Conscriptive Naming and Self-Identification

What’s in a name? This is a question that we have been exploring in terms of both the naming of storms and the naming of people; both Christina and Helen have written posts that explore the hurricane-naming process and its implications.

Personally, I have become increasingly interested in the question of “what’s in a name?” as it relates to human beings, and find myself cycling back to When the Levees Broke in hopes of looking at the film in light of some of my thoughts and research on names and naming.

Helen says in her post that “A name is a kind of conscription into performance,” and I think she’s absolutely right about that. The more I research names, the more I realize their deeply rooted and far-reaching power to conscript all kinds of performance. Researchers from Hebrew University in Jerusalem wrote in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “Each name has associated characteristics, behaviors, and a look, and as such, it has a meaning and a shared schema within a society.”

According to an Australian study, people tend to expect those with easier-to-pronounce names to be more trustworthy. This expectation has, of course, no basis in fact. And yet, it apparently stands. Citing the study just mentioned, this article discusses the study’s potential implications for people looking to be hired, while giving a well-intentioned word of advice to employers as well.

Interestingly, this article mentions a study of an Ashanti community where people believe that the day a person was born greatly influenced their character throughout life. It is believed that boys who are born on Mondays will be “mild mannered and peace loving,” while boys born on Wednesdays will be “violent and aggressive.” As a result of this belief, the Ashanti people have a tradition of including the day a person was born into their name. When this researcher examined records from a local juvenile court, he found that there was indeed a significantly higher number of violent crimes committed by boys who were born on Wednesday. According to the article, “The number of violent acts committed by the boys born on Wednesday was significantly higher than would be expected through mere chance, and it showed that Wednesdays tended to live up to the reputation.” These examples demonstrate just a few of the many ways in which a name places a person into a category, as well as the impact that this categorization can have.

In an attempt to avoid at least some of the conscription that accompanies a name, more and more parents are giving their children names that are widely considered gender-neutral. In light of the fact (which we have mentioned briefly in class) that childhood is essentially a nonconsensual state of being, though, it seems to follow that no matter how well-intentioned parents might be while choosing a name for their child, there is no way for that child to avoid being conscripted into some role or another as their name is being chosen for them. Many babies are named before they are even born—many babies have a predetermined last name before being born as well, which will carry an additional set of implications for the person’s experience. I cannot help but think of the late Representative Louise Slaughter as I write about this topic—upon Rep. Slaughter’s passing, there was a call to rename the Amtrak Station in Rochester in her honor. It has since been decided that the station will be renamed “Louise M. Slaughter Intermodal Station in Rochester.” Since the renaming of the station was suggested, though, there has been no lack of jokes about naming the station something like “Slaughter House” or “Slaughter Station” and what the implications of that would be. This got me thinking about how some people have names that lend themselves more easily to people looking for something to poke fun at, which I consider very unfortunate considering that these people had no agency over choosing their own name.

There seems to be an endless amount of potential research on names, naming practices, and the like. I’d like to cycle back to When the Levees Broke at this point, though, because I think it relates to the concept of people lacking agency over their own names. At the end of Levees, when the cast of the documentary held up photo frames and gave their names, what struck me even more than the visual impact of the photo frames were the words people spoke during this credits scene. Each person said their “proper” name, but then added something of their own; it does not seem as if they were given any specific prompt for what they should say, as people gave unique and personal identifications of themselves. And while I admittedly do not remember most of the people’s “proper” names, I do remember quite a few of their personal self-identifying additions that they gave after their names. I think the concept of people choosing one small piece of themselves to identify as–to name themselves as–is both intriguing and rather beautiful. Some of the people at the end of the film chose to give their occupation as an identifier, such as professor, author, reporter, or pediatrician. Others chose to mention some affiliation with a group, like the man who identified himself as a member of “New Orleans’ own Hot 8 Brass Band.” I was personally affected by the boy who identified himself by saying “I play the trumpet” and the woman who named herself “Terrence’s mother.” These personal tidbits of self-identification were compelling to me because they allowed for people to give themselves a name, to choose a part of themselves that they consider important and use that to identify themselves.

Importantly, I also noticed (Dr. McCoy helped me to notice, so I can’t take all the credit) that an overwhelming number of the people who contributed to this documentary chose to identify themselves as “born and raised in New Orleans,” or something of a similar vein. Many cast members from New Orleans included the specific parts of the city where they came from, such as District 93, St. Bernard’s Parish, the Garden District, the Lower Ninth Ward, and others still. As I said before, the variety of other responses during the credits scene suggests to me that people were not specifically asked to give their name and where they were from—so many people chose, then, to give the name of their home city when given the opportunity to choose any one thing about themselves to identify as. I see this as not only a testament to the richness of the culture and life in New Orleans that our course materials have portrayed for us, but also as a testament to the inspiring pride and strength of the people of New Orleans. This realization of the credit scene’s uplifting statement about New Orleans and its people has made me appreciate Lee’s work on this film more deeply and has helped me to personally feel a bit stronger after viewing such a weighty (and I use those terms purposefully) documentary.

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