03 January 2018 ~ 0 Comments

The Seven Principles of Kwanzaa Illustrated Pt. 2: My Name is Baye

Maybe you’ve wondered how an American, from Brooklyn, got an African name like Baye. Well, it was a result of the 2nd principle of Kwanzaa, Kujichagulia.

Kujichagulia: My Name is Baye!

Me and Kujichagulia go way back! It was always my favorite day of Kwanzaa…as a child I was, er, encouraged to memorize the meanings of all the principles. But, even in first grade, at 6 years old, I was already a lover of words, particularly when they have cadence and resonance. So, I devoured words, no encouragement required.

The words I committed to memory then still resonate with me today:

Kujichagulia – Self-determination: To define ourselves, name ourselves and speak for ourselves instead of being defined and spoken for by others.

“Others” was not presented as a dubious term, either. It had a definite meaning.

It meant people who would sooner see you perish than prevail, slumber than succeed.

It meant people who would teach you that you are the descendants of uncivilized, uneducated, cannibalistic, spear-chucking jungle bunnies, and that slaving for “civilized” people was a significant step up from your original lifestyle.

It meant people who would insist that your condition is part of a mysterious God’s master plan (according to a book in which that master plan is supposedly written), that you and everyone who looks like you have been cursed by that God, sentenced to the suffering you endure, the conditions under which you live, until the end of days, for sins committed by some guy some time in the distant past.

It also meant people who were subservient to or blinded by “the man”, or went out of their way to be like, look like, dress like, think like and act like “the man”.

It meant “The Man”.

It was around that time that my school informed me that the name my father gave me (who was MIA by then) was unsuitable for a young African, that he’d been blinded by the man (through no fault of his own…the system was designed to blind) and wound up naming me in the dark. And that it was time I stepped into the light and chose my own name.

Actually, my daddy wasn’t blind I wanted to say…at least he hadn’t been the last time I saw him. But I had a smart mouth and talking back to teachers at this school was, er, discouraged.

The teacher placed before me (and all my classmates) a book of African names.

“Choose one.”
“Me???”
“Yeah…”

Had I known at 6 that decades later I’d still be known by the name I probably would have chosen something that doesn’t get mispronounced so often. (If I had a dollar for every time I’ve been called “bay”…) Of course I wear the name with pride now, but then? Hell, I was basically on some “eeny meeny miney” shit.

And “moe” just happened to be Baye.

Random as fuck.

I remember I went home that afternoon and told my mother my new name. That I had Kujichagulia’d it, or whatever. And she was like, “Really? Why ‘Baye’?”
“I dunno…”
“What does it mean?”
“The name book says it means ‘Straight ahead…'”
“Hmmm…I like it!” She smiled broadly and gave me a big hug. “Nice to meet you Mr. Baye!”

And that was that.

The next morning, when I boarded the school minivan, the driver greeted me with my “slave name”. (My school taught us that the names given to us by the “others” were to be known as slave names from then on…and were not to be used. Period.)
I told him, “that’s not my name anymore.”
“Really?”
“That’s right!” I said, puffed up with my mom-approved self-determined name. “Call me Baye!”
“Baye?” He nodded at me approvingly and smiled. “Well, Brother Baye, it is.”

This was the first time (but certainly not the last) I’d ever taken full ownership of my name. Previous to that, it was basically a label, a tool for communication. When I heard that sound I knew whomever was making it was referring either to me or someone else with the same slave name…or to one of the “others,” generally on TV (weren’t any others in Bed-Stuy then…unless they had badges and guns…but don’t look now.)

But Baye was all mine. Not another person I’d ever met or heard of had the name. Maybe some kids in Africa somewhere were running around with my name, but no one in my vicinity.

Months (or maybe a year, time is funny in memory) later I was behaving badly at school, as I was apt to do. I was incorrigible, then. Book smart, but clumsy. If someone got caught doing something stupid, and it wasn’t me, it was a surprise to everyone, myself included. And, so, the teacher got mad. Usually this didn’t work out well.

“You wanna act like a slave,” she said, staring darts at me. “Then I’ll treat you like a slave!”

I thought she meant she was going to beat me like a slave. The teachers at the school, back in them days, pretty much had license to open a keg of whoopass on you. But she did something wholly unexpected.

She called me by my slave name.

The whole class — a class, by the way, filled with kids who, like me, had adopted African names, as did all the teachers, and the kitchen staff, and the headmaster, and the school itself…for that matter, so did my mother, my brothers and sisters, hell, even that driver had an African name. I was immersed in Africana — the whole class laughed to hear this European name in this fully afrocentric environment.

Well, that shut me the fuck up.

“So, what do you have to say for yourself, Mr. ______?”
“My name is Baye.”
“Really? I thought your name was _______”

I felt tears welling up from a place in me that I couldn’t recall them ever springing from…but from a place where I knew they would never reach the surface, but would linger in the ducts, knowing they were no longer suitable for the occasion. There had been a time when tears were an all-purpose expression. But I’d grown up just a little that day, in that moment. I felt fear but not debilitatingly, shame but not beyond tolerance, rage but not beyond my control…I felt demanding, determined to be heard, to be respected and to be acknowledged, fully!

It was a feeling that I had had no experience with.

I leaped to my feet and hollered, “MY NAME IS BAYE!!” at a teacher…with a belt…whose favorite punishment was stretching our mouths open when we talked too much; the pain lasting for days.

“You sure?” she asked, challengingly.
“Ndiyo!” I said, in Swahili, the language we spoke in school.
Okay, Brother Baye, then have a seat and stop acting like a ______.”

All of my classmates were staring at me. No one said anything.

So, yeah, me and Kujichagulia go way back.

Happy Kwanzaa!
Kujichagulia!

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