The Power of A Name
The power of names is clear in politics. The former Secretary of State was first Hillary Rodham, then Hillary Rodham Clinton, then Hillary Clinton. In her 2016 presidential campaign, she was just Hillary. President Barack Obama has always been known in the public eye as Barack, but throughout his childhood and into his early adulthood he went by Barry.
Whether given or chosen, what we are called is a unique identifier. It is a part of who we are and links to what we represent.
It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I fully embraced my name and what it represents.
Jackson is my family name; it is the last name of all of my uncles and aunts in deep east Texas. It is my grandfather’s last name and my father’s last name. For all intents and purposes, it was my last name, but legally, it wasn’t. On both my SAT scores and my high school diploma, my name is Safia Jackson. When Outkast’s “I’m sorry Ms. Jackson” was released while I was in elementary school, it was repeatedly sung to me. But it was not the last name I was given. My father converted to the Nation of Islam in the late 1960s and, like many other converts, he adopted a new name in honor of his enslaved ancestors. Jackson, a name given by a slave owner to his slaves, was not an original name for any of those slaves and was not a name chosen by them. It was forced on them as part of their slavery, another attempt at destroying their identity as humans. But much like President Barack Obama was “Barry” growing up, throughout my childhood my last name was Jackson. It was not until I began applying to college that the discrepancy between my legal name and the name I used came to the forefront. After I was accepted into Columbia College and received my student identification number with the initials “SF”, it became clear that in college I would not be Safia Jackson. I was moving across the country, the first person in my family to go to college, and I was going to use my legal name. From that point, I was and am Safia Fasah.
As an adult, my journey to embracing my full legal name included questions and assumptions regarding my race and religion; but embracing my full legal name also means an inherent pride and demand for respect that cannot be ignored. For years, I felt uncomfortable correcting people who mispronounced my name. After introducing myself, and repeating, and re-repeating my first name, it seemed intrusive to fix someone’s words. It felt embarrassing to have to constantly remind and correct someone on the pronunciation of my name. My first name is Safia, suh-fee-uh, rhymes with Maria or Alia. Far too often, emails addressed to Sofia or Sophia make it to my inbox and attempts to seem friendly and call me Sophie are met with a blank stare. As recently as my law school graduation, my name was butchered by a professor. I walked across the stage to receive my degree after an unrecognizable version of my name was announced. There is power in the names we are given or choose; I claim that power.
As I stood in Manhattan Family Court at my first arraignment, the judge asked me on the record, “Ms. Fasah, am I pronouncing your name correctly?” “It is pronounced, Fuh-Saw your honor, similar to façade” I responded. The judge made a note and we proceeded with the hearing. I stood proud knowing that there is a legal transcript with me clarifying the pronunciation of my name. There’s a judge who took the time to make sure my name was properly pronounced. There will be more judges who I will correct until they get it right.
There are countless studies spanning decades that show bias towards resumes from employment candidates with a “white-sounding” name when compared with identical resumes from candidates with “black-sounding” names. Whether conscious or not, that bias is real. Names matter and names shape our perception.
My name is Safia Thelema Fasah. It is Arabic. My mother gave me my first name, which means “pure”. My father gave me my middle name, the name of the Ancient Egyptian Goddess of knowledge known by few (read: wisdom) and my last name, which is different from his birth name, and means “person with clarity”. Pure Wisdom and Clarity. No pressure, right? Right! But, I don’t feel a level of pressure surrounding living up to my name. What I do feel is a duty to take the name I was purposefully given and be proud. There is power in what we are called, whether given or chosen, that cannot be ignored. I own the power of my name.