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What’s in a Name?

When we look in the mirror, who do we see looking back at us? What’s in a name?

What components are present within us that make up the totality of who we are? These are questions that I ponder on every now and then as a part of my own journey in doing the “work” that Iyanla Vanzant has often described in her various appearances on television to help people heal from traumatic or hurtful events in their past. Reflecting on my own journey of self-discovery, I’ve trekked thousands of miles across oceans and many different lands in hopes of answering these questions. If you would’ve asked me these questions about 20 years ago, I would’ve told you that I am a Black American male with Southern roots born between the Hospitality State and the Heart of Dixie. While these answers have some merit, the actual answer runs much deeper and throughout my efforts at self-discovery, I’ve been forced to challenge everything that I’ve known to be fact to find new meaning in the world that I’ve been born into. Even my name holds a different meaning today than it did twenty years ago.

So, what do we do when we believe we are someone that we actually aren’t?

Before I move forward, I must acknowledge that this journey was most recently jumpstarted by the passing of both of my grandmothers over the past six years. At this point in my life, I am left without a living grandparent and fear the day when I must say goodbye to my own parents in the same way that they’ve had to say farewell to their parents. My paternal grandmother died six years ago and was a staunch purveyor of history. In the near century of her life, her eyes had seen much of this country’s transition from what it was, to what it has become today. My maternal grandmother, on the other hand, had just passed about six months ago and the look in my mother’s eyes served as a harsh reminder of the strength and compassion that I will have to embody on that unfortunate day. Amid these notable blows to my family dynamic, I was left with questions regarding our heritage and my family history as my maternal grandmother left this earth with one burning question. Who was her biological father? I’ve seen her ask this question as a very grown adult with nine children, dozens of grandchildren, and a few great-grandchildren as well. The look in her eyes when she asked her elder family members this question reverberated in my head repeatedly since that day almost twenty years ago. At that moment, she seemed as but a child looking for answers from her elders and from this world. She didn’t get the answer she’d hoped for that day and it haunted me for years. This question further proved to serve as fuel for my own journey of self-discovery through whatever means I had accessible.

Diving a bit deeper, I remember being in a space a little over a decade ago where ancestry shows, websites, and DNA ancestry tests were new and emerging topics of discussion among my circles. As a Black man, I’ve always been a little curious about my heritage due to discussions during African-American History courses in college and from experiences shared by both of my grandmothers. They’ve always impressed upon my family the importance of learning our collective history as a people. I’ve heard rumors of having “Native American” and or “Latino” blood coursing through my veins and I generally gave it some type of merit due to the majority of my father’s side of the family being very fair-skinned with multi-colored eyes. So when the opportunity came to take a DNA ancestry test, I gladly dished out the coin.

To my surprise, the results turned out to be fairly typical of most black people in America. The majority of my ancestry consisted of West African ancestry with a small portion of European ancestry as well. When I told my family of the results, my maternal grandmother was very intrigued and hoped that the answers to her questions would lie within our blood. Unfortunately, due to the circumstances of my own life, I was unable to complete the search before she passed. After her homegoing celebration, I’d felt myself falling into a cycle of regret surrounding this. Later that night, I had a dream of a figure standing in a dark room that multiplied before my eyes. I couldn’t make out any of the faces as they just stood there. Brooding. Initially, I was afraid, but I ultimately resolved to just lay there and try to fall back asleep (in my dream). As I lay there, I felt an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and confusion as I felt the pressure of those entities standing there. Once I had finally awakened, I looked at the clock and it was 3 am. I continued to feel the pressure of those entities standing there in my mother’s home where I had been sleeping. Tried as I might, I couldn’t go back to sleep and I finally whispered, “So y’all aren’t going to let me get back to sleep, eh?’. I’d begun to feel a wave of familiarity and anyone that knew my maternal grandmother knew that she was a charismatic, persistent, and crafty woman who knew how to manipulate circumstances to get her way. In a way, I felt that it had to be her beyond the grave pushing me to resume my search for answers in her memory to learn and tell the truth about our heritage and to break the cycle of unknowing for my family. To complete our own Black History. To also continue my own journey of self-discovery through the means I have available.

After talking with my mother, we decided to tackle these questions head-on. Together. Our search became a labor of love, understanding, and surprise while confronting some uncomfortable truths about the past. In learning more about our family history, we discovered a delicate balance of intricate storytelling that involved plot points such as murder, unsolved mysteries, and the journey of souls dedicated to loving in the darkness of the times.

Ironically, my mother and I started this effort in February and would meet on the weekends to discuss the progress that we’d made. During the month of Black History in America. I found it fitting that we would be doing this during that time and found it refreshing to learn about my own family’s history during one of the most significant months for Black people in America. While searching through thousands of records, connecting with potential DNA matches, and learning more about the times that my extended family lived under, I’d come to discover truths that are often held close to Black families across the South. The ugly face of racism, prejudices, and their effects on the people of that time. The hope of the slave. The duties of service to our nation despite not being recognized fully as citizens of this great country and the beauty of love everlasting.

