“Why do you say your name like that?” asked my cousin after hearing me pronounce it on my podcast. “Because that’s how my name is pronounced,” I quipped.
It might strike you as odd that my own cousin didn’t know the correct pronunciation of my name. However, before you cast aspersions, understand that she had company. In fact, I was once in that number, as I didn’t know how to pronounce my name for the greater part of my life. It was not until recently—seven years ago, to be exact—that I learned how to say my name correctly.
The reasons it took so long are multitudinous: I am the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, which makes me a first-generation Nigerian-American. The price of emigrating to America is inestimable. The cultural taxes excised upon immigrants may be imperceptible to outsiders, but to those within the community, the levy is substantial. The cost of forsaking one’s homeland, heritage, cultural traditions, goods and kindred in the hope of providing a better future for their children is staggering. I call this the immigrant tax, and it is paid in perpetuity and passed down to posterity. The cost of this tax is evident in the children’s inability to speak their parents’ native language, ignorance about their parents’ cultural traditions, and preference for American food over their parents’ cultural cuisine.
My parents calculated the immigrant tax that they would have to pay: added the benefits, subtracted the costs, and multiplied the variable of hope. They came to America with eyes wide open, bearing their calculation in mind; they were under no delusion that they would raise American children, since my siblings and I were born in the United States. For this reason, my parents gave my sisters and me tribal names so that we would not forget our roots—although, ironically enough, my parents were born under colonial rule in Nigeria and had been given English names.
Victor was the name my father was given, and he always hated it because, according to him, “people name their dogs Victor.” Little did my father know that I, too, would come to have a complicated relationship with my name; not because of my name itself, but because of how people would respond to my name. My father is deceased, but from my perspective—and at least, for my father’s part—perhaps the name choice my parents made for my sisters and me was influenced in part by a conscious decision to assert their agency in light of the choices their parents had made by giving us the tribal names they were not given. The juxtaposition of their English names over against our Nigerian names will forever remain a curious irony in my mind.
Nevertheless, my parents had the foresight to perceive how American culture and identity would lodge itself in the heart and psyche of their children even before we could say “mama,” “dada,” or “America” for that matter; so they chose to give us Ibibio names—
Names that connect us to our tribe.
Names that prophesy about who we would become and who we are.
Names that speak to the excellence of the Most High God.
Names that serve as a 7,800 mile bridge that crosses California’s arid Mojave Desert, shoots atop Michigan’s Great Lakes and spans the cerulean water of the Atlantic Ocean, transporting me to Nung Ukana village in Akwa Ibom State, Nigeria. It’s a place I have never truly known; yet I can never forget it, because it resides in my gap-tooth smile, it’s lodged within the depths of my soul, and it springs forth from my kinky, gravity-defying "Nigerian hair." It’s in my DNA.
Phonetically, the correct pronunciation of Ekemini is: Eh-KEH-mi-knee. My name speaks of God’s providence. Literally, it translates to English as “God’s time is the best,” “God’s time is perfect,” or “God’s appointed time.” So, how did my name with its beautiful meaning end up with countless slaughtered pronunciations that are beyond phonetic recognition?
Chief among the mangled versions is this: EK-uh-mee-knee. For three-quarters of my life, that is how I said my name. It was the default pronunciation for me owing to a couple of factors, beginning with the simple reality that I was never taught to pronounce it correctly. Also, my parents did not teach me how to speak Ibibio, so I have never had full command of the language my name belongs to. And finally, as I was growing up, ninety-nine percent of the time my parents called me by my family nickname—which shall remain private.
On the rare occasion that they did call me Ekemini, they would only use the correct pronunciation when speaking to extended family—or when I was in trouble. However, when they were around Americans, they would default to the incorrect pronunciation because that was the way Americans pronounced Ekemini. My parents—and I, by extension—chose the path of least resistance, which is what the incorrect pronunciation represented—
The path that circumvented the arrogant demand for an “easier” name.
The path that curbed the condescending gibes about my name.
The path that minimized the incessant urge to treat me like an abstraction.
