How to Be Black: Baratunde Talks Ethnic Names

My name seems simple enough—to me anyway. Trenee. My mother simply added a letter to her own name and there you have it. Her version of junior, but for a girl. Growing up, I’ve heard people add extra letters, abbreviate it, make mama seem ignorant, or totally butcher it. A few examples of this include, Trebay, Treneshalay, Treneeka, Trini, and the dreaded Tra-nay-nay.  How to be Black author Baratunde Thurston feels my pain. He knows what it’s like to have people act like your name is too hard to remember or it’s too ethnic. Again, like Thurston, in classrooms and public spaces when my name is called, I always recognize the strange face and lip contortions as people attempt to say my 6-letter name—three vowels and an accent. Renee with a T. That’s all.

This excerpt from How to Be Black really hits home for me. Thurston shares my exact name-game story. I hope a few others out there will relate:

Chapter One: Where Did You Get That Name?

Barry. Barrington. Baracuda. Bartuna. Bartender. Bartunda. Bartholomew. Bart. Baritone. Baritone Dave. Baranthunde. Bar—. Brad.

This is a representative sample of the world’s attempts to say or recreate my name. For the record, it’s Baratunde (baa-ruh-TOON-day).

I’ve trained for decades in the art of patiently waiting for people to butcher my name. It’s often a teacher or customer service official who has to read aloud from a list. I listen to them breeze through Daniel and Jennifer and even Dwayne, but inevitably, there’s a break in their rhythm. “James! Carrie! Karima! Stephanie! Kevin!” Pause. “Bar—.” Pause. They look around the room, and then look back at their list. Their confidence falters.The declarative tone applied to the names before mine gives way to a weak, interrogative stumbling:

Barry? Barrington? Baracuda? Bartuna? Bartender? Bar-tunda? Bartholomew? Bart? Baritone? Baritone Dave? Baranthunde? Bar—? Brad!!

The person who called me Brad was engaged in the most lazy and hilarious form of wishful thinking, but all the others kind of, sort of, maybe make some sense. This experience is so common in my life that I now entirely look forward to it. Like a child on Christmas morning who hasn’t yet been told that Santa is a creation of consumer culture maintained by society to extend the myth of “economic growth,” I eagerly await the gift of any new variation the next person will invent. Can I get a Beelzebub? Who will see a Q where none exists? How about some numbers or special characters? Can I get a hyphen, underscore, forward slash? Only after letting the awkward process run its public course do I step forward, volunteering myself as the bearer of the unpronounceable label and correct them: “That’s me. It’s Baratunde.”

I love my name. I love people’s attempts to say it. I love that everyone, especially white people, wants to know what it means. So here’s the answer:

My full name is Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. It’s got a nice flow. It’s global. I like to joke that “Baratunde” is a Nigerian name that means “one with no nickname.” “Rafiq” is Arabic for “really, no nickname,” and “Thurston” is a British name that means “property of Massa Thurston.” (Read more . . . )

Happy reading, y’all.

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2 thoughts on “How to Be Black: Baratunde Talks Ethnic Names

  1. I’m just plain Mary. But Baratunde is a beautiful name. I’m sure the president went through the same thing. I most certainly will be checking this out.

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