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25 February 2013

Why is it ok to laugh at Quvenzhané Wallis’s name?

So often, the names people "cannot" learn to pronounce belong to little black girls and little black boys.

By Bim Adewunmi

Everyone calls me Bim. Everyone. For most of my life that’s what I’ve gone by. Bim. B-I-M. Three letters, one syllable. Bim. When I was concerned by these things, I would lament its cuteness – “that’s not a sexy name,” I would think. I would put on Billy Crystal’s voice and paraphrase his line from When Harry Met Sally: “Do it to me Bim, you’re an animal, Bim… Doesn’t work.” Bim is cute. Bim is fun. When considered in a certain light, it sounds almost French – gamine, fluffy. But not, I was convinced, sexy.

Like I said, I was younger and more foolish then. I had a lot of time to be sitting and considering the tone of voice my name should be delivered in.

Bim is not my full first name. That is Adebimpe. Four syllables. Ah-day-bim-pay. Is it unusual? In the UK, sure. Is it difficult? Nah, it’s not. Not really. Like a lot of West African names, it’s pretty much a “say what you see” system. But no-one calls me Adebimpe anyway.

My name is Yoruba, it is Nigerian. It means something, something that roughly comes to “born complete” in English. My unusual name may be mocked (it has been), but it is generally given a “pass” because it is African, because it “means something”.

The names that aren’t given passes, the ones that we are allowed to openly disparage, they look a certain way. They may have African languages at their root. They may, like certain movies, be “inspired by the true story of…” Africa, or some other continent. They may be laced with an extra accent, or a hard “s” where a soft “ch” is more usual. They are names that have the sounds “qua” and “nae”. They almost always belong to little black girls and little black boys.

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I am thinking of my name because of one specific little brown girl in America, who also has an unusual name. I am thinking about Quvenzhané Wallis, the youngest person to be nominated for an Academy Award. I am thinking about the people who “cannot” pronounce the four simple syllables in her name. I am thinking about the YouTube videos that tell you how to pronounce her name. I am thinking about the people who eventually “learn” to say “Siobhan” and “Caoimhe” and “Aoife” but become tongue-tied and struggle with “Tyeisha” and “Myosha” and “Nyachomba”. I am thinking of the woman who met me and asked if she could abbreviate my already shortened name and call me “B”. I am thinking about my name, and I am thinking about Quvenzhané’s.

I am thinking of the words of Kenyan-born Somali poet Warsan Shire:

“Give your daughters difficult names.
Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue.
My name makes you want to tell me the truth.
My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

Incidentially, fuck you, The Onion.

This post originally appeared on Bim’s blog, yorubagirldancing.com, and is crossposted here with her permission