Do you know that awkward (maybe infuriating based on frequency) moment when someone mispronounces your name? Or when the Starbucks employee spells “Sabrina” “Sabreena”, “Dominique” becomes “Domanic” or “Melisha” is ‘corrected’ to say “Melissa”? Though these instances are not intentional Jemisin has taught me that misplaced intention should never excuse closer investigation. In The Stone Sky—and throughout Jemisin’s trilogy—where we are reminded that “Names have power” (239) and it is here that Jemisin challenges me to think about the processes of renaming.
(Sorry folks, this is a lengthy one)
With each addition/ reintroduction/ reexplanation of the different origins in her world, Jemisin reminds us of what we don’t know. One of the most moving examples of this is in the history of the Thniess civilization, ancient ancestors of the tuners. When explaining this history it is mentioned that at the peak of Sylanagistine control this civilization filled with “many small and nothing peoples” (208) who had crafted: “”art” [that] ran more efficiently and powerfully than anything the Sylanagistine had ever managed” (210). This created a sense of fear amongst their oppressors which is used to ‘justify’ the severely inhumane experiences Thniess people were forced to endure. But, I would like to focus on the steps before that.
Initially, it is mentioned that: “It was hard to say their name with the proper pronunciation, so Sylanagistines called them Niess. The two words did not mean the same thing, but the latter is what caught on” (208-209). Before the string of their targetted injustices begin Sylanagistines use their power to claim and rename Thniess culture for the sake of convenience. This renaming was the first step of dehumanization which made it easier to take ownership of their advancements without bruising the ‘superior’ intellect of Sylanagist society. As twisted as this is, these incidents are (sadly) not limited to Jemisin’s world and in fact, replicate real-world tendencies in the approach of history. Don’t believe me? Well consider this, what do you know about Ancient Egypt?
Arguably, some of the most popular answers to this fall in one or more of the following categories: Land of Gods and pyramids, the practice of mummifying, Hieroglyphics, and The Sphnix. These understandings are not incorrect in what they represent—the architectural achievements and complex culture of Ancient Egyptians—but are incomplete. Reparation of this knowledge must begin with one of its most significant misunderstandings which is the use of the term “Ancient Egyptians” rather than the identifiers that these individuals referred to themselves as.
The Fitzwilliam Museum has a series of collections dedicated to investigating Ancient Egypt civilizations by interpreting this history with an “African centered” lens. Similar to Jemisin’s approach, this begins by recognizing that: “The word ‘Egypt’ is the name that the Ancient Greeks gave to the country… Prior to Europe’s involvement with Egypt, the people of Ancient Egypt had many names for their country”. The process of renaming successful civilizations then begins its trend as well as the strong sense of denial despite documented evidence written in Hieroglyphics. One reason for this refusal may lie in a desire to dissociate admirable advancements with continent of Africa, one that was ‘saved’ by the Divine call of European colonialization.
By removing the African origins in the name of the land, “‘Ta Mery’ (the beloved land), ‘Ta Sety’ (the land of the bow)…’Kemet’, which means ‘the black land’” it becomes easier to rewrite the history of these civilizations in such a way that their roots are eventually misplaced. When the tendency solidifies itself in society renaming becomes easier to accept until ultimately, we have a need for: “African Centred Egyptology aims to look at Egypt as part of African culture. People mainly look at Ancient Egypt through a European bias”. The power in renaming these civilizations has separated the history of Egypt—a country in Africa—from the history of African culture altogether.
As a society, we’ve become more keen to this tendency of renaming where individuals with names that stray from an unspoken “norm” are heavily scrutinized. My response to this is a short poem by Elisabet Velasquez that was introduced to me by Sabrina Chan titled ‘To All the Girls with Heavy Names’
Correct them when they say your name wrong then watch their tongue stumble over its own discomfort as it tries to find its footing on a land it cannot steal
P.S. my comparison of the history of the Thniess in Jemisin and the Ancient African civilization is not a means of aligning the two histories with each other. I mean, doing so— without considering other non-African civilizations and cultures that have suffered similar fates— would be adhering to the very corrupt mindset that’s being discussed, right?