The JRB presents an excerpt from ‘What’s in a name?’ Xolani S Ngazimbi’s essay from Racism, Violence, Betrayals and New Imaginaries: Feminist Voices, edited by Nadia Sanger and Benita Moolman.
Racism, Violence, Betrayals and New Imaginaries: Feminist Voices
Edited by Nadia Sanger and Benita Moolman
UKZN Press, 2022
What’s in a name?
Xolani S Ngazimbi
Xolani. This is the name I use in my adulthood. I haven’t always used this name.
According to John Inscoe, ‘A personal name serves two basic functions. It identifies and acknowledges the individuality of a person, and at the same time it ties that person to a social group by denoting membership within it.’(1)
‘Ek, exo, Egz, Ek-solani, Kolani.’ I remember Mrs Smith sounded annoyed by this name that interrupted her flow as she called out the attendance register on the first day of school.
‘Present,’ I said anyway. Too afraid, too young, too timid to correct her and tell her it was Xolani—with a click.
‘How do you pronounce it?’
I remember being six years old and terrified of Mrs Smith—my Grade 1 teacher. An old—I cannot be sure, because when you are six, anyone over the age of fifteen seems incredibly old—white lady who never removed the reading glasses she wore low over the bridge of her nose, and as a result seemed to always glare over them. So terrifying was she to my six-year-old self, I did not dare to correct her when she, again, tried to pronounce my name with its bold and very obvious click.
Even then, I could sense that it had been with great irritation she had conceded defeat and eventually asked me how to pronounce it. I remember trying to swallow the offending click, but as any Nguni language speaker will tell you, there is no way to muffle a click sound. You cannot whisper Xolani. I will never forget her next words following her failure to master the click:
‘What does the S here stand for?’
Now let me take a moment and try to paint the picture for you. Sure, I had spent two years in an English nursery school; I was as fluent in English as any child of six for whom English is only one of three languages spoken in the home. The reality was that my mum, my dad and the domestic worker, who doubled as a nanny for my brother and I, were from different ethnic backgrounds—Ndebele, Sesotho and Zulu respectively. We spoke some English at home because schools such as the ones I went to often encouraged black parents to converse with their children in English—to practise the language.
I still remember being confused by that question and I had no idea what ‘What does the S here stand for?’ meant. Because it was my first day of school, I imagine I might have been distressed by having no idea. I was too young to have ‘race’ and ‘difference’ in my vocabulary, too young to comprehend the implications of these concepts, but my eyes ‘saw’ that I was a minority in a room full of white children, and deep down I understood. I understood enough to be self-conscious under the ‘What does the S here stand for?’ spotlight. She might have realised I was on the verge of tears because she got up from her desk and walked over to a cupboard in one corner of the class and pulled out a file. She flipped through a few pages before she found what she was looking for.
‘sharon!’ She walked back to the desk. ‘Let’s call you sharon. It’s a much prettier name.’
I do not remember much of junior primary school, except that outside of home and away from family, I became sharon. I don’t remember when I realised sharon was actually my middle name given to me by my father—whom I am convinced to this day might have named me after a beautiful, exotic traveller he encountered in his travels, because Sharon was not a name you found rolling off the tongue of colonial Africa. After all, the children of this time were named for the time; they were named after freedom and peace, and after light and prosperity, and after hope and faith, because the names of this time were prayers for an oppressed people’s heart’s desire. Until that realisation, I assumed my teacher had made it up on the spot and given it to me.
I let that incident convince me that it was a disagreeable name. Over the years, other teachers, fellow learners and their parents agreed Xolani was a hard name. They stammered and agonised over it the first time they heard it. I noticed how people avoided saying it, and so avoided talking to me, or, when they did, they addressed me as if I had no name. I wanted a pretty, easy name like my classmates who were stephanie and lauren and molly.
molly, in particular, sounded round and soft. I, too, wanted to be called by a soft name that rolled off the tongue like molly, or lauren. So I let them call me sharon; and—sometimes—kolani, and other names that, in the end, were not Xolani with a click.
Of course, I was to learn sometime thereafter that my two forenames on my birth certificate were Xolani Sharon. But the damage had already been done. By proclaiming sharon a ‘prettier’ name, Xolani became ugly. It was ‘hard’ and ‘difficult’ to say and thus offensive. With this came an appropriation of sharon, not only as a name, but also as a way of being, a cultural guidebook of dos and don’ts when I was among my classmates and school friends. We try the hardest to fit in when we fear the least acceptance.
My parents accepted that I was sharon at school without question. They still called me Xoli (Xolani when my mother was angry with me) at home. Maybe they understood that dynamic; I have never asked them. My aunts and my cousins, on the other hand, when they discovered that my mostly white school friends called me sharon, teased me mercilessly, calling me names like coconut or salad. When in the mood, they would effect an anglicised accent—which involved speaking with a nasal intonation—and call me caricatured versions of sharon. It infuriated and embarrassed me, especially because at home I tried to hide the person I was at school.
