As we drove in the car today, my 5-year-old glanced down at her journal, which had her first and last name written across it.
“We need to change our name,” she said. “Mgongolwa. It's too hard for people to say.”
My heart sank.
“You know what?” I told her. “Lots of my friends have names that some people think are hard!” I listed a few women that my daughter loved and admired. “But even when a name is hard to say, it is perfect the way it is.”
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“Really?” she said, skeptically.
“Did you know your last name is important? It is the name of a wonderful warrior chief in Tanzania. It is a beautiful, strong name we are so proud of!” Then I threw in the checkmate: “Did you know your ancestors were chiefs, just like Moana’s?”
“Really?” she asked, this time excitedly. I’d told her this before, but it obviously needed reinforcing.
My maiden name was Jackson, a name that no one had trouble pronouncing. In fact, growing up people would often sing songs with my name in it: Outkast’s “Miss Jackson,” Janet Jackson’s “Nasty.” Middle-age ladies would always rapturously tell me there used to be a “Charlie’s Angel” actress with my name, Kate Jackson. When I went to graduate school at Boston College, there was another Kate Jackson in my cohort (in fact, I often received her mail and once received her transcript!) whom people often confused me with. I always liked my name, but it certainly wasn’t unique.
Then I got married.
I was living in Texas at the time, and after getting married and legally changing my name, I went to the local DMV to get a license reflecting my new name. The DMV employee behind the desk studied my documents.
“Your maiden name is Jackson,” she said studiously, looking at me.
“Yes, m’am,” I nodded.
“And you’re changing it to Mg ... Mago ... Mmmmmgaaaa …” She stopped and shook her head. “Oh honey, don’t change your name. Why would you want to do that?”
I stared dubiously at her, unaware that this was the first of dozens – hundreds? – of people who would question, mangle, mock or dismiss my new name.
But you see, it’s not really a new name. It’s been around for hundreds of years in Tanzania, and commands a lot of respect there due to an ancestor who was a great chief. It was a name I was proud to take on. It is a name I am proud for my daughter to carry. It tells the world her story.
Soon after, I re-entered teaching and, upon realizing that Ms. Mgongolwa was much harder for kids to say than Ms. Jackson, became Ms. M. It would be easier, I reasoned, already weary of the cognitive and emotional energy it took to deal with.
Then, last June, I attended Chapel Hill-Carrboro City School’s first session of its Conversations on Equity. This was led by Kelvin and Ronda Bullock, who discussed talking about race and equity with young children. I still remember the moment Ronda Bullock talked about names, and advised all those with “different” names to push back against those who want to change or mispronounce those names.
“Tell them, ‘My name isn’t hard for me, but I can teach you how to say it,’” she told us.
That created a shift in me. We deserve to have our names said correctly. It takes some effort, yes, but the alternative makes people and their culture feel invisible.
In September, the National Education Association published an article detailing how mispronouncing a student’s name essentially amounts to a small act of bigotry and can eventually affect that student’s outcomes. In the article, Yee Wan, the current president of the National Association for Bilingual Education (NABE), said, “Mispronouncing a student’s name truly negates his or her identity, which, in turn, can hinder academic progress.”
I am relatively new to the Mgongolwa name, considering I spent 27 years with the name Jackson. I haven’t learned how to best master uncomfortable confrontations: when my pharmacist says, “Oh yeah, the one with the weird name,” or a student says, “Why do all the teachers with strange names have classes next to each other,” or when people demand to know where I’m from.
But I’ve learned from people who have faced this their entire lives: If people can say Tchaikovsky or Krzyzewski or, heck, even Harambee, they can also say Mgongolwa.
As the school year winds down, I’ve started thinking about the mere months left until my daughter enters kindergarten. I hope that her future teachers see her name as a bridge to understanding, not a stumbling block.
Katie Mgongolwa lives in Chapel Hill and teaches in Durham. You can reach her at Katie.Mgongolwa@gmail.com.