetto.
Those names are all beautiful in their own way. All names are beautiful, because they are what you are called by those who love you the most. But some names are not European. As a result, they must be unacceptable; only different, uneducated people have those names.
When I was younger, I had a conversation about names with a woman who had just become a grandmother. The baby’s name was Trenton; when I remarked that I had never met a Black boy named Trenton (still haven’t), she said “Exactly. People think of you differently when your name is Daquan.” I used to take pride in the fact that my name was “classier” than others, until I realized the value of Katherine depended on the fact that it was pleasing to white cultural norms.
My middle name is Marie. It’s the French version of Mary, which stems from the Hebrew Miryam, which has a whole host of contested meanings. For me, Marie has always meant family; almost all the women on my mother’s side share my middle name. When I was younger, I didn’t understand why my grandmother insisted so heavily on me always using my full name. “Your name ain’t Katherine Powell. It’s Katherine Marie Powell.” She emphasized the absence of my middle name as an offense to the family; whereas other kids didn’t really care about their middle name, I began to roll mine around in my mouth. I began to add it to my writing, just using the “M”—it made me feel like we shared something secret. I realized that Marie connects me to my grandmother and her mother. It gives me a paper and ink and vocal tie to my mother and sister and cousins. It’s a small thing that we share, but it reminds me of where I come from.
My last name is also an interesting foray into cultural identity. It is most likely Welsh in origin; I am not (you guessed it) very Welsh. It probably comes from a slave trader or owner that had some connection with my paternal ancestors. My last name, I think, highlights all the questions about my family’s history that I don’t know—how long my family has been in America, what country my ancestors came from, and what happened when they got here. My last name affords no ties to the motherland.
As a whole, the name Katherine Marie Powell is pretty American. I do not often feel the same. I think I’m too Black to be American. Despite being (probably) a fifth- or sixth- generation American, though, my people and I are still viewed as outsiders. If you asked the average person to pick the average American girl named Katherine Powell, she would not look like me. My name reflects the cultural assimilation that my predecessors had to make: they had their languages and histories and beautiful names erased, and were given those of their captors.
Despite all the diasporic angst of my name, I love it a lot—not least because it is mine, and I’m growing into it.
“The name of a queen and the name of a saint. It mean pure, too. She got a lot to live up to,” he offered, holding her for a moment more before handing her back to her parents.
And yes, the baby girl had many stars to reach; she had many angels whose wings she would fly on. But, for now, she was taken from the pulpit, driven home, and cradled in the arms of her family, while they ate and sang and prayed for her good life.
As she grew, her name became many things: she was Katie at church, where the mothers engulfed her in perfumed hugs and gave her candy. She was Katherine or Kat at school; her friends yelled it across halls and got it confused with her best friend Kathleen.
Katherine Marie stayed with her. It sounded full and brimming with promise. It was a comfortable friend.
She was always, always Katchie with her family. The name, for her, smelled like sweet potato pie and greens, sounded like late night card games at her great-grandmother’s house, the dusties of the sixties and seventies, and the laughter of all the ones she loved dearly.