February 10, 2021
A friendly nod, a wave, and a smile towards a receptionist; it is a Monday morning, so I engage in a slightly extended exchange of pleasantries. But, the hand on my wristwatch keeps tugging at my arm and interrupting my concentration; it is a reminder my finger should have pushed the power button on my desktop a long time ago. We exchanged some "see ya laters," but neither of us addressed the other by name, ever, in the five years we have worked together. As I walk away, I realize that I have no idea what his name is.
I walk past some hive-like conical cubicles, some early morning whispering from coworkers, and the constant buzzing of computers interrupted unevenly by the chiming of telephones. Slide out my chair like a gurney, slide into my chair, and slide my chair towards my desk, name: Kwazena, password: Carpediem123456. It requires a second attempt because I misspelled my name, Kwabena; now I am logged in and ready to seize the day.
It is at this very moment a lingering gaze catches me off guard. Half a torso protruding over the partition, hands positioned as if ready to scale over and into my cubicle. The hands belong to Bill, so do the words "Hello Mufasa," he quips. I respond to his greeting, then politely remind him my name is Kwabena. To which he fires back, "I know, I know, I know, but Mufasa suits you! After all, you have a deep voice, and you are from Africa. I just watched the Lion King for the millionth time with my children. I love that movie, and it made me think of you. Besides, African names are difficult to pronounce, and this makes it easier." He concludes this by humming 'Circle of life' by Carmen Twillie.
I can not escape the thought of his cartoon logic. Had my name Kwabena only been in the Lion King, a movie packed with Swahili phrases and names, then perhaps he would have less difficulty pronouncing it.
Or maybe it was just a fib; last week, my name was Hakeem. That time Bill gave me a similar excuse and proceeded to hum the song 'Coming to America' by The System. He must have watched the movie that weekend with his family too.
My workday eventually comes to an end. I reach for the power button on my desktop computer and press it firmly; the screen flashes, and the light drains off it. We exist in a screen culture, surrounded by screens, cell phones in our pockets, and TVs on our walls like a veil between us and the world. I make my way past the conical cubicles, sneak past Bill's office, and wave goodbye to my mutually anonymous friend at the front entrance. I was unaware that a pandemic would soon strike, and this would be one of the last times I would see my coworkers in person again for a while. I am fearful of returning to work now after all the weekends we have been away and all the movies Bill has had the chance to inspire himself. I imagine the endless number of names he will run past me or all over me, shrinking me into a flat character, like watching the end credits of a film.
The root of the problem is as complicated as the name Toby. In 1977 'Roots,' a miniseries adapted from author Alex Haley's novel by the same title, was televised. It included a scene relating to names, depicting an early example of how one party mercilessly decides to rename another (e.g. Toby from Kunta Kinte) with a sense of proprietary entitlement. It demonstrates a lack of boundaries where human labour is involved, and the incorrect assumption that you can name someone else residually resembles this attitude. In some cultures, like the Akan, a newborn is given a name when born and not before. The day of one's birth determines their moniker; their name is their fate. In this context, a person's name is ancestral affiliation and misnaming them amputates them from their identity in an iconoclastic way. The transatlantic triangle's serrated edge still has teeth today when one attempts to force a negative name change on another sans whip or not.
Phonetically most names are not difficult, some unfamiliar, but not difficult.
One may have just projected negative connotations onto them. Some think they are difficult beforehand, making it difficult to accept them - a self-fulfilling prophecy. It has foreshadowed the outcome. And instead of saying the person's name in hesitation, people may say something terrifying that phonetically resembles the death rattle produced by the protagonists in the horror movie 'The Grudge' (2004) All you can do is get past the horror of it all and open your eyes.
Sometimes pronouncing names involves listening with our eyes. As incongruous as that sounds, movement and sound are closely correlated. After all, movements make sounds. Body language communicates a great deal of what we understand people to be saying. The listener follows along like they are following the bouncing ball technique. Seeing someone, not looking at them but seeing them when they give you their name, can enable you to see how they pronounce it. A name one may not be accustomed to hearing is not a word that needs translating. No subtitles required; follow their cadence, the rhythm in their body language like a metronome accompanying intonations. Try exposing enough of your attention to echo a person's name correctly without projecting another title onto them.
Let it resonate, start as the recipient, then repeat the name back and ask if you have pronounced it correctly. And n.b., find out the receptionist's name. I am unsure how I missed it, but time away and I am confident I missed him.