Tuesday, December 19, 2006

What’s in a Name?

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.

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Trish said...

I truly enjoyed reading this post. I met my birth mother 8 years ago, and yes, the name thing is an interesting reality. She named me Stacey Lane, which I really love, but my adoptive parents named me Patricia Lynne. It is comforting to see that Jane (birthmother) named me something whimsical (us, completely) yet my adoptive parents gave me a more stoic, something-to-reach-for name. It has been fascinating to compare genes vs. environment. But that's for an afternoon over coffee...
Enjoyed your blog!

Craig Hickman said...

Hi, trish.

Thanks for stopping by.

Are you close enough to have coffee?


Anonymous said...

It makes me angry that adoptive parents change the names we give our children.
It's one of the things I hate most about adoption.

Craig Hickman said...

Some do and some don't, kim.kim. Mine did and I'm eternally grateful.

Craig Hickman said...

Although, I'd love to hear more, kim.kim.

Anonymous said...

Why are you grateful that they changed your name? Everytime an adoptee says they are grateful I cringe.

Craig Hickman said...

kim.kim, I feel like I have answered that question with this entry, but I can try to explain further when I give it some more thought.

I'd be interested in hearing why you cringe when an adoptee expresses gratitude (remember, we also had no say in the matter). Everyone is has a unique story. Sure, there may be similarities but everyone's story is entirely their own. I don't know yours, I'd guess you don't know mine. But as a Black baby boy in the late 60s, I'm entirely grateful that my parents existed and could adopt me. Many babies like me never found homes. For me, gratitude centers me and ensures my spiritual happiness.

And I'd also like to know why you are you so angry when an adoptive parent changes a child's name? I'm criticial of adoption and its fundamentalist big-business roots, but I don't throw the baby out with the bath water. And my parents didn't pay a penny for me. I was adopted through the state's child welfare program when my grandmother forced my birth mother to give me away. My mother wasn't even sure what my name was, because it was hidden from her until long after she named me. Doesn't a parent, any parent, have a right to name its child? Would you also be angry if a child of yours changed his/her name when legally able to do so? Don't we all have a right to be called whatever we want?

I'm not trying to be argumentative, but I'm trying to understand your anger for it might help me have more compassion for others in your situation.

Anonymous said...

I wouldn't be angry if she changed her name herself.

You were pretty much stolen from your mother and the only thing she was able to give you was your name.

Of course parents have a right to name their children and your mother named you. An adopted child almost always comes with a name. It is disrespectful to change the child's name. It's wiping out their origins, ignoring their beginnings.

I don't really want to force my opinions on you. This is an area very close to my heart as I you know from our e-mail exchange.

When you say you are ETERNALLY grateful that your name was changed it's like saying there was something wrong with the name your mother gave you.

Same with Trish's comment. Saying her adoptive parents gave her a more "stoic" name. Look how she has to make a comparison between the names and judge the one her mother gave her as not as good as the other one. That really irritates me.

You have been taught to see us as less than, like white people have been taught to think of black people in that way. Sorry but that's just the way I see it.

I don't accept that and won't stand at the back of the church or sit in the back of the bus.

The name I gave my daughter is beautiful. It's not less beautiful than the name she has. I love her name not because they gave it to her but because that is who she is today. I love my daughter, I love who she is and adoption has shaped her.

I hope this makes you feel less confused as to why these kind of comments make me angry.

Craig Hickman said...


Thanks for sharing your anger and feelings on this subject. Naming is extremely important, so your perspective is welcome.

My mother thought my original name was Jody. That's what she thought she heard when the foster family said good bye to me (As it turns out, they were saying Joey). But the foster family was never supposed to use my name around any prospective adoptive parents. That's how deep the closed adoption process in Wisconsin was at the time. (It hasn't changed much and that upsets me too.) My mother didn't like the name Jody so she changed it to something she liked. It wasn't until after she changed it and the became final that she saw my original name on the adoption decree as Joseph Mary White. (My middle name was actually Bernard, but the court erred and used my birth mother's middle name of Mary - very prophetic indeed given who I am.)

Anyway, to my mother's credit, she said she might have kept Joseph as my middle name had she known for sure, but by then my father was stuck on Von, which was his nickname throughout his life.

Ironically, my birth mother has also admitted that had she not been forced to put me up for adoptin, she would've named me something else. She named me Joseph precisely because she wanted me to come back to her someday.

Craig, a common uncommon name, is a name I adore, and when I discovered its meaning, I became grateful for it given my life's twists and turns. It gave me strength to endure extraordinary pain and pressure. That is all.

I was never taught that my birth mother was "less than." Never. My mother knew bits and pieces of my birth mother's story (even though I replaced them with fantasies that she was Diana Ross!), but to this day, she has always honored her and probably has a better relationship with her right now than I do.

While I grew up, she always encouraged my sister and me to search for our birth relatives when we were old enough to do so.

Hope that helps you understand my gratitude a bit better.

Savannah said...

Great post. I am not an adoptee (I hope I'm using the right terminology) but naming is truly a sacred thing among Black people. I am named for both of my grandmothers. I never liked either of my names but now I have accepted them and the implications of being named for these two women, one from Cuso Island and the other from the island of Eleuthera. It explains the constant pull between two states of being and why I must know more about them.
Thanks for this post Joseph Craig.