At almost 33 years old, I still not quite used to the ways my name gets butchered on a mostly daily basis. When I correct people (it’s pronounced Ah-vee-TAHL for the record), it can still take them a few tries to get their tongues around the not so familiar name, but more often than not, they will follow up with a compliment. “Oh…such a beautiful name. It’s quite unique.”
And yes, it is unique. Do I really need to go into the heart crushing experiences of my youth where nary an Avital keychain or magnet was to be found amidst the Jessica’s, Sarah’s, and Rachel’s in touristy gift shops? I am more than well aware that it’s not a super common name. But that knowledge didn’t quell my first day of class nerves that lasted through college as I awaited for the well meaning professor to trip up when they called out my name, or, as occasionally happened, bypassed my first name entirely as they searched the rows of students for some guy named Norman. It also doesn’t quell the annoyance at still having my name butchered at coffee shops or doctors’ offices.
That said, I also know the benefits to having an unusual name. Once somebody finally gets the pronunciation down, they don’t forget about it. The name sticks in their memory – for better or worse.
The reason I bring all of this up is because of 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis and the challenge her name seems to create for some people. When it was first announced that Quvenzhané had been nominated for an Oscar, it felt like her name turned into an easy punchline for jokes from morning news reports to late night comedians. Some would just laugh while stumbling over the pronunciation while others made actual jokes. About the name of a 9 year old girl.
The night of The Oscars, her name became the focus again – once when the various reporters at E! decided to dub Quvenzhané “Little Q” to make their banter easier, and again when a reporter informed the young actress that she would refer to her as Annie (as it’s been widely reported that Quvenzhané will be playing the title role in a reboot of the classic film). Thankfully, Quvenzhané set the her straight, stat.
(This isn’t even touching on the absolutely inexcusable tweet from The Onion. I could rant on about that all day, but I’ll point you over to Bitch, where my friend T.F. Charlton does an excellent job of explaining was was so wrong about it)
Here’s the thing: Names have power. They are a central part to our identities, and they deserve some respect, whether they’re easy to pronounce or not. PostBourgie wrote a thoughtful analysis about the importance of names and the significance of Quvenzhané’s name, particularly as a young girl of color.
Not saying Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness. Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce. There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal. Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there’s long been backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.). The insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.
It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters. And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable. She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be. Their answer? Let’s make her more palatable. If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.
Despite my own hard to pronounce name, I will never be in the same situation as Quvenzhané Wallis. My white privilege assures me of that. So I can only imagine how many more challenges she will face, compared to my own, when it comes to her name. Our identities are intrinsically woven into our names, and when people can’t even be bothered to learn how to say them it sends a clear message – one that devalues, saying you’re not good or important enough to bother. If her turn in Beasts of the Southern Wild, and her handling of the spotlight so far tells us anything, Quvenzhané is more than good enough.