by Storyteller Onawumi Jean Moss
While getting a passport to prepare for a trip abroad, Onawumi Jean discovered that her name is not on her birth certificate. Her aunt is able to clear up the mystery by disclosing a concession Onawumi’s mother made to get along and keep her job in the Jim Crow South. As an adult, Onawumi arranges a naming ceremony where she is able to honor her past and celebrate her creative present and future.
For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Seriously…WHAT-DID-YOU-CALL-ME
- Why are names important? What do they say about our identity and the people who name us?
- How did Onawumi Jean’s mother’s concession help her “get along” in the Jim Crow South?
- If you were going to choose another name for yourself, what would it be and why?
- American Nightmare: The History of Jim Crow by Jerrold M. Packard
- The Name Book: Over 10,000 Names – Their Meanings Origins and Spiritual Significance by Dorothy Astoria
- African American/Black History
- Crossing Cultures
- Education and Life Lessons
- Family and Childhood
- Stereotypes and Discrimination
- Taking A Stand and Peacemaking
Hello, my name is Onawumi Jean Moss and I’m going to be doing a reading from a one woman play that I’m doing that’s actually inspired by my own life. It is inspired by the fact, well, let me just get started. This is a reading from, “Seriously, what did you call me?”
The year is 1998 and I have been invited to the Dunya Storytelling Festival in Rotterdam. Hello. You see, I’ve been dreaming of travelling abroad for years but the truth to be told, I’ve only travelled in the United States of America. I’m just saying. I decided I’d call my friend B.J. She has been trying to get me to go abroad for years. She wanted me to go to Africa one year. She just wanted me to go somewhere. So I give her a call.
“Hallelujah!” I knew she’d love it. “So you going abroad. My goodness.” She’s got a gravelly voice but that woman is known on three continents for helping poor people get over the forces that have held them down. She’s quite remarkable. B.J. stands for bold justice. “So you’re going abroad. Well, hurry up and don’t stop. I know you. Get your passport. It’s pretty straight forward. Just go get it and keep me posted cause I do think I just felt the earth tremble. Could be coming to an end.”
I move quickly to do what B.J. has asked me to do. So, I go to the post office and I get all the forms that verify I say who I say I am. And then I start to completing them. I find out I need my birth certificate. I haven’t seen that in…ever. So I sent for it. It came and surprise, surprise… the name Jean, the name I have been called all my life, is not on my birth certificate. Whaaaat? Seriously? I think about calling my cousin Eloise. She is our family historian and she is very tight lipped. I know that as soon as I call her, here’s what I’m gonna hear. “Lord, Lord, child. Some words, if spoken, will make the wheels fall off the wagon.” But I still plead with her. And you know what she does? She says, “You know, you haven’t flown home in a long time.” And then she starts bringing me up to date on who gave birth. Who got sick. Who recovered. And who died. That, I don’t know these folks is not here nor there. She is my cousin Eloise and she is my favorite, favorite elder.
So after she stops being the town crier I say, “Cousin Eloise, how come Jean is not on my birth certificate?”
And she says, “Lord, Lord, Jeanie cat, that’s water under the bridge. Now why are you worried about this now?”
“Because I’ve been sitting here with my birth certificate and it says, ‘Carolyn Durham.’ It does not say Jean and I want to know why. If Mama was still with us, I would ask her why Jean is not on my birth certificate.” It was quiet in my office and quiet on the phone. And then we both just burst out laughing. (Laughing) Because we both knew that Mama would not tolerate being interrogated by anybody, let alone her children. But something in that moment caused my cousin Eloise, whom we learned to call cousin Weez, cause when we were children we couldn’t say Eloise. So she still calls me Jeannie cat. And I still call her cousin Weez.
Cousin Weez said, “Well, when Hon,” that’s what you call Mama. “When Hon went back to work for the Taylors a few weeks after you were born, the oldest daughter wanted to know why you were named Carolyn and not after her. Everybody thought the child was just being cute and they weren’t taking her seriously. But every time Hon went to work, the child just would fret something awful. So to keep the peace, Hon told her she’d call you Jean. Well, what your mama meant was she’d just call you Jean when she was at their house. But we all started calling you Jean not realizing that that would be the only name that you would come to know yourself by. We just weren’t thinking about the long run.”
