Obama’s Name: Reversing America’s Melting Pot

We had a small family get together this past Sunday – my parents had invited my uncles over for lunch to celebrate Obama’s win. It was a dramatic, and incredibly comical, shift from people who once (like so many others) were absolutely disgusted with American politics, but who are today, using it as an excuse to have a party.

 

Among the many things that came up in our conversations was the president elect’s name: Barack Hussein Obama. As Indian Muslim immigrants, it was particularly touching that someone with a name implying he was far from a typical WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), and especially with a “taboo middle name” we could relate to, was the new Commander and Chief of the US.

 

 

 

It reminded me of a Newsweek article I had read back in March which revealed that Obama didn’t always refer to himself as Barack, but as “Barry.” It was also his father’s nickname, who chose it upon arriving in the US from Kenya in the late ‘50s. “America was a melting pot, and it was expected then that you melt – or at least smooth some of your more foreign edges.” Obama senior’s decision to adopt such a nickname was, and remains, a common immigrant reaction; as changing one’s name is always the first step in assimilating into the dominant culture.

 

After repeatedly witnessing people slaughter my name, a colleague of mine jokingly suggested I change my name to “Amanda Wyatt.” It became a running joke in the office and a fond memory of a, or several rather, hilarious incidents. However, it got me thinking… about those who shorten or change their names because they’ve succumbed to the pressure to “fit in.” We see it all the time: Mohammed becomes Mo, Jasmindar becomes Jess, Song Lee becomes Sally, and so on. And when you ask people why, the most popular response I’ve found is:

 

“It’s easier.”  

“For whom?”

“For Americans.”

“I don’t get it… You’re American.”

“Naw man. Y’know… white people.”

 

I find this a running problem: when non-white Americans endorse the concept of “white folk” having a monopoly on “true American identity” beginning with how Anglo one’s name is. Another thing: Aren’t all Americans immigrants? Whether your name is Abdul-Rahman Quadri or Agnes Kowalczyk, we are all migrants – whether your ties in this country go back to 1980 or 1945.

 

 “But Obama (junior), after years of trying to fit in himself, decided to reverse that process. The choice is part of his almost lifelong quest for identity and belonging – to figure out who he is, and how he fits into the larger American tapestry.” By choosing to keep his original name – one which serves as a constant reminder of his African-Muslim heritage – especially as someone serving in public office, Obama has nullified the idea that anglicizing one’s name will allow him or her to become successful or be taken more seriously.

 

Two exciting things to look forward to:

  1. Hearing Obama’s full name being announced at inauguration as he takes the Oath of Office.
  2. Not having to change my name to Amanda Wyatt after all.
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