A quarter of a century on, I know that whether as Xolani or sharon, at that school, at that time in the 1980s, I still would have been the only black learner in my class. My narrative would probably not have been different. I do wonder, however, if I would have experienced the same levels of discomfort and angst that emerged as I became aware of a dual consciousness, and my attempt to find spaces of belonging in the two different facets of life that were both never completely accepting of this hybrid individual I was to become.
On the one hand, I was sharon, whose best friends were Francesca and Leslie, whose favourite sports were tennis and swimming, and who spent Thursdays at piano lessons. My school stationery box was plastered with pictures of River Phoenix, who would stare at me from the inside of my desk lid with hazel-green eyes and unruly locks of blonde hair. In certain spaces, adults introduced themselves to me and expected me to call them by their first name. In those spaces, I introduced myself as sharon.
At home, and during school holidays, I was Xoli, whose cousins and siblings, Thabang, Sipho and Nomathemba, were also her best friends. My parents loved to entertain and, with their generosity, relatives descended in droves. At meal times, as Xoli, I got down on my knees to deliver jugs of water and trays of food. I addressed people who were older than I in the plural form and I called my parents’ friends auntie and malume.(2) In those spaces I introduced myself as Xolani.
I was very much aware of this dual identity. Part of who I was involved navigating two different cultures in very divergent ways. Steven Burgess rightly observes:
Much of what one learns about identity is learned from or substantially influenced by others. From early childhood, we observe that people often define themselves in relation to others, taking on different roles and statuses. When relational identity is activated, people evaluate themselves in relation to responsibilities and social requirements that benefit others.(3)
Sometimes my contradictory ways of being overlapped, often unintentionally. My school friends would giggle when they heard the English I spoke to my mother on the phone, because, when you pepper your Zulu with English words or phrases, the accent does not quite sound the same. My visiting relatives would imitate my accent when a school friend would come over to play for the afternoon and they overheard the twangy English I used at school. The younger ones would mock and tease, the older ones who may not have had the privilege of education would marvel at how white I sounded.
University is where most claim to find themselves. Surrounded by students from different parts of the continent and the globe, from all backgrounds, I was allowed a space to explore my identity. I discovered its malleability as I found myself as part of different communities: sharon at the tennis club, Xolani to the Xhosa administrator at the Economics Department. I was, however, mostly sharon to my friends. Even my cousin, studying at the same university, called me sharon.
I stumbled upon Frantz Fanon in graduate school while preparing for my thesis, which involved an exploration of the ways in which black African academics navigate identity in historically white universities (even in my work I sought explanations and answers to my ambivalence). I read Fanon’s chapter ‘The Negro and Language’:
A man [sic] who has a language consequently possesses the world expressed and implied by that language … Every colonized people—in other words, every people in whose soul an inferiority complex has been created by the death and burial of its local cultural originality—finds itself face to face with the language of the civilising nation; that is, with the culture of the mother country. The colonized is elevated above his jungle status in proportion to his adoption of the mother country’s cultural standards. He becomes whiter as he renounces his blackness, his jungle.(4)
Until then, I had been resistant to reading Fanon because I had stumbled upon a short passage in a reading pack years before and had been irritated by his constant referral to the black man. I was a budding feminist in those days; aggressive and unforgiving in my reading, and unsophisticated in my understanding of what I deemed unfeminist material. I read this passage and it took my breath away, as though I had been punched in the chest. It was but a short leap to the question that had hovered in the back of my mind for so long and now bubbled uncontrollably to the fore, ‘What of a name? What about a (wo)man who renounces her name?’
I realised Xolani was my jungle. In an effort to belong to the world Mrs Smith was a part of, I had renounced my jungle. Pinned to that realisation, I suddenly faced an existential crisis. My identity embodied my name/s, their usage and non-usage, the seemingly arbitrary way I used or did not use them, and, most significantly, the way I perceived the regard of those who used them.
I remember closing that chapter and putting the book away. I came back to it later and read it in one sitting, furiously filling a notebook with thoughts and rants. I tried to understand and make sense of what I felt. Mostly, I felt guilt for feeling the way I did. I thought of my friends, Nomathemba, Sibongile, Sipho, women who had similar backgrounds to mine, yet have never been known as anything other than their Zulu/ Xhosa/Ndebele names.
Perhaps they did not have a Mrs Smith telling their six-year-old selves that those names were not as pretty as whatever Anglo-Saxon/Christian middle names they might have had.
