MY birth mother Jennifer named me Joseph, which means “God shall add.” When I found her, she had a terrible time calling me Craig. Within the first few minutes of our meeting, she asked my mother, over the phone, if she could call me Joseph. I was perplexed. But I allowed her to slap my mother’s face (and my own) and call me Joseph.
Later, after she told me the story of why she named me, I melted. My coat of sentimental colors shrouded the rest of me and I continued to allow it. Yes, there was something deeply spiritual and artistic about my original name and the journey upon which it took me. But I never felt comfortable being called by it. Still, that didn’t stop me from going against myself completely and even asking my husband to call me Joseph in my birth mother’s presence. I was so caught up in the story, in her pain—in what she wanted—that my true self faded from view. Although I exhibited many of the characteristics of the Joseph for whom I was named, it took a long physical separation from her once more to come back to myself and finally tell her I could no longer allow her to call me by anything other than my name. I tend to find honesty an easy undertaking. I’ve been blessed that way. And I’m eternally thankful. But that was the most difficult thing I had to tell another person in my entire life.
Naming remains a spiritually powerful way to shape character and claim identity. Unless my husband and I adopt children, the only people I’ll get to name are the characters I create or channel in my writing and performance. Sometimes the character determines the name, as is the case with many of the animals I’ve named.
In an African American literature course I took back in college, the professor often lectured about the importance of naming among Black people. Those lectures stuck to me like honey. After college, as I began to devour Black literature like a vulture, I paid attention to naming. Indeed, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison has given some of the best names to some of the best characters in the history of literature. In all of her novels, but especially her masterwork Beloved, the characters reveal the literal, spiritual, and metaphorical realities behind naming and renaming themselves.
My mother named me Craig, a Celtic or Gaelic name derived from craeg, meaning “from the crag or rugged rocky mass.” She tells me she had no idea why she named be Craig other than that she really liked the name. She didn’t even know anyone with the name. Well, wise woman that she is, the name she gave me saved my life. Without being made from the minerals of rugged rocks, there’s no way I’d still be here typing these words. Rocks are created by bearing the multi-layered weight of incredible pressure.
Mama, you created a gem.
And even though I still allow a few people to call me JC or Joseph Craig; even though I named myself Isaiah in a few fictional accounts of my life; even though I got all caught up in the rapture and romance of Jennifer’s story, I know that my real name, my true name, is Craig.
Epilogue: Jennifer’s Story
It was like being on death row, son, and I had one last request before they took you away. They weren’t supposed to let me, but I demanded that I have a moment with you in the room with no doctors, no nurses, no brothers, no parents, no technicians, no one. But the laws in the State of Wisconsin forbade such a request. Birth mothers couldn’t see, much less hold, their children after delivery if they had already consented to give them up. But I told them, “Rules were meant to be broken and who would find out about it anyway?” So I held you in my arms and looked you in your eyes and said, “You look just like your father. Someday you will grow up to be a handsome and smart man, son. But I may not get to see any of it because Mommy has to go away now. I have no choice. But I remember the story of Joseph from the Bible. How his brothers sold him into slavery and how he was lost from his brothers and his father for all those years. And then he became the ruler of Egypt. And during the great famine when his brothers came to him to get food, he recognized them, but he didn’t let them know who he was. When he finally let them know, he told them to go and get Jacob because he wanted to be reunited with his father before his father died. And they were. And so I name you Joseph, because I know that someday you will come back to me. Someday you will find me. I don’t know if I’ll be living or dead, but I know you will find me. Just as Joseph in the Bible was reunited with his family, so shall you also be reunited with me. I just know it. Someday.”
Joseph made 2nd-highest leader in Eqypt. Above: Joseph and his coat of many colors.
tags: adoption, Beloved, King of Egypt, mothers, names, The Prince of Egypt, Toni Morrison