Black Women Writers @ Southwestern University

An English / Feminist Studies / Race & Ethnicity Studies Course Blog

What’s in a Name?


I noticed in our discussion on Wednesday that everyone was struggling with how to pronounce the names in Americanah. And I get it – names are hard. I was pronouncing “Dike” in my head like “dyke” and I was pronouncing the “e” on the end of “Obinze,” and if you aren’t hearing someone say the name out loud, it can be difficult to know which syllables are stressed and which vowels have a long or short sound.

But I think it’s important to try to get names right. Many names have a certain meaning, specially chosen by parents or guardians. Some names are picked out so that a person can be automatically associated with a specific culture or ethnicity. Names allow people to have a specific identity, to have a sense of person hood.

When Obinze moves to London, he is forced to adopt the identity of a London citizen in order to find a job. Obinze takes on the name “Vincent” as must learn to respond when the name is called. Obinze is unable to claim his own identity because he is not a citizen of England, and he lives in fear of being discovered and being deported. Being able to use his true identity and name is a luxury that Obinze does not have in London.

Everyone is entitled to their own name. Sure, people might mispronounce it the first few times they say it – teachers always butchered my name the first few days of school – but the important thing to do is ask how to pronounce and then make a real effort to do so correctly. My opinion on this subject may be much stronger than most other people’s, but I truly believe it is respectful to at least try to get the names right – to not say it’s just too hard and decide to use a nickname. And yes, I know these are fictional characters who aren’t here to tell us how to say their names correctly. But they have these names for a reason and I think the effort should still be made.


2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. I feel the same way. I have met a lot of people with “unconventional” names. Often, they are forced to shorten their name or adopt a new name. It is the people with the most “ethnic” names who are forced to do this most often. This became clear to me when I came to college and met Asian students who had been given American names that were popular decades ago. You can imagine my shock at meeting a student named Betty. While this name shows America’s discomfort with names that challenge the status quo, the name also demonstrates that certain people have the power and privilege to change other people’s names to something of their liking. No doubt an older teacher who grew up in a time period in which Betty was a popular name decided on that new name. It is also important to recognize that this renaming process starts when a child enters school. It does not magically happen when a person enters college or the workforce. Ask someone with a name that Americans find hard to pronounce.

    While some people have gotten used to their new names and seem to prefer using them, I think it is important to try to learn their real name. Your name is quite a large part of your identity and it’s how others identify you.

  2. Keara, I really agree with you.
    As we sat in class, and I myself struggled, I ended up shortening the character’s names, or acting as if my own mispronunciations were fine enough. These unfamiliar names were not meant to be shortened though, and they were not given for me to recreate in my own manner. You raise such a valid and thoughtful point – names are important, and neither authors or parents choose them nonchalantly.
    Thanks for challenging my brain here; much appreciated.

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