In honor of the righteous anger and justified rebellion that has been unfolding in this country, I have decided now, 3 years and 9 months to the date of my marriage to my life companion, to change my last name. I do this now, in part, because my husband is black in America and is Liberian by nationality and between Ebola and Fergeson, 2014 has been excruciating. And, if, in this small gesture of solidarity, I can stand more united with my chosen tribe, than I chose to do this while screaming from the rooftops that I am incensed.
I had kept my maiden name for both clear and unclear reasons. I married late and like many others who had worked hard to define themselves professionally, I felt my branding had been complete. I had finished a doctorate program and was published in professional journals and any other name felt like an alter ego and a jab at the feminist professional inside of me. I had worked so hard to establish a trademark and I had planned to keep it. I mentioned these feelings brewing inside of me to my soon to be husband as our wedding day drew near and, without a bat of the eye, he simply said, “That makes sense, don’t change it,” never to bring it up again. Our names represented each of us and neither of us thought it was necessary to change anything.
But, now, big gestures feel necessary. Between Ebola ravishing my husband’s native land and Fergeson & Staten Island highlighting the faults in my own – every little detail seems to matter. There have been so many unfair and unjustified deaths in such a short time. Each one of these deaths matter and they all feel personal.
One day after my husband and I were married, we began the paperwork to send for his biological son, in Liberia, with his biological mother's full support and commitment to what she perceived as a better life for her son. How do I tell her that he may be more safe there than he is here?
23 agonizing months later, he arrived. During the wait, we had our first child - a beautiful, intense, satisfied little girl named Sia (a Liberian tribal name for first born daughter). Without discussion, she was given her father’s last name and gentle disposition and I felt unaffected by the fact my last name was different.
Shortly after our son arrived, things started to stir. First, his name (Prishad) was somewhat hard to pronounce here in America; and, given Alvin is the first name listed on his birth certificate, he started to respond to and wholeheartedly endorse a name he had never before embraced. He did this without hesitation or an identity crisis and it made me think. And, while I had loved this child from the moment I knew he existed, long before I had ever met him, I wasn't prepared for the unadulterated adoration, pride and respect I would feel for this young man. He is gentle and compassionate and athletic and handsome and has singlehandedly made his sister a more interesting and interested individual. There is a laugh inside of her that exists solely because of and for her brother.
Now, these two little beings share my husband's last name and I have to admit there have been a few rare moments of envy over the last few years. A sense of separation; a sense of ‘outsiderness’. And yet, each time that envy struck, I was stuck with equal force by my investment in my own singular identity and it ended up being a wash.
My quills started to go up when I was repeatedly asked to give ID and proof that I had a familiar connection to my son. May it have been an after school program, a basketball registration or a library card certification - it wore on me that I needed to show multiple forms of identity to clarify our connection. “Why the different last name?” I was asked repeatedly. I say this knowing full well this experience has been exponentially more intense for the foster mother of one of my son's classmates: a gentle and kind African American woman, who decided to foster-to-adopt the fair-skinned young son of a man she briefly dated when she discovered he was being brutally abused in his home. She not only decided to get as far away from this man as possible, she took this young boy, who was biologically unrelated to her, with her. I have no doubt her experience is ten times more intense than my own. Once again my white privilege cuts me a break.
But I digress, when it comes to these two young beings - I have a fierce desire to be as immediately and literally tied to them as quickly as humanly possible so there are no questions about who is looking out for them. When a child is one color and his mother another, people hesitate. They hesitate in an effort to make sense of it. I want, no, I need, my connection to my son to be clear and undeniable. I want to make it as clear as possible that yes, he and I are connected, and, if anyone - even a badge carrying, gun slinging cop, decides to mess with him, than they are also messing with me. With the current state of affairs in the air, I am concerned for his safety in my cells. Sharing a name with him is a gift. It quickens the beat of my heart.
I believe the United States can be better and can work for systemic change. In the few short years since my husband has arrived on his full ride scholarship to graduate school, he has been ostracized, marginalized, discriminated against and misunderstood. He was locked out of the home of a young white girl in Tennessee for learning that a group meeting was being held at her home without being formally invited. He showed up (with donuts) and she locked all the doors, closed all the curtains and called the cops. The white cop who showed up and spoke with both parties and then told him that although he believed my husband's story, he best leave and talk to the professor about an alternative assignment.
