Sunday, February 21, 2021

What's in a Name

 Do people make a name for themselves, no matter the name, for example a John Smith, or do they grow into their name.  We all receive a name at birth but we can shape it or change it.  Most movie stars had fake names that somebody in marketing thought sounded better.  A young man in the Midwest named Frank Wright called himself Frank Lloyd Wright by inserting an old family name in the middle and went on to become the best and most famous architect in the world.  Talent drove all that but it included the talent to design his own name. 

James Earl Carter, Jr., with exaggerated American informality, went by Jimmy and was elected President of the US, a trend continued by Bill and now Joe.  No George would go by Georgie and Barry never caught on for Barack but little George was often called Shrub.

I was named Robert, the most popular name in the US for eleven straight years and I took it as an offense, as though a coin had been flipped and it could only be Robert or Richard.  Worse still, I was called Bobby, Bob and Tubby, all horrible although the latter was also weird since I was a skinny kid.  It could have been worse; nobody wants to be called a dick.

Eventually I learned that I had been named after both an uncle who had died as a child and a great-grandfather who had emigrated from Prussia to avoid the on-going wars of the Kaiser, only to find himself in the US as young men were being conscripted to fight in the Civil War.  You could pay someone to take your place in that war, which he did, making him a trans-oceanic double draft dodger.  We apparently had more in common than our name, both of us seeking a better life across the pond.  He was a dyer in a silk mill mixing colors, something I have done all my life in a different context and he brought beer home in a bucket from the brewery.  I haven’t done that but the affinity is there and yes, I was told that I even looked like him, except he was bald.  Robert Kinner, I’m proud to bear your name.

Name changes, whether self-chosen or imposed, may bring advantages such as pronounceability, simplicity or familiarity but they risk a loss of historic richness and traceability.  One side of my family was named Meyer and they were from the Netherlands.  Only in recent years when I tried to find out more about their origins did I learn that Meyer is not a Dutch name and that their name in Holland was almost certainly Meijer.  It would be an easy mistake for immigration authorities, or any bureaucrats, to make.

As a fan of Cassius Clay/Mohammed Ali throughout his career and life, I was disappointed  when he changed his name.  For perspective on that event I recommend the fine new film, “One Night in Miami”.  Many Americans were unhappy, most of them because he was changing to a Muslim name.  I could understand that under the circumstances but the new name seemed super generic whereas Cassius Marcellus Clay dripped with historic reference, from ancient Rome to Louisville, his birthplace.  It also sounded good.  Few people anywhere start life with such a rich name.

We all have our preferences in names.  I happen to like Roman names, perhaps because I live in Italy, as well as the fact that they usually denote sex, a function currently out of favor.

Like so many Americans, I have recently been caught up in some name controversies, owing to the fact that I am a graduate of Washington & Lee University.  The school started in a small building on the back campus and was known as Liberty Hall Academy in the mid 1700’s.  Years later, George Washington endowed the school with money that continues to help the University, which had become Washington College.  At the end of the Civil War Robert E. Lee was pardoned by President Lincoln for his role in leading the Confederate Army, and he spent the remaining five years of his life as president of the college, setting the curriculum and standards and bringing the school back to life after the long and devastating war.  For that he was honored after his death by renaming the school Washington & Lee University.

Recently I was shocked to discover that there was a movement afoot to change the name of the school and that a majority of both students and faculty favored a change. A majority of alumni did not.  I’ve been shocked by almost everything going on in the USA for the past two decades, with the shock growing out of control over the past four or five years so the “little” controversy in Lexington sort of went unnoticed here in Italy.  Several major committees were formed to study the issue and reports were issued. 

When I was an undergraduate, there were no black students.  That was unfortunate but it was also the norm in the South, part of the nation’s tragic legacy of slavery.  There were also no women, which was part of the reason I went there, having seen what being in class with a lot of teenage girls had done for my academic performance in high school.  Diversity is now an unexamined and ill-defined cliché in American life but it struck me that there was a lot of diversity in the student body in those days.  There were rich and poor, southerners and northerners and people with many different interests and ambitions.  The Dean of Students knew all 1000 students by their first names and he guided us in imparting a sense of community.  The student body now has grown to 1800, less than double what it had been.  There are now students of all colors, ethnicities, nationalities and religions.  Is there more diversity?  On the surface it would appear so but more than half enrolling students now come from private schools so how deep is that diversity?  There is now a five-member Office of Inclusion and Engagement, all ministering to a number of specialized sub-groups.  Dean Gilliam assured a high degree of inclusion.  For sure, certain non-fraternity kids in my day may have felt excluded from some of campus life but with the new Office of advisors to the fragmented identity groups of the student body, how much less inclusive must the place feel?

However, I digress.  This started out as a discussion of the importance of names.  With all the studies and calls for name change, the one thing never mentioned is what is to be changed and what name/s would be the alternative?  Is Lee the offending name or must Washington go too.  Both were southerners and both owned slaves.  Some commenters have focused on Lee being a traitor, turning against his country.  He did not favor secession but he was a Virginian and would not fight against his own people.  He may have been guilty of sedition but the president of the US pardoned him upon surrender.  Washington also engaged in sedition and had he not won his war, would probably have been hanged as a traitor by the King he led a a war of independence against.

