Do you remember your early middle school crushes? Did you ever play that game when you wrote your name and substituted your surname for that of the class prefect you only dared to admire from afar, fantasizing about the day you would be wed? I did. And it was fun…until it actually mattered.
For 27 years, I was Abena Owusua Malaka Gyekye. And then one day in the summer of 2005, I was not. I became Abena Owusua Malaka Grant – officially – when my new social security card was sent to me in the mail. I still remember how ill and shaken I felt when I opened that plain, white government issued envelope and witnessed the final erasure of the woman I’d been for nearly three decades. I’m shaking as I write about it now. It felt like a death.
‘Malaka Gyekye’ was no more.
I’ve always had a complicated relationship with my name. The totality of it. It does not roll off the American tongue with ease. In fact, there have been many days when my name had forced those same tongues to falter and finally halt.
“It’s pronounced ‘jet-chee’.” I was always obliged to offer an explanation. The quicker, the better. Americans were always butchering my name and in their effort, I felt like they were cutting me down at the same time. Like many African children who grew up in the diaspora, I too begged my parents to give me an “easy” name: like Cindy or Suzzie. I still remember the day that my father dashed those dreams after I’d formed that bright idea. It was after a particularly hilarious episode of Three’s Company. Janet, Jack and Cindy… Everyone was so white and funny and happy – and above all – had normal names. I was sure my dad would see the sense in my request, but he simply told my sister and I that he liked our Ghanaian names and that was the end of it. Poor Adwoa and I were crushed.
Fast-forward a few years and a move across the Atlantic later and that ‘difficult’ name was actually quite common. It rolled off the Ghanaian tongue like a cresting wave. Effortless. Rhythmic. Ordinary.
I had always known that ‘Abena’ represented a girl born on Tuesday and ‘Malaka’ meant ‘angel’, but as I grew and began to ask more questions about the rest of my monikers, I was astonished. Named for my grandmother, ‘Owusua’ means woman of honor. And Gyekye?
“In Larteh, it means to bind,” my father said. “It also means to scatter.” The difference lies in intonation.
How perfect. What a peculiar dichotomy. How volatile. How wonderfully unpredictable. I grew enamored with my name. The totality of it.
And then I got married and my name changed.
I knew before I walked down the aisle that I would be expected to take my husband’s name. The ministry we were a part of was completely opposed to women keeping their maiden names. Even the idea of a hyphenated name was an affront. I just remember a lot of screaming about henpecked men who are married to women still under their ‘daddy’s protection’ and if said woman refused to take her husband’s name, he may as well take hers. (This sort of talk went on for years.) And then there was talk of Eve no longer being Eve when she knew Adam, but then becoming ‘Mrs. Adam’…a fact that I still have yet to unearth anywhere in the Bible. So far as I can tell, God created Eve and she lived and ultimately died AS EVE.
Nevertheless, I did as was expected and ‘eagerly’ affirmed that I would be sharing my betrothed surname when asked. Of course I would. It’s what good women do. Yet, I still couldn’t conceal what I was feeling about the impending loss of my identity from my husband. But he’s a man, and men never have to face these sorts of decisions (unless they are running from the law or the IRS), so he didn’t really understand the grief I was experiencing. And then there was the whole Western historical reasoning for a woman changing her name in the first place. After marriage, a woman became a man’s property and a man’s property had to be identified.
“I think it’s important that we all – you, me and our children – have the same name,” he said simply. “For me, it signifies unity. Not ownership or control.”
That gave me some comfort. All the same, I held out filling and submitting the paperwork for as long as possible. It’s no easy thing: letting go of something you once felt blinding animosity towards, only later to discover that that blindness and pain was attributed to its brilliance and beauty and not a sinister light as you first imagined. I miss that connection to my name, and to my father’s clan. I mourn its passing because I know that its restoration is improbable, at least as far as my father’s direct line goes. The chances of my brother ever having children go from zero to hell naw with each passing year. My sister has done her best, choosing to hyphenate her kids’ names with Gyekye, and my hope is that the name will endure via my niece and nephew. Who knows? I can only hope.
There are days, like today, when I think about my married name, wonder about its history and contemplate my apathy towards it. I’m a Grant now, which means some Scottish or English man sailed from the UK to seek or change his fortunes a few centuries ago and took ownership of an African man who’d been forced to forgo his. Not only was my husband’s African ancestor robbed of his physical freedom, he also had his identity ripped from him in order to become a Grant. Or perhaps someone in my husband’s lineage chose the name ‘Grant’ after emancipation, forging a new identity in the same way Frederick Douglas did. The point is, I don’t know. My husband has no knowledge or interest in the origins of his surname beyond a plantation owner by the same name who lived in “Alabama…maybe Georgia.”
This is my perpetual identity now. A surname shrouded in forgettable memory. An uncertain history. Unlike Gyekye, Grant is unremarkable in its meaning. And I grieve for this sad truth.
Anyone else ever feel this way about their married name?