Wherever I found myself, whether at school (“EK-uh-mee-knee”), church (“EK-uh-minny”), the doctor’s office (“EK-uh-MY-nye”) or at the local Jamba Juice, (“EK-uh-hmm I can’t pronounce this one.”), microaggressions were sure to follow, looming over me like an ominous nimbostratus cloud. Even as I type this essay, red squiggly microagressive lines underscore every letter of my name. There is no escape.
Consequently, a symbiotic loop of shame and hatred of my name shaped a significant portion of my life. Even now, it’s hard to disentangle the two. Which came first? Did the shame precede the hate, or was hatred of my name the seedbed that bore the fruit of shame? Did I actually hate my name, or did I hate the way people responded to my name? Did I resent the fact that people could rattle off the names of Beyoncé, "Tchaikovsky, and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky," or even a fictional character named Daenerys Targaryen with ease, but could not be bothered to learn the correct pronunciation of my name?
Perhaps it was all of the above. The human soul is an enigma, defying our attempts to locate ourselves among layers of perplexity.
It’s hard to see the forest when you are the tree. Although my vision of myself is obscured, I can still perceive the tree stumps in my vicinity, which represent all of my butchered names and their companion nicknames. And just as our noses can distinguish smells regardless of how faint or pungent they are, I possess an olfactory sense for every mangled version of my name. In fact, based on the way my name is pronounced by others, I know at which stages different people have entered my life.
My childhood friends and my cousins would call me EK-uh-mee-nee and often used my family nickname, which makes sense because we grew up together, and my friends were treated like extended family, or “play cousins,” if you will. In college, my friends would pronounce my name the same way, but their nickname for me was “Eh-kee” or “Ek-uh.” Enough time has passed that I rarely hear that incorrect pronunciation of my name and those nicknames from college, but when I do, I must admit: I cringe. Not because of the nicknames per se, but because of who I now realize I was back then. In those days, I lacked the knowledge and constitution to correct what I intuitively knew was wrong.
After graduating from college, things began to shift for me. I moved in with my Auntie Iquo (whom I affectionately call Auntiemom) and Uncle Mike for two years, in order to establish myself. My Auntiemom is my second mom, and she always said my name correctly, with all of the conviction and confidence that only a Nigerian Aunt can wield. She and I never had a conversation about the linguistic politics of my name and the attendant shame that I carried because of it. In fact, I’m sure she had no idea that I was ashamed of my name, because shame has a way of silencing individuals. Shame rarely announces itself. Instead, it prefers to whisper lies into the ears of the shamed.
Thankfully, shame was no match for my Auntiemom. Unbeknownst to me—and her—she held court against it daily in the comfort of her home. Every time she said “Eh-KEH-mi-knee,” the shame and disdain for my name began to erode, while esteem and admiration made their new home in my heart.
As life would have it, I moved to a new city and state to pursue graduate studies. I didn’t know a soul, so from the start I made the conscious decision to pronounce my name correctly when I met new people, when I registered my car at the DMV, when my professors called my name in class, and when on the phone with a customer service agent. After being empowered by my Auntiemom to do the grueling work of undoing the shame and disdain I harbored for over twenty years because of my name, I now laid hold of esteem, pride, and love for my name. I can no longer abide slaughtered pronunciations and misspellings of my name. This newfound love and pride that I have for my name serve as a bulwark against the ever-present temptation to default to what is most convenient for other people.
My name, Ekemini, speaks of who I am, Whose I am, and where I am going. It’s as if a tiny prophecy is fulfilled every time my name is spoken correctly. As a first-generation Nigerian-American, it’s my only tangible connection to Nigeria, my tribe, my village, and my people. My parents, those Nigerian immigrants with English names, gave me a gift beyond price—a gift I once despised but now cherish as my most prized possession. It’s as if they knew the inimitable words Warsan Shire would declare many years in the future: “Give your daughters difficult names. Give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. My name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”
Say my name.
Say it right.
Spell it right: E-k-e-m-i-n-i
Say my name.