I feared that my ambivalence, and my shying away from the name Xolani, and not finding it ‘pretty’, was an indication that I was ashamed of my culture. But deep down I knew that was not true. I was proud of who I was, of my people and their traditions and cultures. I took pleasure in recounting events shared with more traditional family members that highlighted different cultural values to my school friends. When a friend’s holiday visit coincided with that of my grandmother’s, my friend was warned to kneel or sit on the floor with the older woman (for that’s where my grandmother preferred to sit, even in a roomful of suede sofas) so as to be at eye level when she greeted our family matriarch. Even at school, I was sure never to call the cleaning and catering staff by their first names, calling them sisi or bhuti instead. While my parents gave my siblings and I a relatively Westernised upbringing, my friends were expected to observe the same culturally relevant modes of respect in my parents’ house by addressing the help as sisi or bhuti. I was not embarrassed to bring my friends into that world.
Yet, I did not think my name Xolani was pretty enough.
For this, I felt immense guilt and discomfort. This was not necessarily a bad development. Pedagogies of difference urge us to ‘recognise and problematise the deeply embedded emotional dimensions that frame and shape daily habits, routines, and unconscious complicity with hegemony’.(5) In my mind, I had already started engaging in the emotional labour I needed to do to give myself a name that I would be proud of in any context.
I was an eager, 22-year-old graduate student when a lecturer asked me which name I preferred. In that moment, plunged into the spotlight once again in front of the class on a matter I had been decisive about for the past sixteen years of my life, I faltered. Did I really prefer sharon? Didn’t I? I didn’t. It scared me a little to realise that although I had been autopiloting sharon for so many years, I had as much connection with the name as a fingerless man trying to make a call on a push button phone. In that time I had even convinced myself Xolani was too hard to say, too harsh to hear. But in that moment, a voice I had ignored whispered, you are Xolani.
So I said, ‘I prefer Xolani.’ And because it is hard to keep the autopilot from kicking in, I added, ‘But people struggle with it, so sharon is fine.’
I prefer Xolani? I do.
‘Then everyone must learn how to say it,’ the lecturer declared. ‘I am sure you can say everyone’s names in here’. He looked around the room dominated by white faces with the kind of names my first-grade teacher had convinced me were pretty. Names like, stephanie and lauren and molly.
Until that event, that lecturer had merely been a name on my course curriculum, yet another white Afrikaans male in the long line of white males I had as lecturers in that great African university. But in that moment he became a teacher of singularity, during which just about everything about my identity that had been built upon one careless phrase—‘it’s a much prettier name’—imploded under the weight of a discontent so extreme it surprised me that I had harboured it so long. I established myself as Xolani during my graduate university career.
1. John C Inscoe, ‘Carolina slave names: An index to acculturation’, The Journal of Southern History 49(4), November 1983: 527.
2. ‘Uncle’ in Nguni languages, including Zulu, Ndebele and Xhosa.
3. Steven Burgess, SA Tribes: Who We Are, How We Live and What We Want from Life (Cape Town: David Philip Publishers, 2002), p. 11.
4. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (London: Pluto Press, 1986), p. 18.
5. Megan Boler and Michalinos Zembylas, ‘Discomforting truths: The emotional terrain of understanding difference’, in Pedagogies of Difference: Rethinking Education for Social Change, edited by Peter Pericles Trifonas (New York: Routledge, 2003), p. 108.
This is a unique collection of writings on race and racism by black women from South Africa and Brazil. Encompassing both fiction and non-fiction, the anthology is made up of academic essays, creative non-fiction, poetry and short stories. Through these different modes, the book engages with the complexities of race in multiple social, political, economic, institutional and personal spaces.
Concerned with social justice, human rights and freedom, the various feminist critiques centralise the intermingling of racial, gender and class subjectivities and how these are marked on bodies, but also how they are un-marked, re-marked and re-made. These critiques are tied to global and local social and political phenomena in the modern-day world.
The contributors interrogate their political and personal worlds, revealing layered, intersecting ways of being that are essentially foregrounded by colonial histories, but not defined in totality by coloniality and oppression. In speaking to the immediacy of these experiences, they reflect and narrate the past, contemplate the present and imagine the future. This anthology is underwritten by questions that centralise freedom. What does freedom mean? When do we have it, and when do we not? Most importantly, how do we get it?
- Nadia Sanger is a senior lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Stellenbosch University.
- Benita Moolman is a programme manager and senior lecturer at the Global Citizenship Programme at the University of Cape Town.
Contributors: Yvette Abrahams • Liliane Braga • Luciana Braga • Sarah Malotane Henkeman • Tigist Shewarega Hussen • Dane Isaacs • Vanessa Ludwig; Delia Meyer • Kharnita Mohamed • Benita Moolman • Xolani S Ngazimbi • Jolyn Phillips • Nadia Sanger • Monique Tamara (van Vuuren) • Wanelisa Xaba