I TOLD JESUS IT WOULD BE ALL RIGHT IF HE CHANGED MY NAME:
A MEDITATION ON THE NAMES WE WONDROUSLY WEAR
We have the memory of
“Mary, what you gonna name
your pretty little baby”
being called every thing but
“A child of God”
boy bastard girl pig cow
fool nigger and so
on and on the torrent
of filth fell
upon the heads
of those who would stand
“think I’ll name him
Oh yes names are important and we do not need a seminar in linguistics to understand the reason. African Americans (or Africans? Or Americans? Or Colored? Or Negro? Or Colored Americans? Or Negro Americans? Or....?) had/have only the luxury of grace, and the memory of the people of God when it comes to owning the name we/they are/were known by.
SOMETHING WITHIN ME/ I WISH I COULD EXPLAIN
I’VE GOT SOMETHING WITHIN ME/ THAT HOLDETH MY REINS
That something, they call it God’s Holy Fire, filled the void of meaning when the devastation of enslavement took the ground out from under the souls of the African men and women (there could never be a child in such a circumstance – not if childhood depends on innocence. The capture destroyed all innocence) who were cast upon the waters of greed and abasement. They searched the scriptures that were used as weapons of submission and found the names of liberators; the names of faithful servants; the names of warriors and kings and prophets and vision-seekers. They found Deborah and Samuel, Daniel and David, Mary, Martha, Hannah and Elizabeth.
They spoke the saving names in the ears of the children, they sang the names (Moses, Joshua, Elijah, John, Paul, Peter and Samson) in the dances whereby they called down the divine power. African women and men who were being called everything but a child of God, understood the story of Jacob better than many a theologian, then or now.
When the embodiment of God’s power, hereafter known as the Angel, confronted the dissembling, thieving, opportunistic Jacob, the hero faced, in the midnight hour on the plain of Peniel, his worst nightmare: his own weakness. When the struggling, the sweating, the wrestling with the power of God was called to a draw, Jacob was halt and no longer what he had been. He encountered God and was not vanquished. What did he get out of it? A damaged hip, the promise of countless descendants, and a new name.
The people of the new enslavement chose their God wisely. They invoked the power and settled upon themselves names that carried the shimmering aura of the spirit-blessed. And you think it is an easy thing to take my name and “nick” it? You think it is a sign of friendship to slip your tongue under my inheritance and trip my name on your tongue until my reality stumbles on your presumption?
Oh, no. I told Jesus it would be all right if HE
change my name.
And Jesus told me that the world would hate me, scorn me, abuse and crucify me. I told HIM that it was a bargain worth the making, as long as HE
knew who I was and how to speak to ME
that no storm can assail, no tempest can assault.
The woman who cleans the filth of strangers day after day after day, walks into her church and is called “sister,” “daughter,” and “saint.” On the street and in the homes and hearts of her neighbors she is called, Miss or Mrs. And she knows the worth of her name, her calling. So, too, the man who is “boy” and “nigger,” and “Sam” and joke, day after day in the street and on the job (if he has one, and is not known simply by a string of numbers). Oh, Lord, let him walk into the sanctuary, where he is “brother,” “father,” “elder,” “sir,” “deacon,” and “reverend.” And revered are they all. It’s all in the name, the true name, the sweet name, the proper name.
“Don’t ever call me out of my name,” is shouted on the streets all over the African world of childhood.
Why? Because we have the memory of the homeland left only in our words, in our songs, in the ways that make us a “folk.” And we know that we have to live up to our names, bestowed as they are by people who wanted to weigh us down with history, music and promises.
Every tongue-twisting name that shows up on the census and school record-book is a warning and declaration. This child will have attention paid to her, to him. You may not want to waste a glance or breath on my baby, but you will, by God and his mama, take the time to say his name and to spell her wondrous identity correctly.
After all, God told Adam and Eve to name everything set before them in creation, and whatsoever they name a thing, that would be its name.
So, I got a name, you got a name. Written in the book of life. I got a name that makes music on my mama’s tongue, that lights up my granddaddy’s eye when he says it.
Don’t even think about doing nothing about my name except
to make it a sacrament.
After all I am a child of God. Thank you, very much.
[prepared for M. Annette Turner and the Archdiocese of Louisville Office of Multicultural Ministry. December 1997]