I am a Black feminist woman who believes wholeheartedly in equality for all human beings. I believe having equal access to resources and opportunities should be afforded to all people without limitations based on socially constructed ideas of race, gender, socioeconomic status or other things that make us "different" from each other.
I've heard feminist women argue in favor of retaining their "maiden" names after getting married as a way of affirming their individuality as women and not being nominally defined by their husbands. I definitely support that line of thinking. Many acknowledge that though their maiden names (a problematic phase in and of itself) come from their fathers, for the most part, they still feel a stronger connection to the names (and their families) to keep those names as opposed to taking on their husbands' names. Sure, fathers used to sell their daughters to men in marriage for various reasons, and I'm not quite sure why the connection to the paternal last name given by our fathers is more acceptable than our husbands' names, but... I don't need to be. I'm honestly not writing this to judge because, in the end, it really comes down to women making the decisions about changing their names based on what is meaningful to them and works best for their lifestyles. Period.
Image: Jack Dorsey via Flickr
I wonder, though, how many feminists who advocate for women keeping their maiden names consider the implications for Black women, specifically those women who are descendants of people who were enslaved? What of the attachment (or lack thereof) to their last names? What of women who have no real connection to their fathers? Who, because of the effects of systemic racism, poverty, and discrimination, have grown up without fathers (many who abandoned their families rather than face the perpetual shame of being unable to provide for them as men are "supposed" to)? I'll preface this by saying I'm not writing on behalf of all Black American women or women disconnected from their fathers, at all. I'm writing to perhaps spark a new way of thinking about name changing for certain groups of women.
Africans were sold, trapped, tricked, and captured for the purposes of forcing them into a system of servitude that would become one of history's greatest travesties, American Slavery. People were separated so they would be unable to communicate with people they knew or were related to, and they were forced to learn a new language. Children were separated from their birth parents and given to others to "care" for them. People were given new names, first and last, and forced to adopt new identities per the mandates of their handlers, overseers, and masters. "Nzinga" became "Nancy," and last names were almost always those of the masters who owned them, as an immediate note of recognition of to whom they belonged.
Some earlier runaway slaves changed their last names to names like "Freedman" or "Freeman" as an affirmation of their newly found freedom from slavery. Post-emancipation, many others did the same, simply taking on any name that was not that of their masters. Not all did, though, and when slavery ended, the Washingtons, Jeffersons, Jenkinses, Johnsons, Whites, and Walkers, among others, began to build families the best ways they knew how, keeping the surnames they'd become so familiar with. Keeping the names also helped when trying to search for lost family members and other familiar kin. Generations later, many African/Black Americans find themselves with last names connected to the men and women who once owned (and in many instances, raped) their ancestors, and for some that connection is troubling, to say the least.
Consider, then, how the general act of choosing one's own name is empowering and how it might be an empowering action for a female descendant of slaves. No one, of any race or gender, has any initial choices in their first or last names; our parents/primary care givers choose our names for us and they become documented. Sure, we can legally change our names or adopt monikers or pen names (*cough*) to represent us. There is, however, something deeper for women whose last names are traced not back through blood ties to Welsh or French nobility, or some awesome tale of a daring Italian or Russian immigration to the United States for better opportunity, but are instead connected via tattered paper trails to people who purchased, owned, raped, and sold their ancestors.
There is something more difficult to reconcile when affirming, "This is MY name and I'm not changing it, as a woman, because I want my freedom!" when the name carries such a heavy weight born of America's greatest disgrace. Should it be any surprise that the act of choosing a name, even by making the choice to change one's name after marriage, could be empowering or at least symbolic of ownership of one's identity? The woman becomes in control of her own naming and can subtly reshape her identity in a way that she has total control over. For many of us, there is so little in this world we control or own for ourselves, so this can be quite an empowering act of self-affirmation.
Yes, many African American women feel attached to their last names, and have no interest in changing them when they get married. For some of them, their last names are those of their mothers, because their fathers were sporadically present or not present at all, and keeping their name is in honor of their mothers' strength and endurance. Many West African and Native American traditions are matriarchal, and there are tribes who trace their history matrilineally, so this isn't exactly uncommon. Others feel as many feminists feel -- that their names are their own, and they don't want to change them just because they get married; they don't want to be "Mrs. ____". Others may feel resentment towards their fathers for not being around or for being abusive, so while they may have the fathers' last names, they feel no real connection to their last names and might even be eager to change them when they get married. Being able to claim, by name, an attachment to a partner who has her best interest at heart may reconcile a number of the struggles she's been dealing with growing up.
I love my dad. He's been in my life since I was born. I don't have any resentment towards him or anything. I don't, however, feel any connection to the name he gave me. When I got older, I actually began to feel less connected as I researched the name and the origins; it didn't represent me at ALL. My dad bought one of those family crest things, as if this name is "ours" or as if our European "kin" would ever have recognized our ancestors as family worthy of bearing the crest. As if...
Then there are the children, of course. Unfortunately, we live in a society that continues to make assumptions about women based on their children's last names. When a mother has a different last name from her child, people draw conclusions and perceptions are often different based on race and class. I spoke with a few women about this and they agreed that White women with different last names are not perceived the same way as Black women with different last names from their children. Black women are more likely to be assumed to be unmarried mothers and it is assumed that the father isn't in the picture. White women are more likely to be given consideration that maybe they're at least divorced or widowed, or that they are simply feminists who opted to keep their own names. Rarely are Black mothers afforded the same rationalizations.
So for a Black woman who gets married, changes her name, and has a child with the same name, there is a connection there that might be more meaningful than for others. I'm not suggesting that Black women should seek validation from anyone regarding marital status or parenting choices; I'm suggesting that for some, this is important and they're allowed to make this choice if it is empowering for them. When I got divorced, I had to think about whether or not I'd change my name back and I decided to keep it. Why? It's my son's name and I wanted to remain connected to him in that way.
Naming, for me, is highly significant and it is important to me that my son and I have the same last name. His father has since re-married, and guess what? I don't care that we get weird stares when he, his new wife, and I all show up at family events and they can't figure out who is "Ms. T" and who is "Mrs. T". I don't care that we're all listed with the same last name on school documents and after-school volunteers might be confused. That is MY child and as my ancestors lost connection with their kin through forced separation and name changes, I'm doing what I feel empowers me in this connection.
The name I have now is the name I've chosen. It is not for my mother, my father, or my ex-husband. I put very careful thought into why I chose this name and why I continue to use it, and none of my reasons make me any less feminist. In fact, I feel stronger as a woman, for being able to make this choice and live with it happily.
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