What Is - and Isn't -- in a Name
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Shakespeare asked, what’s in a name? It’s an old question, but it points to another: what isn’t in a name?
A couple of op-eds in our national papers of record caught my eye earlier this month. In the New York Times, the novelist Jennifer Weiner laments that Jennifer Lopez is now Jennifer Affleck. J-Wein wants J-Lo to still be J-Lo even after tying the knot with her on-again, off-again soulmate, Ben Affleck. Weiner is frustrated that the new Mrs. Affleck, despite having a brand that emphasizes “intense competence and hard-core self-sufficiency” has made what Weiner describes as an “especially dispiriting” decision.
A few weeks earlier, writing in the Washington Post, writer Baynard Woods explains why, when he can, he writes his name as
Baynard Woods. Woods is descended from prominent Southern slave-owners, or “enslavers” as they are now to be called. Both his given and last name were taken from the surnames of enslaving ancestors, a fact that haunts him. Woods will not pick a new name, which he sees as an act of moral cowardice. Instead, he writes his name wherever he can with a strike through, and he campaigns to take down the plaques and statues and other mementos that were erected to his forebears in various Southern towns. His tone is penitential; Woods makes clear that his names are a terrible crushing weight of which he dare not unburden himself:
“My actions are insufficient. But I need to acknowledge the harm those previously bearing my names have caused. Every such action will always be flawed, but nevertheless necessary, just as my name can neither be changed nor borne.”
Neither changed nor borne. Depending on your view, that’s perhaps tragically noble, or patently absurd, or simply overdue recognition of the colossal harm white people have done.
My parents decided that their first-born child would get names from the father’s side of the family; a second-born from my mother’s. If they had had more, they would have switched on and off as often as necessary. As a result, first-born me is Hugo Benedict Schwyzer. I am named for my father’s grandfather and great-grandfather. My brother is Philip Arthur Schwyzer, named for my mother’s favorite cousin and her own father, who had died just months before my little brother was born.
If I were to follow the line that Weiner and Woods suggest, and believe that names engender identity, I am somehow more my father’s son than I am my mother’s, and my brother the reverse. That has hardly turned out to be true. Indeed, it has been the opposite: my brother and I were both raised in California, but it was Philip who chose to build a life in the England that our daddy considered his home. I am deeply committed to the Golden State, proud to call myself a descendant of pioneers who came for the Gold Rush. I carry my father’s family names, and though I loved my papa and his family, I am more deeply a son of my mother’s people.
Think for a moment of the surnames of your ancestors. Probably your parents had different last names. Probably your four grandparents had different last names; perhaps your eight great-grands did as well. Go back a few generations, and you see how almost all the names disappear, at least on your side. Even if you hyphenate, you only preserve two names for one more generation. Whether you consider the names you carry to be blessed or cursed, they are indisputably a tiny, infinitesimal fraction of who you are. Names represent only a small number of those who made you.
About 30 years ago, I was hiking on land that belonged to the man who owned the ranch immediately adjacent to ours. Until the 1970s, it had been family land. One day, a caretaker of the owner rode up to me on an ATV as I made my way along a fire road.
“Sir,” he said, “This is private property.”
”I’m so terribly sorry,” I replied. “I do know that. My family are the Moores, from A.A. Moore Ranch?” I pointed into the distance.
The caretaker grinned. “Are you a grandson of Peggy Moore’s?”
I admitted I was fortunate to be one. The caretaker relaxed, and said aloud what we were both thinking, that this land on which we stood had once belonged to my ancestors. “Have a nice day, Mr. Moore,” he said, and rode away.
I am of course not a Moore. My grandmother Peggy died in 1998, and there are no living people in our family who use the surname Moore; it was my mother’s maiden, but she has been a Schwyzer for nearly 60 years. Yet on that hillside that day and even now when I encounter people on country trails near the ranch, I was and I am a Moore every bit as much as if my mother had not only kept her name, but given it to her sons.
David Aneurin Nikola Schwyzer at the entrance to the ranch named for his great-great-great-grandfather. My boy is a Moore in the ways that matter.
I’m not just a Schwyzer and a Moore. I’m a Schuh, a Nossal, a Roeding, a Parker, a Goodfellow. That’s three generations back; go further and I am a Hall, a Weiser, a Lowy, a Bland, a Biggs. No one we know in our bloodline has had those surnames in living memory. Yet they are also us. We are amateur geneaologists, my people; we retain in memory and in story what is no longer found when we sign our names.
Dig deep, and it is a certainty that your ancestors were a mix of the disreputable and the heroic. The one commonality they share is that they were fortunate: their genes made it all the way down to you, which means they were survivors. We are descendants of enslavers and abolitionists, of villains and saints, of the humble and the proud; above all else, we are descendants of the sturdy and the lucky.
Baynard Woods strikes through his names, he is declaring the sum of Baynardness and Woodsiness to be the handful of those whose story he thinks he knows, a story he finds shameful. Yet there were dozens of Baynards and Woodses before and since; what a load of ahistorical hubris to declare that one rotten apple can spoil a bunch that traces its way back through the centuries, and saw so much countless and varied fruit.
(Just as J-Lo had every right to see changing her name as an expression of both her agency and devotion, so too does Baynard Woods have every right to transform his monicker into a symbol of guilt and sorrow. It doesn’t mean folks can’t quibble with the decision, wondering what, if anything, it means for them. It doesn’t mean that Mrs Affleck is no longer connected to her Lopezness, and it doesn’t mean that the unhappy Mr. Woods gets to define those names for everyone else who shares his ancestry. People’s personal choices about their own names are always going to be interesting, because they make us think of possibilities we haven’t considered, but even in 2022, other people’s choices are not, in fact, a rebuke of your own.)
Shakespeare’s Juliet asks “what’s in a name?” We might also ask, “what isn’t in a name?” The answer, of course, is all the history in the names we’ve lost, the weight of the good and the bad in the appellations unchosen and unpassed on. Our names are so much less than who we are, not because our names aren’t rich with history, but because even if we have more given names than those bestowed on royal babies, we still leave out so much.
A few months ago, David threw a game-winning touchdown pass in his flag football game. His coach exulted, and called him “Golden-arm Schwyzer,” a styling far from mellifluous but one to make a father beam. My son repeated the monicker on the drive home, with wonder in his voice. In a tiny way, he had brought honor to our name. Yet if one imagines the cloud of witnesses, filled with the ancestors, cheering on the boy, it’s hard to believe that it would only be the Schwyzers rejoicing.
It’s too early to have a song of the year for 2022, but high on my list of candidates is this moving track from Willi Carlisle, an Arkansas-based folk-singer and storyteller. His new album is out, but this song is the jewel: