II: The Elusive Pause
Drawing of author by artist Sandy Tang
(check out more of Sandy's incredible work here, she does commissions btw!)
My parents gave me a non-western name and I will never hear the end of it. As a child I find our views of the world are often skewed, simple and incredibly naïve. When my family members would say my name there was no mistake, no hesitation or variation aside from my grandfather and his heavy Jamaican accent. So naturally when I went to school I figured it would be much of the same. To my surprise no other children had apostrophes in their name, I remember being quite young and not understanding why my lovely apostrophe wasn’t on the alphabet chart. Today I am well aware that an apostrophe is a punctuation mark, but in my experience many have no clue what it even is. The amount of times I spell my name out loud for customer service workers, classmates, teachers or colleagues and rather than write that simple upper curve they put back slashes, hyphens or who knows what, is all too frequent.
Looking back at my childhood, the older I got, the more I began to see how different a name could make me, the more I could see just how much it could make me stand out. At a certain point when you live in the same neighbourhood you start to go to school with the same children year after year. By the 7th grade I knew who would most likely be before and after me in the alphabet. I still remember the first day of class having to go over my name several times with our teacher. Or even worse, when they were away I remember sitting silently as the supply teacher went through the attendance and cringing right as they passed John Brockway. I don’t know what was worse, the mispronunciation or the elusive pause… There were days where I’d even say “here” before they had a chance to utter a single sound, to save us both the embarrassment.
I want to be clear and say my classmates didn’t make fun of my name, I wasn’t bullied because of it (I was severely bullied as a child and adolescent for other “reasons,” but that’s a story for another day). All things considered I fit in fairly well. That is until it came to name games at camp or shopping for a souvenir and never being remotely surprised when a stack of overpriced holiday chachkis somehow always managed to forget about me. I will say though, that there was a point in my life where I started to resent it. My name became one more reason for me to be outside of the “norm,” one more reason to feel different. I tried nicknames and abbreviations, anything I could to make it easier. Now this sure as hell wasn’t for the people around me constantly mispronouncing my name, but for me, to save me from the pain of correcting someone again, the embarrassment of when publicly it was said incorrectly or worse misspelled.
When I was in 5th grade I won the Principals Award for Leadership. Only one student from our graduating class was selected and somehow they chose me. It was such an incredible moment. I remember one of my most influential teachers to this date, Mr. Lindsay, calling my name and the feeling of my eyes growing wide in excitement, you see this is the first time I’d ever won a fancy plaque. I walked to the front of the gymnasium smiling back at my family and friends and posed for the highly coveted photo with the principal. I remember beaming all the way back to my seat until in great horror I saw my name was misspelled. This may sound ridiculous, but to a 5th grade kid on the highest moment of her life thus far, it was a little heart breaking. My parents said we could ask to get it fixed, but I said “leave it,” part of me wanted to hold onto that memory knowing that I’d someday look back and laugh.
Fast forward nearly 15 years and yeah it’s funny, it’s pretty dumb actually. It’s just another way in which the institution made a young Black girl feel bad for who she was. I know no one did it intentionally, but did anyone double check? When I come across a name I am unfamiliar with I like to double and triple check spelling. But maybe that’s just one of the things I’m more conscious of as a member of the “non-traditional European society names.” Recently through my activism work I have come across a lot of truly fantastic people of colour and after having felt so alone in this predominantly white city, I feel as though I’ve finally found my place. Being able to discuss the origins of our names, our upbringings or even our hair, has been so LIBERATING! As sad as it is, it took me a long time to appreciate my name. It wasn’t until I began to fully learn the history of the Black Canadian experience, that I was truly thankful to be given a name which tied back to some distant and maybe disconnected roots.
My name is Ra’anaa. It is an Arabic name which means beautiful and graceful. I often feel neither beautiful nor graceful, but I like to think that this name was made for the person I’m slowly becoming and not the me of yester-year. To save myself from the “oh how unique”, “wow I wish I had a name like that”, “what does it mean”, I don’t often tell folks my middle name, but you caught me in a generous mood. My middle name is Yaminah. It is both Arabic and North African and means right and proper. I think I’m starting to feel much more in tune with this, especially after completing my masters. The research I did just gave me a new perspective on life and made me uncover an entirely new chapter within myself. And to me the feeling I found in the passion I found at that point in my life in essence is right and proper.
As proud as I am of my name now, there are days in which I internally flinch when it’s misspelled or mispronounced and I’m not always the best at correcting folks. But I hope to start today. My name isn’t Rhianna, Rayanna, Rahanna, or anything in between. Phonetically it is pronounced \’Rah-Anna\ \Ya-meen-ah\, it is not spelled that way but for simplicity’s sake we’ll leave it there for now. Some may say “well Ra’anaa (correct spelling), what about your last name?” To that I respond, acute observation dear reader, I’ve intentionally omitted it up to this point. Although last names tell a great deal about certain cultures lineage and history, for those who are products of slavery and oppression last names were given to us as a means to strip away our heritage and as such I often find it hard to relate to mine. Maybe someday I’ll change it, but for now it is the boring ending to what I like to think is an incredibly exciting name.
There was a point in life where I was sure that I was given this unique name because it meant I was bound for unique and great things in this world. Call me conceded, but I guess that point never came to an end. Here I come world, my name is Ra’anaa Yaminah, who are you?