When I was a teenager, I lied about my name. True story. (Oh, irony.) My old friends once asked me what my middle initial, “O”, stood for. I didn’t tell them the truth. I didn’t want anyone to know my very African middle name. I had visions of them balking and laughing and eyes widening at the mixture of consonants and vowels. I didn’t want that. The mocking and bullying because of my looks and being from another country in my early adolescence had done their damage–I didn’t want anyone to know a thing about my African birth/heritage and name. Since I was in a different school system now, different from the earlier grades, I could lie like a rug and basically create a new identity. And that’s what I did.
New middle name: Olivia
New birthplace: San Francisco, CA
Regarding San Fran, I took the fact that my mom, sister, and me visited the city when I was about 4 years old and ran with it. Anyway, my false identity worked for a bit. I allowed that my parents were Ghanaian but I maintained that I wasn’t. I wanted them to be convinced that I was thoroughly American, almost in a rabid attempt to destroy that little girl that walked into her new school and was gawked at when the other kids learned that she was from a whole other country. And then it happened. An application for something I filled out and happened to leave on my desk in French class. One of my old pals/classmates glanced at it. I remember him asking, pretty loudly, at that, what happened to my middle name. Isn’t your middle name Olivia? he asked. Everyone else came over to peer at it and saw the “k” and the “y” and registered various looks of surprise. Wishing for the ground to open up and swallow me didn’t work. So I blamed it on my little brother. “Oh, I think my brother was doodling on the application and decided to play a joke on me.” Everyone laughed; they were already pretty familiar with the antics of my 6 year-old brother anyway, so the lie was accepted. They moved on. I, however, felt the lie in the pit of my stomach. (Side note: it’s amazing how certain moments in life direct us in the future. Notably, in my short fiction, I write a lot about people fighting particular truths in their life and the repercussions that come. Art really imitates life, huh?) I’d like to say that it all ended there; feeling sick over the lie inspired me to change and just tell the truth about who I was. Uh, no. I was 16. This was high school. It didn’t end there. I even told my counselor, who would be announcing my name at graduation, to merely say the initial and not the name. Her “but it’s beautiful” fell on deaf ears.
Alas, it wasn’t college that I started questioning myself. Why I was going through all these hoops to hide myself? Why was I condemning my heritage when people around me vocalized their wish to identify with an actual culture? (Honestly, I consider my time in college as four years of straight, unrelenting epiphanies about myself.)
My middle name came from a wonderful woman who was like a second mother to my dear father. I was named after her. It’s the name of this here blog (the address above). When people ask how to pronounce it, I say it slowly, just for the sake of hearing my name repeated back to me. But really, nothing compares to hearing my middle name spoken from my own lips and falling in love with that sound over and over again. I only wish I had fallen in love sooner.