My Name Is Aghogho

I was 5 years old the first time somebody made me feel significantly lesser about myself. It was subtle. It was probably done without malice. It was done by other children. It was for my name.

This was only the beginning of an exhausting series of events and experiences that, unknown to me, would constrain me from loving the person I am – and where I come from.

My classmates used to giggle when they heard my name, Aghogho. They would call my name and then proceed to point at a hair bobbin or ‘gogo’ as we used to call it, then collectively laugh. I never found it that funny – probably because they could not even pronounce my name properly in the first place. The phonetics of my name are “Ah-gawh-gawh”, not “Ah-go-go”. This was my experience of starting primary school. It lasted a good four months until my family relocated that Christmas and I changed school. But this time, I said it was going to be different. This time, I would go by my prettier-sounding, cute, easy-to-pronounce, European middle name – Sophie. This time, nobody would laugh when I introduced myself. This time, I would have a sense of dignity.

“give your daughters difficult names. give your daughters names that command the full use of tongue. my name makes you want to tell me the truth. my name doesn’t allow me to trust anyone that cannot pronounce it right.”

Warsan Shire.

I started primary school in 2005 and multiculturalism was relatively new to Ireland at that time, following the recent Celtic Tiger. So it was normal that most teachers were ignorant of other backgrounds and us foreign students’ origins. I remember a teacher of mine informing the class that in Africa everybody lives in huts in the jungle and climbs trees. That was the first time I learned of my unprecedented tree-climbing abilities. And the first time I learned that I lived in a jungle. My ceramic-roofed house in the city of Lagos, Nigeria did not seem to be a hut from my memory, but what did I know, right?

Growing up as a child I was conditioned into believing that I was lesser than my white counterparts. I would never go out with my natural kinky hair because it was apparently untidy and unattractive. I was told that I ‘do not smell bad, for a black person’ or I am ‘pretty for a black girl’, and my ignorant self would accept those comments – under the subliminal belief that the race I belonged to was inferior to the Caucasian race, but me? Me, I was different from the ‘others’ in my race. Just because the white people said so. I unknowingly received validation from the approval of white people, because I did not believe that people of my race were on the same level as them. I received a terrible pleasure from being told that I was not ‘loud’ like the other black girls, or I did not talk with the ‘weird accent’ African people have. I had friends that would only ever speak to me using African-American Vernacular English that they learned while watching Fresh Prince and listening to Snoop Dogg. It is all shameful and embarrassing to think about now. I was blinded to this toxic environment around me.

Throughout school, the teachers would take a roll call to record people’s attendance in class: “Saoirse..Clara..Katie…A-I can’t say this name”. I used to hear this so regularly that I would save him/her the embarrassment by just saying “Here” as soon as I knew my name was approaching on the list. This was the experience I observed for many non-Irish students in class. If it was not my first name they struggled with (since I eventually told them to refer to me as Sophie), it was my surname. This was something that started to bother me once I turned 17. I was not bothered because they found my name hard but rather because oftentime, they would never even attempt to pronounce it – after saying every other student’s surname. I would hear “Ciara O’Connor, Jane Smith..Sophie..Kelly Keenan”. Am I so insignificant that I do not even deserve my last name sounded? Could you not simply ask me how to pronounce it? Could you not at least try to learn it? Dismissing my surname is an insult to me and I encourage you that if you are experiencing this in school now, correct your teachers. And if it is not you experiencing it, correct your teachers for the sake of the kid who is affected by this. Sometimes people do not realise the effect their thoughtless choices have on others. 

You do not realise how much of an impact subtle things have on you during childhood until you grow up and your eyes finally open. When I moved to Ireland, I was encouraged to adopt a forced Irish accent because it would make me sound better and help me make more friends. It would also somehow make me sound more superior when speaking to my relatives in Nigeria. Throughout my study of history in primary or secondary level – and this is from my experience, which could be different from yours – I was not taught of more leading black figures than there are fingers on my hand. Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan are the only two names I can recall, names by which I was not told why they were significant, except for learning them for my CSPE exam. I was subconsciously put into the mentality of believing that black people cannot achieve in the same way that other races can, so there is no point in me trying to achieve in the same ways that they do.

Representation is important.

“If you teach the Negro that he has accomplished as much good as any other race, he will aspire to equality and justice without regard to race.”

Carter G. Woodson, Founder of Black History Month

My aim in writing this is not to condemn anybody but rather to encourage us to change the way we think. This is not just about black people. This is about any and every minority that feels marginalised in society. Being ignorant should no longer be an excuse to cover your discrimination towards others. Think before you act. We are not children anymore. 

Too many people are quick to deny that they commit racist behavioral patterns, but do not ever stop to consider that perhaps they are more guilty than is apparent. Covert racism is real. Racism, in contrast to the definition the ordinary racist likes to create for themself, is not just using derogatory terms to refer to a person of another race or thinking that the Atlantic slave trade was justified. Racism, according to the Oxford dictionary, is “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”. This includes the subtle jokes you make about black people ‘smelling different’ or your assumption that a person of African heritage is probably poor or your firm established strong belief that All Lives Matter should be endorsed more than Black Lives Matter. All of these perhaps non-obvious methods of racism have an effect on the people you direct it at (knowingly or unknowingly), and also on your children. Why won’t your child see black children as lesser than them when every time Raheem Sterling misses a goal you call him a bloody Nigerian, but when he scores he is suddenly Man City’s star?

Take a deep look into yourself and search for your inner prejudices. Then fix them. Take time to educate yourself about other cultures, especially if you are surrounded by people from them. This does not only go for black people but people of every kind. Because I am certain that it is not only the negro that can relate to this kind of behaviour shown towards them. I, too, am working on myself in this regard and the work will never end as I constantly try to better myself and respect others.

And to my fellow black people, if you have after reading this identified with anything I have said, or have ever felt inferior – perhaps without even realising it, please remember this. You are intelligent. You deserve to be heard. Your opinions are as valid as the next person’s. Your ancestors are more than just sob stories for the conversations you hear about black history. You come from greatness and greatness is the line you will continue to follow. You are relevant in society and always have been – whether they acknowledge it or not. You serve a purpose. We are important. We are worthy of respect. We have every right to be treated and seen fairly, regardless of the melanin levels of our skin. 

I would like to end on something said by the actress Uzoamaka Nwanneka Aduba, also known as “Crazy Eyes” from Orange Is The New Black:

“My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka, which means “The road is good.” Quick lesson: My tribe is Igbo, and you name your kid something that tells your history and hopefully predicts your future. So anyway, in grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.”

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