Sarah J. Jackson is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Northeastern University in Boston, MA where she studies how race and gender are constructed in national debates around citizenship, inequality, and social movements. When not teaching and working on her current book project, she travels, does lots of yoga, and occasionally blogs at Wandering in Love.
Naming and Politics
In February 1964, Cassius Clay became the heavyweight champion of the world. A month later, he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. For months – in some cases years – journalists, members of the boxing establishment, and occasionally his competitors refused to call Ali by his new name. Grant Farred (2003) contends that Ali’s name change was “simultaneously an act of negation (denial of his slave name) and self-construction (adoption of his Islamic name), both…the acquisition of an unprecedented ideological agency” (28).
The controversy that erupted over Ali’s name then hinged largely on the perceived ideological danger of a black man in America refusing “safe” narratives of black masculinity and politics. Ali’s choice to rename himself, alongside his conversion to Islam, and later refusal to serve in Vietnam were treated as anti-American, threatening, and unstable. The social and economic consequences were years of denigration in the press, alongside a formal ban from boxing in the United States.
In what can only be described as a combination of social and political progress and severe historical amnesia, Ali is now commonly lauded as an American hero with little acknowledgement from the media of the ways he was socially disciplined for his decisions. Contemporary constructions of Ali rarely discuss in any detail the anti-colonial politics that lead to his dissent around Vietnam or the domestic racial politics that lead to his identification with the Nation of Islam and name change. Ali’s identity then continues to be shaped by forces outside of himself, but the necessary negotiations around it have left a lasting mark on the way our country understands sports, politics, and race.
In the early 1980s Gloria Watkins began using the pen-name bell hooks. Watkins has explained this pseudonym choice as one that is feminist in multiple ways. The first, and most frequently recalled: hooks drew her authorial identity from her maternal grandmother’s and mother’s names as a way to highlight the otherwise un-named significance of these women – and that of other black women—in her life.
However, the politics of hooks’ naming choice asks us to consider more than the question of patrilineal versus matrilineal naming customs. hooks also chose to work under a pen name—an uncapitalized one at that—because she felt the very institutions in which she worked, namely the academy, the literary world, and the larger political sphere, were ruled by patriarchal norms that placed value on thought and labor based on the titles held by, and name recognition of, its source. In other words, as Cynthia Carter writes, “above all else, she (hooks) wanted to avoid having her work more highly evaluated than it might otherwise be (on its own terms) simply because of her academic status. By using a pseudonym, she felt that she would highlight the ideas instead of her identity” (p. 1).
hooks’ critique of naming conventions is one often lost in neoliberal conversations about women “getting ahead,” “breaking the glass ceiling,” and “leaning in.” It is one that suggests, in fact, that these concepts privilege patriarchal values like individualized success and power, self-promotion, and money over matristic ones like communal wellbeing, collaboration, reciprocity, and humility. hooks’ naming politics then asks us to consider a reordering of the very systems in which names, successes, and other social conventions are established as opposed to an effort to “get ahead” within these systems.
Ali and hooks adopted new names in very different personal and political contexts, but both recognized names as malleable but consequential. As citizens of a country where naming conventions are not only deeply entrenched in patriarchy but in histories of slavery, Christian colonialism, and cultural assimilation, they recognized that names influenced not only how others saw them, but also how they saw themselves, and the ideologies they endorsed.
Examples like Ali and hooks are often highlighted and celebrated in progressive political conversations about naming politics and identity. However, most marginalized American communities have experienced name-changing not as empowering, but as oppressive.
Many Native Americans were forced (within the context of colonization, forced assimilation, and extermination) to adopt surnames and Anglicize their names. As a result of the stripping of identity, culture, and family that was a primary characteristic of the American slave system, the majority of African Americans have no knowledge of their original family naming traditions. At various points in history, non-Anglo immigrants to America, as well as Latin@s whose ancestors occupied the Southwest United States long before it was designated as such, were expected by educational, professional, and governmental institutions to Anglicize their names.
While many U.S. institutional norms requiring denial of non-Anglo identity have dissolved, it is not difficult to find citizens – especially of Latin@ and Asian descent – who continue to Anglicize their names in educational and professional settings that might otherwise be less accepting. Hollywood, for example, has a history of accepting actors only after their names became less ‘foreign’ (read non-white) sounding: Rita Hayworth was born Margarita Carmen Cansino, Raquel Welch was born Raquel Tejada. Bruce Lee was Lee Jun Fan.
Ramón Antonio Gerardo Estévez has publicly discussed the xenophobia that led him to become Martin Sheen early in his career. While one of his actor sons (Emilio Estévez) felt it was safe to work under his given name, another (Charlie Sheen) stuck with the Anglicized version.
In writing this piece, I inadvertently stumbled on a list maintained on a white supremacist website: “Hollywood Jews who’ve changed their names to White names.” I encourage you not to google it unless as a reminder of the very (scary) reasons why so many non-Anglo Americans have felt publicly safer without their family names.
In public debates about naming, then, we must not forget that navigating the politics of naming is a matter of survival for many individuals and groups in America. Certainly, gendered and raced power structures in our society dominate naming traditions. However, the relationship individuals have with their names is influenced by myriad individual and cultural experiences, alongside those that are social and political. Ali and hooks choose to redefine themselves through naming for a variety of reasons, but it would be unfair to assume that they alone have a better sense of who they are than the millions of Americans who have come to take pride in names with origins in oppressive structures.
There are very real social and political consequences to names. Individuals with distinctively “ethnic” (read non-Eurocentric) names are often discriminated against in housing, employment, and education applications (for example, Bertrand and Mullainathan, 2003). Thus, when we tell people they can define their identities or politics through naming, we are also asking them to take certain risks, especially if they already experience marginalization based on their class, race, sexuality, gender identity, and/or nationality. The risk a transgender woman takes when she asks her family, friends and coworkers to begin calling her Samantha is much greater than the one taken by a cisgender woman balking at marital name change traditions.
Grace Lee Boggs, the 97 year old feminist, activist and philosopher, was born in the United Stated in 1915 to Chinese immigrant parents. Boggs earned her PhD in 1940; these credentials were no shield against discrimination based on her Chinese ancestry. When Boggs married African American activist James Boggs, over a decade before the Supreme Court of the United States invalidated laws prohibiting interracial marriage, she made the choice to add his name to her own. Their marriage would last until James Boggs’ death 40 years later.
In observing debates around the politics of naming, especially when it comes to gender, I often think of Boggs. Someone who knows little of her life and politics, or of intersectionality, might judge Boggs’ last name as an acceptance of a patriarchal naming tradition that privileges men. But is it?
The argument could also be made that by adding the last name of her black husband to her own Chinese name Boggs was putting into personal action the political solidarity between people of color traditionally pitted against one another by white supremacy. Perhaps her acceptance of the name was even a revolutionary act that flew in the face of the laws of a country that said race must determine whom you choose to love?
Or maybe, in 1953, a deeply political Chinese American woman marrying a black man simply had bigger fish to fry than worrying about her last name? Of course, these arguments are just as much speculation as the first. Still, I’d argue it is Boggs’ life-long record as a thought leader in the labor, civil rights, women’s rights and environmental justice movements that actually defines her identity.
Boggs put into action hooks’ concept of ideas over identity long before the rest of us even started talking about it. That’s an example that could do us all some good.
Let’s Talk About Names: Patricia is the previous post in the series.
Let’s Talk About Names: Tawny is the next post in the series.