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Give Your Daughters Difficult Names

By Javacia Harris Bowser

There’s a sign in Brooklyn that boldly commands, “Give Your Daughters Difficult Names.” Though I’ve been to Brooklyn a couple of times I’ve never run across this sign. However, a former student of mine, who now lives in New York, texted me a picture of it a couple of months ago.

No explanation was given, nor was it needed. Most of my students — former and current — know that I believe an individual’s name can be as political as it is personal, whether we want it to be or not.

I am an English teacher at the Alabama School of Fine Arts, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse schools in the city of Birmingham. Before I call roll on the first day of school I tell my students to correct me if I mispronounce their names and to correct me every single time I get it wrong because I’m determined to get it right.

I’m determined to get it right because I want each of my students to know that I respect them enough to learn how to address them properly.

I’m determined to get it right because I want them to demand this same respect from everyone else.

I’m determined to get it right because I am a woman with a difficult name: Javacia — pronounced JAH-VAY-SEE-AH.

I used to hate my name. I used to agree with people who said my name was “too black” and would keep me from getting a job. I used to throw out nicknames like life rafts for anyone drowning in the syllables it took to call out to me. I used to sit in my bedroom jotting down possible pen names to use once I became a writer.

But then I became a writer and fell in love with my byline. Later, I became a feminist and fell in love with myself.

I’ve seen my name on the pages of The Seattle Times, The Chicago Sun-Times, USA Today and in some of my favorite local and national magazines. And each time I see “Javacia” in print I feel proud, never ashamed, of this difficult name of mine.

Writing helped me learn to love my name. Feminism helped me learn to love the girl who carries it. My name puts people on notice. I, like my name, won’t be easy.

I’m going to rant (and write) about the gender pay gap and the gender byline gap, too.

When you comment on a girl’s skirt being too short or complain that a mother is breastfeeding in public, I’m going to annoy you with talks of the hypersexualization of women’s and girls’ bodies.

When you talk about a woman who needs to learn how to “dress for her size” I’m going to force you to scroll my favorite body positive Instagram accounts.

When you ask me how I can be a feminist and a wife, I’m going to lecture you on egalitarian marriages.

When you tell me my feminism contradicts my faith, we’re going to have a talk about Jesus.

Yes, we can talk about the latest episode of Grey’s Anatomy or How to Get Away with Murder but we’re also going to talk about the mistreatment of sexual assault victims and why police brutality is a feminist issue.

Yes, we can talk about what to wear to upcoming holiday parties but let’s also talk about what we can do for women living in poverty whose holidays won’t be so happy.

Yes, we can talk about the next girls trip you want to take, but let’s talk about immigration, too.

I, like my name, might confuse you.

I talk about God as much as I talk about gay rights. I like yoga and trap music.  I love kids but have no intentions of having any of my own.  I am a responsible adult but I plan to never stop being a girl.

But as you wrestle with the long “A” in the center of my name and realize, finally, that the “C-I-A” is not pronounced “shuh” you’ll also realize that all these “difficult” conversations are exactly the ones you need to have. And you’ll realize that you need to walk the talk.

You’ll realize that simply posting about these issues on social media is not enough. You’ll learn that you, we, have to take action. Yes, it’s important to raise awareness, but we also have to raise funds. Yes, we need to change people, but we also need to change policies.

And you’ll learn that you need to continue to learn. I believe it was activist, writer, and educator Rachel Cargle who once said, “Activism without education is just performance.”

My mother gave her daughter a difficult name and I’m so glad she did. This girl with the difficult name wants to have difficult conversations with you so together we can set about changing the world, no matter how difficult that work may be.

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