Given my husband is from Africa, he has also been asked if he had worn clothes before he arrived in America and if he had lived in trees and rode elephants. This is a man who has a masters degree in IT engineering and was employed as the Senior Information and Communications Technology Assistant for the United Nations World Food Programme. He is undoubtedly more traveled than the large majority of Americans.
He has been pulled over by the police at least a dozen times; and, in an attempt to have a young white man be held accountable for stealing his backpack from the seat next to him in his school's library (with 3 witnesses including the librarian), he was forced to stand by while the white female cop asked the thief if for any he wanted to press charges against my husband.
These events should not be dismissed as odd or peculiar; rather, they must be publicly acknowledged and understood before any resolution can be reached. In all these examples something happened that is very difficult for us Americans to talk about, but clearly needs to be for the sake of clarity. This is discrimination and although it’s a difficult topic for us to explore, it needs to be seriously investigated prior to putting recent events to rest.
In my humble opinion, recent events showcase some of what makes the contemporary experience of race in America so different from just about anything this country has had to negotiate before. In this era of political correctness, racism has become more subtle and perhaps more subversively dangerous than ever before. Today’s racism is a racism that is often difficult to see, touch, and define but nevertheless exists and tempers the ways in which people across racial lines react to one another and interact with each other. How else can one explain the bizarre outcome of grand juries and the odd nature my husband's classmate reacted to his appearance on her front porch?
Now, I have yet to say what last name I am about to embrace with all my heart. I imagine some of you are expecting a name that will have some flavor of "Africa." If that is the case, I beg you to listen and listen carefully. The name I am about to embrace is Mitchell. Odd perhaps? Well no, not at all. My husband is a descendent of the freed slaves. These freed slaves either chose to or were encouraged to return to Africa when slavery ended. While I am looking towards Africa, the roots of my new name lie much closer to home. Liberia literally means the Land of the Free and its current president is a graduate of Harvard. Liberians see their country as the baby brother to America while the large majority of Americans would have a hard time finding it on a map or differentiating it from Libya. I actually heard the following when I told someone that I was returning to Liberia for a second contract (in part, due to the fact I realized I was madly and deeply in love with a man and that it wasn't a mission affair to be forgotten): "Hu. I didn't realize Gaddafi let Americans in." While we should be ashamed of how we responded to the Ebola crisis, we should be extra ashamed of our lack of knowledge of our shared history.
Being an ally in Liberia's development and recovery and America’s issues with racial inequality are integral to my decision. I align myself with the dimensional story that is tied to my husband’s identity and I revel in how it makes me feel. I have been granted so much privilege based purely on who I am (white, straight, educated, middle class) and I need to act. While I can’t improve the experience of those who don’t have my access to power and resources, I’d like to let them know I stand united and I can’t breathe.
I have just submitted to the paperwork to make Mitchell my legal last name and move Vogel back to become my middle name. I am about to become Gwen Vogel Mitchell.
In the end, I took my husband's name as well as my children's and their ancestors. This name has ties both to Africa as well as America. Claiming Lorenzo's last name is my way of connecting us all a tiny bit more. Whenever anyone says it, they are also saying the names of everyone I now feel intimately connected to even though some would want to deny it. Soon my son will be 17 and I feel this incredible need to let everyone know that I am tied to this young man and nothing, I mean nothing, will happen to him on my watch.
The Take Home
We are being naïve if we think that we can sit down and intellectualize ourselves out of the subtext of what has unfolded. If we believe the general success of ending blatant types of racial discrimination means that we are done with racism’s awful legacy for good, then I fear we are gravely mistaken. Little of what is being alleged can be easily proven or disproved and I’m certain it is difficult for some to digest, but I am not asking everyone to agree with everything, I am only asking for everyone who reads this to process and explore what has been happening so things like this happen less frequently.
Shortly after President Obama was elected, former President Jimmy Carter made a statement claiming that much of the opposition to Obama was in fact racist in nature. Carter stated “I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man, that he’s African-American.” I used to think the problem was that modern racism is subtle and that it was rare that someone will make an overtly racist comment. Sadly, we have all learned that racism is alive and well, simmering beneath the surface, in the form of deeply held attitudes of disdain and mistrust. It may be unconscious – but we would be fooling ourselves if we tried to claim it isn’t still around.
How does one fight such racism? How does one act against something so subtle yet potentially so powerful? Serious and honest self-reflection is perhaps a good first step.