One day while searching for information with my mother, I’d come across records of my maternal grandfather whom I’d never met since he died before I was born. I noticed he had a different last name than the name that my mother and I shared. Seeing as he was about five or so years old at the time of the record, it had to be the name that he was given. Once he reached a certain age, his last name was changed to our current name, and we had no reason for this. Initially, I’d felt robbed of being a part of a bloodline lineage that we often hear about in other families. My mother and I discovered that our last name had absolutely no ties to anyone else with that name outside of my grandmother’s children. For a short period of time, I’d considered changing my last name to that of my father’s since it was a name that I do have a blood tie to and is rightfully mine since I wasn’t granted it at my birth. Upon more research and discussion with extended family, we’d come to discover a love story that could’ve existed on the big screen should it be told properly akin to The Notebook spanning generations.

As we’d come to discover, my great-grandmother was in love with and married a man with my current last name. He’d be her first husband and possibly the first love of her life. As the times called many to service during World War II, so they called for this man. They’d have a child together and unfortunately; he’d never return to her. In his absence, she’d served as the primary care provider for their child and saw to her husband’s mother periodically throughout the years in memory of their love despite his absence. Where he’d end up would’ve been heartbreaking for her to know and I am unsure if she ever knew that he didn’t die in World War II but ended up in another marriage across the country in which, he eventually divorced while meeting his untimely death in Philadelphia in an altercation where he likely died alone. Despite this, she eventually remarried and had more children with her second husband which also led to the birth of my maternal grandfather and his taking of the last name of his biological father. A name that my mother and I do not share with him. As the story goes, my grandmother and grandfather met amid the sparks of young love which can have the potential to burn bright but also become all-consuming to life as we know it. Their union was to be celebrated as a marriage between the two but issues precluded their marriage at the time. Their families shared very similar names with a very minor variation in the spelling of their names and no one would approve of the marriage despite them not being related. In an act of love and a man’s unwavering willingness to marry the love of his life, he chose to discard the last name he’d grown up with to take on a different name in hopes of marrying the woman he wanted to be with. Even though this potentially came with increased friction between him and his family, it was THE option for him at that time. He’d adopted his mother’s married name from her first marriage. A name that signified the same undying first love that his mother had shared with a man whom she loved in her younger years and also the name shared by his brother whom he was close to at the time.

And so, they married and had many children until his untimely death at 27 years old from a horrific tragedy that went unsolved for decades. Grief-stricken; my grandmother fought to survive in the Deep South without a man to help raise their six children at the time. She often reflected on their love and in her death, requested to be buried next to her husband despite having moved on in life.

During the countless hours spent during our search for more answers and deeper meaning, my mother and I stood there in shock after reflecting on the highs and lows of such intense love. This left us to reflect on more recent circumstances concerning our own lives. I then recalled a conversation that I had with my mother years ago surrounding the circumstances of my own birth. My mother had recalled in a previous conversation on how she continued life without her father until life led her to my father whom she loved at the time. While they didn’t get married, she had three children from the relationship, and that road wasn’t peaches and cream either. An untimely miscarriage of a previous pregnancy led my mother to a deep depression. Amid this depression, my mother discovered she was pregnant once again and fought quietly to accept the blessing that was before her. As the birth of her first child approached, my own birth, she sought the comfort of solitude to deliver her first child in a display of the powerful bond between a mother and child. As my mother reflected on that time, I could hear the emotion welling up in her voice as she relayed her desire to deliver her firstborn child in isolation and solitude. By herself. Never in my life had I heard of anything like this, and I am unsure if there is anyone in my circle that had chosen to experience such a thing. When asked which name she would give the child, she chose to give me her last name. The same name that we’d come to discover meant very little when it comes to an enduring legacy of blood. While reflecting on all of these moments around my mother’s quiet dinner table, we’d come to realize that this name symbolized more than what we thought it did. A name passed along that held within it an enduring legacy of love that took on different versions of the very meaning of the word.

Upon taking a break from all of the research, I thought that I’d find some time to reflect on what we’d uncovered throughout the past month. As I stood there, looking in the mirror, I discovered something more meaningful than I could’ve ever learned in my travels across the globe. I’ve often struggled with feelings of acceptance and loneliness throughout my life until it finally dawned on me. I’d come to realize that I am composed of the timeless and enduring love that my family found in the darkness of the times. A love that my family clung to and passed along to me, all wrapped up in a name that was hand-selected and given to me and my siblings. I found new meaning in the name that I’d been given and if I wouldn’t have been given anything else in life, I at least had that and it meant so much more than I could’ve ever imagined.

So, as this most recent Black History Month concluded, I feel fed. Nourished even. I feel fulfilled by the fact that I’ve finally found the time and energy to continue learning about the legacy of my community, my family, and myself while also experienced this with my mother. As I continue to assess and reassess the emotional work that I am doing in my personal life, I feel reassured that I am moving in the right direction as I continue to reflect on my family’s legacy because how can you know where you’re headed if you don’t know where you’ve begun?

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