"Ethelbert is Coming" — Naming Ourselves
by Colleen Scheck, senior producer
African-American descendants of slaves ponder it, as do descendants of immigrants that arrived at Ellis Island. Expecting parents deliberate it, as does a bride going from maiden to married (or vice versa). Artists muse it, as do people with political or religious intentions. “It” being the meaning of the personal name — or the process of giving, taking, or receiving a name that we experience in multiple ways as giving definition, and sometimes control, to our individual identity.
I’ve been thinking about this since hearing Krista and E. Ethelbert Miller talk about the significance of naming in this week’s show. I appreciated both the weight and the humor in Miller’s description of the experience of naming his children. In his first memoir, Fathering Words, he writes about his own name change:
"…I changed my name my sophomore year at Howard. I reinvented myself. Maybe everything I am writing now is a continuation of that 1969 decision, like the Brown, Supreme Court decision of 1954. I was Gene to my parents, especially my father. I enrolled in college as Eugene E Miller, but like the legal blow against segregation, I became more social and outgoing under the name E. Ethelbert Miller.
How did it happen? Was it as quick as my grandmother changing my father’s last name from Williams to Miller when they came to America? A new identity, an escape as good as anything Houdini could do. The magic was first discovered in the lounge of Drew Hall. A number of us were thinking about running for student government as a ticket. I was selected to run for freshman class treasurer. It was obvious that no one had checked my poor math grades from elementary to high school. A consecutive record of failures with numbers that established a Ripken-like streak. The person handling my campaign was a young coed from Chicago. She had a nice afro and shape, and she was funny and smart. We sat on the floor in the lounge trying to come up with slogans for posters and we couldn’t. She asked about my middle name. Ethelbert, I told her, and she laughed. She came up with this silly expression about ‘Ethelbert Is Coming’ and soon made posters with an airplane, which struck me as stupid, but what did I know about politics. Many students found the expression funny and voted for me and I won.
So I was Eugene Ethelbert Miller after a few weeks away from the Bronx. But folks would call me Eugene until I ran for sophomore class president and decided to cast myself as a new politician. I had resigned from being freshman class treasurer because I refused to spend money on a class party and folks wanted to party and so they did so without me. Just as Richard Nixon became the new Nixon to some, I changed my name to E. Ethelbert Miller…”
In his first memoir, Miller also peppers in writings from his sister, Marie. A nurse, she shares her candid assessment of his name change:
"I thought the entire name change thing was as crazy as getting an afro, or wearing African clothes, or going to Africa. E. Ethelbert Miller, please! What was he getting into down in Washington? All that black stuff was crazy. I saw it on television. It didn’t have anything to do with my life. When you’re thinking about working in a hospital, all you see is red, the color of blood. Folks don’t have no time for race relations when they are sick or dying; and why didn’t my brother take an African name if he wanted to be so black and different? He could have been Kwame, or one of those principles associated with that thing called Kwanzaa. You know, he could have called himself Umoja or something like that."
I made the traditional choice of taking my husband’s name when I got married, primarily for practical reasons, but also because my maiden name reflected a history of family adoption, so I felt no innate connection to it. It didn’t take long for me to get used to it; in fact, I think the process of changing my social security card took longer. With my son, we chose a name that was simple, sounded regal (to us), and was connected to family heritage. I hope Owen will embrace it, though I’ll be prepared for the reality that he may amend it.
I wonder: What stories, choices, meanings are behind your names? In what ways and in what places do you find yourself pondering the meaning of your name and how it defines you?