Having heard no suggestions for an alternate name in any of the solicited comments, I’ve tried to come up with a few on my own.  Given that it all started with the Liberty Hall Academy, Liberty University would have a nice ring to it along with some historic resonance.  Unfortunately, Jerry Falwell got there about thirty years ago with his ever-expanding right-wing holy roller university in Lynchburg. His less holy son now runs it and being a businessman open to every sort of deal, might be open to letting W&L become a regional affiliate, let’s say Liberty University Lexington, or LUL for short.  Would that appeal to alumni donors or student applicants?  They would have to answer that. Another option would be to go by a semi-secret name, “Woke and Libertine University”, which could avoid making obsolete all the W&LU gear already stocked and sold in the college book shop.

That the faculty in what I remember as a first-rate liberal arts college could advocate the rewriting of history is disappointing but given that liberal arts curriculums are being deemphasized for more entrepreneurial and vocational training, we shouldn’t be too surprised.  It’s all about money now.

The origins of the uproar seem to have been generated by the presumed discomfort of black students having to live amongst reminders of the racist past.  Some say they feel that deeply and are disturbed while others are not.  Lee died a century and a half ago which raises the point of where and when do we develop an acceptance of history.  I remember the first time I visited Rome and was entranced by walking between buildings that had stood in the same place for two thousand years.  For centuries the Romans had slaughtered Christians or fed them to lions as entertainment. But I, who had been brought up as a Christian, felt no sense of horror or outrage.  Maybe because the Christians had eventually taken over Rome, or perhaps because I’m just naturally insensitive.  When I got to the segregated W&L I felt more or less the same lack of outrage and I’ve never been able to muster much anger over the founding fathers’ failure to eliminate slavery two centuries before I arrived on the scene with my own moral failings. 

What about now?  If students are agitated about centuries old symbols of oppression, how do they live with what’s been going on now.  The ex-president has been making racist statements and doing racist acts non-stop for four years.  I realize that the epidemic of police killings of people of color has created fear and bitterness but is it all to be unleashed on the ghost of Robert E. Lee?  In 2003 our then president, after a build-up to war based on a foundation of orchestrated lies, attacked and destroyed a country of twenty-three million people which had nothing whatever to do with our problems or with the 9/11 attack on the WTC and the Pentagon.  Today’s students were just being born then but what about the agitated young faculty?  Rather than advocate for destruction of historic names and relics, what have they been doing to strip that president, who unlike Lee, is still alive, of all honors, pensions and benefits.  I would aim a little higher and push for a trial but trials in the US haven’t been going well lately.  The American “leadership” couldn’t even muster the courage to convict the recent occupant of the WH after he incited of riot of his more violent followers to cancel the presidential election in which he had just been voted out of office.  What are our sensitive students and faculty doing to correct such horrors?

Is this a southern thing?  Yes, the South was built on slavery, but slavery was legal throughout the US in its early days.  We’ve mentioned the lives and contributions of Lee and Washington but the founder of Yale, Elihu Yale, was a British-American merchant and slave trader who was affiliated with the East India Company, an entity the American Revolutionaries were fighting against every bit as much as King George.  What will be the new name of Yale, East Ivy University?

Some names leave a major imprint.  Washington is one of the biggest.  Our capital is Washington DC, Washington is also a state and many educational institutions bear that name.  Another is Columbus and the related term Columbia, as in District of Columbia.  That appears on the banishment list too just as many of the people trying to change our university’s name hope to see DC become a state.  I hope they succeed but how do they push statehood for a place named after two “unacceptable” historic figures?  With most of history to be cancelled, do we just use numbers identify places and institutions?

My wife and I always wanted to have a child named Tiberio, the Italianized form of the name of the Emperor Tiberius.  We both like the name, the sound of it, and maybe the fact that that he was associated with Capri, one of the most beautiful places in Italy.  Still, he was a nasty piece of work, though an effective general and good administrator.  He remained in power as Emperor for much longer than most of the people who followed him.  When he felt that his underlings were becoming a threat to his control, unlike the recent American would-be dictator, he didn’t fire them or insult them; he just had them killed.  He could fairly be described as a cross between Charles Manson and Jeffrey Epstein.  Nasty fellow but we still like his name.  Two thousand years is a long time.  Maybe it’s time to deal with the issues of the day and lighten up a little about figures of the distant past. 


Stephen P. Dawkins said...

Roberto, Tante grazia. Nice to hear from you again. I'm still in Key West although the weather now and then gets chilly -- that is, when the temperature goes below 70 F. Steve

Paul Naprstek said...

Robert, your essay opens many tempting avenues for discussion, but I have to get to work. But I do have to mention one opporuntity you missed. Cassius Marcellus Clay is not only a wonderfully musical name, but it was the name of a noted abolitionist , also from Kentucky. That Cassius Clay was the name sake for Cassius Marcellus Clay, Sr., the father of Muhammad Ali.

Anonymous said...

Arthur Constantine Martin Jr. said.....
Robert, your discussion about names was interesting and entertaining as usual. I do not know the source of my middle name except a great-grandfather had it, as did my father and me. There were no Greeks in my family history. I will never forget the old sergeant in my ROTC days at college stating, after he heard my middle name, ....and he's a jr. too". I hope that all is well with you. - Arthur