Taking My Husband's Name Was Empowering For ME

BlogHer Original Post

I am a Black feminist woman who believes wholeheartedly in equality for all human beings. I believe having equal access to resources and opportunities should be afforded to all people without limitations based on socially constructed ideas of race, gender, socioeconomic status or other things that make us "different" from each other.

I've heard feminist women argue in favor of retaining their "maiden" names after getting married as a way of affirming their individuality as women and not being nominally defined by their husbands. I definitely support that line of thinking. Many acknowledge that though their maiden names (a problematic phase in and of itself) come from their fathers, for the most part, they still feel a stronger connection to the names (and their families) to keep those names as opposed to taking on their husbands' names. Sure, fathers used to sell their daughters to men in marriage for various reasons, and I'm not quite sure why the connection to the paternal last name given by our fathers is more acceptable than our husbands' names, but... I don't need to be. I'm honestly not writing this to judge because, in the end, it really comes down to women making the decisions about changing their names based on what is meaningful to them and works best for their lifestyles. Period.

What's In  A Name
Image: Jack Dorsey via Flickr

I wonder, though, how many feminists who advocate for women keeping their maiden names consider the implications for Black women, specifically those women who are descendants of people who were enslaved? What of the attachment (or lack thereof) to their last names? What of women who have no real connection to their fathers? Who, because of the effects of systemic racism, poverty, and discrimination, have grown up without fathers (many who abandoned their families rather than face the perpetual shame of being unable to provide for them as men are "supposed" to)? I'll preface this by saying I'm not writing on behalf of all Black American women or women disconnected from their fathers, at all. I'm writing to perhaps spark a new way of thinking about name changing for certain groups of women.

Africans were sold, trapped, tricked, and captured for the purposes of forcing them into a system of servitude that would become one of history's greatest travesties, American Slavery. People were separated so they would be unable to communicate with people they knew or were related to, and they were forced to learn a new language. Children were separated from their birth parents and given to others to "care" for them. People were given new names, first and last, and forced to adopt new identities per the mandates of their handlers, overseers, and masters. "Nzinga" became "Nancy," and last names were almost always those of the masters who owned them, as an immediate note of recognition of to whom they belonged.

Some earlier runaway slaves changed their last names to names like "Freedman" or "Freeman" as an affirmation of their newly found freedom from slavery. Post-emancipation, many others did the same, simply taking on any name that was not that of their masters. Not all did, though, and when slavery ended, the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Jenkinses, Johnsons, Whites, and Walkers, among others, began to build families the best ways they knew how, keeping the surnames they'd become so familiar with. Keeping the names also helped when trying to search for lost family members and other familiar kin. Generations later, many African/Black Americans find themselves with last names connected to the men and women who once owned (and in many instances, raped) their ancestors, and for some that connection is troubling, to say the least.

Consider, then, how the general act of choosing one's own name is empowering and how it might be an empowering action for a female descendant of slaves. No one, of any race or gender, has any initial choices in their first or last names; our parents/primary care givers choose our names for us and they become documented. Sure, we can legally change our names or adopt monikers or pen names (*cough*) to represent us. There is, however, something deeper for women whose last names are traced not back through blood ties to Welsh or French nobility, or some awesome tale of a daring Italian or Russian immigration to the United States for better opportunity, but are instead connected via tattered paper trails to people who purchased, owned, raped, and sold their ancestors.

There is something more difficult to reconcile when affirming, "This is MY name and I'm not changing it, as a woman, because I want my freedom!" when the name carries such a heavy weight born of America's greatest disgrace. Should it be any surprise that the act of choosing a name, even by making the choice to change one's name after marriage, could be empowering or at least symbolic of ownership of one's identity? The woman becomes in control of her own naming and can subtly reshape her identity in a way that she has total control over. For many of us, there is so little in this world we control or own for ourselves, so this can be quite an empowering act of self-affirmation.

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