In recent sermon, I chose to write a letter to my name in order to express to the congregation how in our society something as small as our name can be used by some people to discriminate. I further illustrated my point by giving them a list of famous people who changed their names because they thought it would increase their chances of getting accepted in the entertainment industry. Here is a short list.
Real Name: Krishna Pandit Bhanji aka Ben Kingsley
Real Name: Caryn Johnson aka Whoopi Goldberg
Real Name: Issur Danielovitch Demsky aka Kirk Douglas
Real Name: Ramon Antonio Gerard Estevez aka Martin Sheen
Real Name: Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko aka Natalie Wood
These people new the power that names have over their lives in our society. It is hard to deny that the name change affected their lives in some way. In these peoples’ cases, the new names that they chose allowed them to hide in one way and blend in in another. In each instance, these people were trying to hide their ethnicity in hopes that it would help them be accepted by the entertainment industry. Now, I ask you, if people feel that they need to change their name in order to be accepted by our society, how do you think other differences might affect how they are received?
Now I know that some people think that pointing out these tendencies is divisive. I say that it is invitational. If someone is sharing with you that they feel excluded that is them inviting you to join with them. If your response is that telling you the truth is divisive that means you are being dismissive. The invitation here is for us to bear one another’s experiences in love so that we can stay awake long enough to create a mutually compatible world. We have the resources to create an amazing world, but we can’t get there as long as there are some who are “in” and some who are “out”.
I hope that you see this letter as the invitation that it is.
I decided to write this letter because I couldn’t think of any other way to work out the complexities of our relationships to our names. I remember when it first hit me that my life with you was going to present me with some interesting situations. It all began when I was transferred to a different school for kindergarten because of the new zones our town created. It was going to be my first time being around so many white kids. As I was about to get on the school bus, my grandmother said to me, “tell the white people you are Portuguese so that they will treat you better.” Even though I didn’t know why she was saying that to me, I knew I didn’t like it. Once I got to school, I figured out why when the teacher stopped at my name when she was taking role. She called me out in front of the whole class and said, “Class, today we have a new student. I am going to invite him up to say his name and tell us where he is from.” I was not happy about this. I didn’t want to go up there, but I felt like I had to. When I was up there the teacher asked me where I was from. When I said Portsmouth, VA, she asked me where I was really from. When I again said Portsmouth, she asked about my name. She asked me to say my name to the class. When I said it was Pedro the kids started to murmur. It got worse when she asked that I say my whole name. Hesitantly I told them that it was Pedro Senhorinha Ramos Monteiro Silva II. After that there were laughs and questions and kids making exaggerated attempts to say my name. At recess they came up to me and asked me to say it again. When I said I didn’t want to they joked me and said that it was because I was embarrassed to be Mexican. When I told them I wasn’t Mexican they said I was lying and some kids—black and white—started to dance around me singing “Pedro, Pedro, go back to Mexico.” Why? All because of a name and what they thought it meant.
For years after that I tried to find a nickname that would bring me some relief from having to explain why you were attached to me, but nothing stuck. Do you remember all of the times people asked me what kind of black man was named Pedro? It was as recent as two weeks ago. How can you forget? How about the times when I’ve been waiting in lines for my name to be called only to discover that the people skipped over me, because they didn’t see anyone who looked like a Pedro so they assumed I had gone. Or what about the time when a man admitted that he almost didn’t call me for an interview because of my name. I’m telling you, we have had some interesting times.
For so long I wanted to be rid of you, but then there was that one time where we went into a Mexican club with Carlos and when he went to the bathroom all those Mexican guys came up to me and asked me what I was doing in there. You saved my butt that day. I lied and said I was there with my cousin Carlos and told the guys I was Blaxican. I even showed them my ID and when they saw Pedro Silva, they instantly lightened up and apologized. Phew! Or what about that time when I was stationed in Panama. You really came in handy there. I could walk anywhere in the country and I never had to worry that the locals were going to take their anger out on me like they did with some of my co-workers because people assumed I was Panamanian. It worked well for me except for when I went into a resort and people assumed I must work there or was trespassing. I had to remind people several times that I was paying to be there. Talk about awkward.
Oh name! The times we’ve had. The education you’ve given me. It’s hard to believe that I used to wish that you were never given to me. I’m glad now that I have you, but it’s more because of the meaning that I have chosen to give you rather than the meaning that has been projected onto you by others. Now, I’m hoping that we can work together to show others that they too can shift how they respond to names, because at the end of the day it all comes down to how we choose to identity with the names and labels that we assume or that have been given to us. So thanks for sticking with me even when I didn’t want to stick with you.