The first time I changed my name, I was seven years old. Why? Because I hated my name. Hated it. With a passion. No one could pronounce it. No one could spell it. It seemed like a ridiculous, made-up name that no one had even heard of. I longed for a normal, boring name, like Jenny or Tiffany or Heather or Stephanie. Or if I had to have a unique name, why not something glamorous and beautiful, like Alexandria or Lydia? Ooh, how I hated my name! And so I changed it. I began to turn in my schoolwork with a variety of names that, at the time, I loved. Alyssa. Christine. Star. Anything but Tiare. (I assume that my teacher always knew that it was my work based on the sloppy handwriting).
When I was ten years old, I settled on my new real name. I announced to my entire family, “My name is now Jamie Katrelle.” After that, I refused to answer to Tiare. It had to be Jamie, or my new initials, J.K. I stuck with this new name for the next three years or so, until I reached high school and decided that Jamie was not such an interesting name after all. Still, I secretly loathed my name, including my middle name, La Brea, which I eventually learned means tar in Spanish. (Really, Mom and Dad? Couldn’t you have researched a little before picking a name in a foreign language?). When I had children of my own, I was determined to give them nice names. Somewhat normal names. Names that meant something, instead of names that just sounded nice to the ear, as is the contemporary naming tradition in many black families.
“But your name does mean something,” my mother informed me a few years ago when I complained. The year that I was born, she explained, she came across a Pullitzer Prize-winning photograph of a little girl falling from the fifth floor of a burning building. The child, whose name was Tiare, miraculously survived the fall. The photograph had a tremendous emotional impact on my mother. She gave me the little girl’s name — the name of a survivor. The name of a child who faced a fire and a tremendous fall, but was strong enough and lucky enough to go on living.
Of course, learning the story behind my name completely changed my opinion. Did I love the story? Well, no. In fact, the photo is very disturbing to look at. But it helped me to see that my name was not just something meaningless, pulled out of thin air. My mother loved me so much that she wanted to give me a name that touched her heart, from a story that impacted her life. My name was a mother’s gift. I could no longer hate it. In fact, I began to love my name, especially after I discovered that a Tiare is actually a beautiful, fragrant flower…the national flower of Tahiti, worn behind the ears of young women. I also learned that my name is somewhat popular in Hawaii, Chile, and throughout the South Pacific. It is not so weird after all. My name is exotic, fragrant, beautiful, meaningful. And I am grateful to my mother for her gift.
(But sorry, Mom and Dad…the middle name has got to go. My name is now Tiare Liberty. There is no story that will make me embrace the old name).