Naming Ourselves and Loving Each Other
Immigrant stories, Immigrant Lives
There is an umbilical connection between the description imposed upon any group and the way it is treated. (Ward Churchill)
In the White middle class neighborhood I was raised up in as a child, all my friends had names like Bobby, Jimmy, Richie, Donny, Jonny, Larry, Billy, and Teddy. In reaction to this, as a five-year-old and eight-year-old Black boy (one of the only of-Color children in the area) I loved all of the Puerto Rican and Dominican baseball players on TV and the radio (1950’s-60’s) with names like Felipe Alou, Orlando Cepeda (thirty years later I had his niece as one of my students), Roberto Clemente, Felix Mantia, and Julian Javier. My mother made certain that I pronounced their names correctly.
In a White supremacist social setting, where the women of the coffee klatch — which did not admit my mother — claimed that she was Puerto Rican (for, after all, why would an upstanding White woman deliberately marry a “negro”?) my mother would routinely rail against the Anglo tendency to anglicize everyone’s name. Alexander was dropped down to “Al” or worse. My little sister Gabrielle (a beautiful name) was “Gabby”… And while these Anglos thought they were being clever by designating my Italian mother Puerto Rican, in fact she was an activist in the Puerto Rican Independentista movement — she did not consider being Puerto Rican as a step down from anything. Meanwhile, though she was an ardent internationalist, she was at the same time very proud of her own heritage.
So, when the friends of our family came around — and they came from various continents, particularly Africa and Latin America — my parents insisted on calling them by their original names. And I, when playing baseball, would always name myself Roberto Clemente — for one thing, it had a melodious sound; and for another, when it really counted Roberto Clemente always got a hit — one of the greatest baseball players ever! (Further, Clemente was a humanitarian, dedicated to the liberation of the peoples. In 1972 he flew a plane down to Central America during the middle of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua to bring food and other needed supplies to the people affected by the earthquake in that country. His plane crashed and this is how his life ended. Today, it is legitimate to wonder whether or not the CIA brought down that plane…)
Immigrants, Names and Deportations
Fast forward forty years later, and the neighborhood I live in is like the United Nations: People from seven continents and hundreds of nationalities. Here in Dorchester, Massachusetts, we honor everyone’s nationality — and we see each nation-of-origin as equally important in the mosaic that is humankind.
I conduct an on-line tutoring business as one of the hustles that keeps Bank of America from foreclosing on my house. I have students over the internet from all over the United States, and probably, for the majority, English is their second or third language. In this connection, I hear all types of pretty, lovely and diverse names. I also insist on my mother’s principle of not allowing people to anglicize Folk’s names.
Recently, I got a call from a student from Washington D.C., who said his name was “Fred.” He had the accent of someone from the Middle East. I said, “’Fred,’ what is your real name? I would much prefer to call you by your real name.”
“What do you mean?” Fred was not trying to engage this inquiry head-on.
“I want to know your real name? Listen, I know it can’t be ‘Fred’.”
‘Fred’ insisted over the phone that he did not know what I meant. I said, “’Fred,’ I’m not White; you can tell me your real name.”
The colonized perceives the doctor, the engineer, the schoolteacher, the policeman, the rural constable, through the haze of an almost organic confusion…. This ambivalence is in fact to be found in connection with all of the occupier’s modes of presence… In the colonial situation, going to see the doctor, the administrator, [the teacher,] the constable or the mayor are identical moves.
(Franz Fanon, pp. 121, 139)
‘Fred’ wasn’t budging, so I changed direction: “‘Fred’, what is your nationality?”
“What? What do you mean?”
“What is your nationality? What nation do you come from?”
‘Fred’ says to me, “Oh, you want to know my ethnicity?”
“’Fred’, I told you I am not White. I do not want to know your ‘ethnicity’. It is 2014 and everyone is part of a nation or a people. What is your nation?”
“Oh, you want to know what country I am from. I am from Jordan.”
“Oh, OK ‘Fred,’ now we are getting somewhere. But, I know that no one in the entire country of Jordan is named Fred. So, what is your real name? I would prefer it if you would allow me to call you by your real name, if you don’t mind.” While I am saying this, in the back of my mind are the 400,000 Folks (you know they are almost 100% People of Color, i.e., Folks) who “our” President, Barak Obama, deported in 2011, setting a record for deportations in one year (Foley, 2014). In this regard, I find myself daily quoting Martin Luther King’s adjuration to judge people by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin (“I Have a Dream,” 1963). I don’t care what color Barak Obama is — he’s a servant of U.S. monopoly capital; he does their bidding at every turn…
Now my new client was with me. “Oh, I understand. My name is Fadi; Fadi [emphasis on first syllable] Rabadi [with the emphasis on the second syllable]”.
“’Fadi Rabadi,’ that’s a beautiful name. Is it OK if I call you Fadi instead of ‘Fred’?”
At this point in the exchange with Fadi, his sister took the phone away from him, and asked me, “Alexander, what is your nationality?”
“Rosanna [probably not her real name], I am African American. We are the Palestinians of the United States.”
To this revelation Rosanna replied proudly, “Oh, we are Palestinian.” She understood that I was with her. They are not Jordanian. And they are trying to live with dignity and peace in a social system that is most lacking in peace, and which treats the peoples to all manner of indignities, including that of never knowing when merely revealing one’s name or nationality will invite disrespect and violence onto your person.
And I left the phone conversation thinking about how lyrical is the name Fadi Rabadi. It rolls off the tongue as gracefully as Julian Javier!
All states shall respect the right of self-determination and independence of peoples and nations, to be freely exercised without any foreign pressure, and with absolute respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. (United Nations, 1965) (International Law is written by the vast majority of nations and peoples of the world, over the objections of the U.S., Great Britain and Israel)
Churchill, Ward. (1994). Indians are Us? Culture and Genocide in Native North America. Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press.
Fanon, Franz. (1965). Studies in a Dying Colonialism. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Foley, Elise. (2014). “Obama Administration Sets Deportation Record.” Huffington Post.
King, Martin Luther. (1963). “I have a Dream.”
United Nations. (1965). “Declaration of the Inadmissibility of Intervention in Domestic Affairs of States and the Protection of Their Independence and Sovereignty,” Doc. A/6014. General Assembly Resolution 2131, 20th United Nations, 1965.