Well, I was outdone. I felt my legs buckle. This is madness. I thought to myself, “I’m on the threshold of becoming a nationally, internationally known storyteller. Can you imagine it? And because my mother felt it was necessary to do because she wanted to keep her job. I am having to go through hoops because I, a little girl, a little white girl who felt entitled, had a “do what I say’ tantrum and when she got her way, I was given no more thought. I used to babysit for her. And she called my name with detachment only to tell me, “Fetch this, fetch that.” My family’s attempt to mark what happened backfired.
And so they didn’t realize that I wouldn’t know my real name. But still they helped me get to where I am today, at one of the most prestigious institutions on the planet and with the tools I would need to be successful. The wisdom of knowing how to survive, is to know how to overcome Jim Crow rule. And that wisdom is hard earned. That scene in Roots, when Kunta Kinte was being beaten because he refused to be called by the name Toby, just stayed in my mind. But when he had the help he needed, he not only survived, he thrived. I want my name to reflect my African and American heritage.
Since miscegenation has erased my physical connection to Africa I thought. I need someone who really knows me, to name me. And I decided that that person is, Dr. Rowland Abiodun, professor of art history and black studies at Amherst College. When I ask Dr. Abiodun to name me, he got very quiet on the phone. And I thought, “Oh my! He’s not interested in doing this.” Well, it turns out I was wrong.
When he spoke, he said these words, “I will have to pray about it.” And he hung up the phone. I couldn’t believe it. I never thought anybody would have to pray about naming you. Three days passed. I was a wreck but he called me back and he said that he would name me. And then he told me several foods that I had to come collect for the naming ceremony. My heart was racing. I collected all the foods. I invited my friends and my collaborators. Those of us who work for justice for a long time together and everybody came.
And when we gathered, Professor Abiodun stood and told us a story about naming that I will take with me for the rest of my days. He said when he was telling about the meaning of the foods I had collected. He said these words, “Omi. Omi means water. The water, which you are supposed to drink. The water that destiny has set for you to drink will never flow past you. Iyo. Salt. Maggots are never found in salt. May your body never harbor decay or disease. Oyin. Honey. No one refuses honey. That taste of honey will be in your mouth. Your presence will bring joy and happiness to all you meet.” I felt my spirit soar in a way that I never felt it before. On hearing all he told me, about the way the foods related to my name. And then he calmly guided us through the ancient and untitled ritual.
I remember singing to myself. Amazing, amazing! This is amazing, amazing, amazing. This is amazing!
Then he said, “In Yoruba culture, one is a stranger until one is given a name. Your name gives you presence and beauty and power. With this name, you will no longer be a stranger. Onawumi, one who is creative and loves to create. Oshunokami, one whose deity is the great river goddess, Oshun. She is the one, who holds the mirror of truth. She is the one, who sits by the doors of the temple. She is the one who braids hair and speaks wisdom. Olyin, whose words are healing and sweet as honey.
Amazing. Amazing! This is amazing, amazing, amazing. This is amazing!
In keeping with Yoruba tradition those gathered were invited to speak my name several times so that my presence, my beauty, and my power would be undeniable. Looking back, using the rearview mirror that my cousin Eliose, Cousin Weez, was always famous for saying. When someone said, “I don’t look back.” She would say to me and to the children around her, “Just remember children, there’s a reason that a car has a rear, rearview mirror. When you going forward, don’t forget to look in the rearview mirror because what’s back there might help you get along further.”
And so, I have looked back on my own life. Because I found my name Jean was not on my birth certificate but now it is on everything. And it is my legal name but it is also my spiritual name. My name is Onawumi, one who creates and loves to create. Jean, the one, the name my mother gave me to keep the peace. It means gift of God and my mother said it means gifted by God. Moss, the name that I share with my two sons and my daughter. My name is Onawumi Jean Moss. Amazing, amazing! I am amazing, amazing, amazing, amazing! And so are you.