Sunday, March 23, 2008

What's in a name?

This week in Newsweek an article examines how Barry Obama decided in college that he wanted to henceforth be known by his given name Barack Obama. As a young man he was called Barry by family and friends. The article asks why he would make a conscious decision to take on his formal given African name.

Obama explains that in college using the name of Barry was a way of simplifying things - a small compromise to smooth the way in society. One of his friends is quoted "It wasn't surprising to me that he decided to embrace that identity because "Barry" could be perceived as trying to run away from something and trying to fit in, rather than embracing his own identity and in many ways kind of opening himself to who he is" Barama claims "It was more of an assertion that I was coming of age. An assertion of being comfortable with the fact that I was different and that I didn't need to fit in in a certain way".

I personally have dealt with name changes throughout my life. My paternal Irish grandmother sought to anglicize the pronunciation of our Swiss-German family name after her children were born in the 1920’s – our family name is now pronounced at least 3 different ways by various family members. My ex-husband’s family changed the spelling of their Eastern European family name to make it more acceptable to English society in the 1950’s. Miguel spent many years of his life known as Mike – he says he fit into the American mid-west world better with that name. My maternal grandparents came to Canada from Poland - and tracking their genealogy is difficult because there are about 6 different spellings of their name as government officials tried to figure out how to possibly spell a name with a 13 letters.

Everyone trying to fit into a multi-cultural changing society has to make decisions about their identity. The decision is a personal one and is undoubtedly responsive to the community and times. Barry to Barack? His own decision made in response to what he saw and experienced as a bi-racial young man growing up. His decision - his destiny.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Names can definitely be a challenge. My brother was named Roman but when he started school my mother was worried that he would be teased and asked to have him called Roy. Many years later, he wanted to be called Roman without success. Too many people grew up calling him Roy.
My parents who came from Poland/Ukraine (depends where the border was), the Sudentenland-my mother and step-father from what is now Slovakia often had challenges. Very few people could spell my step-father's name Gomulec and my father's name Mular is constantly changed because most people do not understand that it is phonetically correct. There are actually others with the surname Mular. (I have googled the name.)
We are slowly becoming accustomed to the many wonderful varieties of names and alphabets that we encounter in our multicultural world.