Last night, my grandfather (who my sisters, cousins, and I all call Papa) came over to my house for dinner. With him, he brought pictures of him and some of his old friends from a beach trip they all took back in 1961 to show us. He went through one of the photos naming all of his friends, and as soon as he got to the last one on this picture, he just stopped and said: “I remember what we used to call him—like his nickname—but I don’t remember his actual name”. After a few minutes of trying to think of his name, my papa became upset by this, and it was bugging him a lot, so he decided to call one of his friends who was in the photo with them and who he has remained very close with through all of these years. Unfortunately, he didn’t know either. My papa tried to move on, and the conversation eventually moved past that, but after a little while, he finally remembered. Remembering and knowing this man’s name was important to him.
While sitting at the table during dinner with my family, I started to think: names are important to us. This is something that I had known, and it is something that, as a class, we have talked about several times in Literature, Medicine, and Racism, but this is one of the first times that I had seen something like this in action—someone’s name being lost over time and only remembered by something they were called almost 60 years ago.
There were two works that we have covered this semester that connected to this idea of a name being lost: Fortune’s Bones and Zone One. In my first blog post, “The Medical Practice of Consent”, I briefly discussed the concept of losing one’s name over time, as it was an issue that was covered in the book Fortune’s Bones. Fortune, who was an enslaved individual in America in the 18th century, was stripped of his name after his death. His bones were passed down from his master to future generations, but his name was not passed down with his bones, and he was renamed “Larry”. By not passing down the name that was attached to the bones, Fortune’s identity and the history he was forced to endure were both erased for a while.
The lack of care exhibited by Fortune’s master and the generations that followed proved to have a long-lasting and devastating effect. This kind of effect is also exhibited in Zone One. The main character of Zone One has a nickname: Mark Spitz. The nickname he is given is the same name held by “one of the greatest swimmers of all time”, Olympic gold medalist Mark Spitz. The nickname is a little bit of a joke made by other characters. Upon finding out that Spitz (the character in Zone One) couldn’t swim, his comrades laughed: “It was perfect: From now on he was Mark Spitz” (Whitehead, 182).
Despite Spitz’s comrades just making a playful joke, they ended up replacing his name completely. As the readers of Zone One, we never learn his real name. This is what I was thinking about as my papa told us all that he only remembered his friend’s nickname, and as I could see the struggle it became for him to think of his real name, I thought of Fortune and Mark Spitz. Both in literature and in real life, real names have importance.
This idea came up again in our class discussion of Zone One. A part of the novel’s setting is by what is currently the African Burial Ground in New York City. In the video tour we watched in class, there was something that I, and many of my classmates, found hard to miss. The ground of the monument was etched with the sex and approximate ages of the individuals who were buried there, along with being surrounded by a large variety of religious symbols representing religions that were commonly practiced among enslaved individuals. But they were missing something incredibly important: their names. Like Fortune, the names of these individuals, who were also enslaved, were lost at some point along the way. Knowing that the names of the people buried here are missing, it feels somewhat incomplete. However, in a way, it does help many of us see and realize how long-lasting and devastating the effects of slavery are and how we are still seeing those effects today in ways that many of us would’ve never foreseen.
Names are incredibly important to each of us in their own ways. We have the liberty to change what we are called if we so choose to at some point in our lives, but others also have the ability to alter your name in some way. Whether it is a nickname that covers up your real name for years and years or your name has been completely forgotten, others do have some sort of power when it comes to your name. Seeing a scenario like this firsthand with my papa really brought a new light to this for me. Always make sure others know your name. Your real name. What you want to be called. It is such an essential part of who you are.