Saturday, May 23, 2015

Naming Innocence

Written before the birth of my son Benjamin:

I am the father of a yet unborn son. I see him squirming around in his mama's stomach, and I imagine that he's ready to be in this world. But there is this business of birth and this business of a name. The birth, I'm pretty much an awed witness of, but the name I can help out with. As a man, I know how powerful your name can be to the people you encounter, and how you encounter yourself. 

My name, Abdel, is actually a bit strange. Not in the way that I'm usually prepared for it to be strange, like when I met people in Minnesota and they thought my name was Ed or Bill. Confused white folks thinking I'm strange, Nothing really new there. Or strange like when I served in an Americorps program in the Baltimore public schools, and I introduced myself to a school volunteer, a black woman who could have been my grandma, and she spit my name back at me like a piece of rotten cheese. What is that, foreign? she said. (Luckily, I wasn't a girl because I've been told I would have been Assata and ended up on terrorist no-fly list.) I didn't know how strange it was until I started writing news stories about the Somali community in Minneapolis. My name actually made people smile, for maybe the first time. Abdelshakur. Abdelshakur. Abdelshakur. One day somebody took me aside and let me know how rare (strange) it was to have just Abdel as a first name. "Abdel" is something like servant, or slave, of God, and the second part would be an attribute of God. Shakur means the most thankful. My name says I am the servant of a thankful God. Sounds about right. I had kind of a fuzzy perception about the meaning of the name, but connecting with these Africans made me feel more at home in Minnesota, of all places. My parents didn't know it, but they had given me an entry point into a whole other culture. A whole other experience. A name does that.

So, naming a son is no small task. It bears a heavier burden than naming a girl. The possibilities are much greater. You can name her Amy or Diamond or Tulip or Faith or Apple or Blue Ivy. Guys are Greg or Paul or Marcus or James. If you get too creative with Black male names, you're likely going to cost them a job (or worse) somewhere down the line. Outside of professional football, I can't think of too many career fields where having a name like Barkevious Mingo wouldn't hold you back.

And that's the real issue. With this son, we want to give him entree into a world beyond just what goes on in our neighborhood or city or nation. But it's far too easy for black boys to lose their innocence. Or at least to have their innocence unrecognized and then taken from them. And really, what else do we have if we do not have our innocence? What name do you give a Black boy to give him an entry point into a world that recognizes him for who he is, not what history says he should become?

Really, I don't know that I have an answer. We decided on Benjamin, but if you need a nickname, just call him Loved.

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