“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Romeo & Juliet.
Someone called me “Jennifer” today. It’s been a long time since I answered to that name. It’s been a long time since I introduced myself as “Jennifer”. 14 years to be exact. It’s typical to have a first name and a middle name. In my family, we took our Esan names first, and then our baptismal names. Odd, when you think that our parents did the exact opposite. Their baptismal names first, and then their native names. My husband’s family did the same thing. Baptismal names first, and then native names. It’s a thing of curiosity how we choose which takes priority.
For the first 9 years of my life, I used both names interchangeably. Osemhen. Jennifer. At home I was mostly Osemhen, except for a few aunts who preferred to call me Jennifer. In primary school, it was a 70/30 split. The teachers called me Jennifer. Some of my classmates called me Osemhen, especially the ones who were close enough to me to hear my siblings use my Esan name.
And then I got into secondary schoool and the split sharpened. I was definitely Jennifer, and only Jennifer in school. At home, I was definitely Ose. It manifested in a sort of split personality. Jennifer was the petite, light-skinned waif with eyes too big for her face. I was one of the youngest in my class so I was in a sense, the baby, the last child, petted by senior students and even some of my classmates. I can still hear them trilling “Jenniiii-fer.” And then at home, I was Osemhen. A stolid Esan name, none of that faerie-like stuff. The first-born daughter, with all the responsibilities that brings. Had to be strong. Had to be firm. Had to be my parents’ right hand, my mother’s confidant.
She chose the name “Jennifer” even though it wasn’t a saint’s name, as stipulated by the Catholic Church. I think they were not so strict then. She chose it because it was pretty and wafer-like on the tongue despite the many consonants. Jennifer means “white enchantress” or “fair one”, a very Caucasian name, so Caucasian it was the most popular name for newborn American girls from 1970 to 1984. And as I grew older, and my skin tanned deeper, I felt like it didn’t fit me.
And so in 2003, when I graduated from secondary school, I chose to stick only with Osemhen. I wanted to shed the identity I had. Enough of the effervescence. Give me stolidity. There were a few slips. Once in a while, I would introduce myself as Jennifer but by 2004 when I got into university, I was fully “Osemhen”. It also kinda helped that I didn’t stay in contact with too many of the people who knew me in secondary school. I moulted. I think it worked.
There’s also the thing about embracing my African identity and uniqueness. I knew a lot of Jennifers. I didn’t know any Osemhens. I knew a lot of African Jennifers. I’ve never heard of a white person who answered to an Esan name. And I must admit that my name gives me an opportunity to discuss my heritage with foreigners I meet, an opportunity that I don’t think I’d have if they called me “Jennifer”.
I think I set a precedent at home. My youngest sister, Itasoha, never used her English name “Benedicta”. My other sister dropped “Winnifred” for “Uwa”, a diminutive of her Esan name. My brother tried to totally erase his Esan name and baptismal name from his identity, choosing to introduce himself as “Richard”, his confirmation name. What’s in a name, we (and Romeo Montague) ask? An identity. A personality. A prophesy? It’s why we have naming ceremonies. And somehow, on some level, we recognize this.
Sometimes, the old life crops up. I meet people who knew “Jennifer”, who call me Jennifer, who I respond to as Jennifer. The name “Osemhen” is awkward on their tongues and they wonder why I ever changed. And then there are people who witness this exchange and have only known me as Osemhen. They snicker, “Gosh, you don’t even look or act like a Jennifer”.
So what’s in a name? What do you think?
p.s. I gave an interview on my boring, everyday life on kacheetee.com. She runs a very active lifestyle blog and it was an absolute honour to be asked to write in. I also loved interviewing with ForCreativeGirls.com and discussing motherhood & creativity. And have you been to Blazers & Baby , recently? Do check it out.