Names

I have signed up to give a public comment at tonight's Orange County School Board meeting. The board is discussing the possible renaming of schools.

In the midst of a pandemic and all of the struggles we face, it may seem that a discussion of renaming schools is unimportant, or at least less important than other challenges. I have certainly heard that.

I think that what is missed in that analysis is that it is all related. What we name things matters. It says something about our priorities.

It is not a coincidence that the very first thing that happens in war is that we come up with a slang term to call our enemies. It is really hard to kill another human being. It is really easy to kill an abstraction you call a slur.

Names matter. And that is why I wrote this.

We don’t know when our name came into being or how some distant ancestor acquired it. We don’t understand our name at all, we don’t know its history and yet we bear it with exalted fidelity, we merge with it, we like it, we are ridiculously proud of it as if we had thought it up ourselves in a moment of brilliant inspiration.

Milan Kundera

Photo by Daniel Bosse on Unsplash

Names aren’t just names. 

They are what we call things. They are an attempt to know, to describe. Names are symbols and signals. Names set the rules of engagement. They can be a warning or a welcome. They are the beginning of understanding.

Names have power.

Very early in my Army career, I met someone who would become one of my best friends. Our friendship started with a name. See, we originally bonded because we shared the same first name. Further conversations would reveal a number of other similarities of personal history and experience. It turned out we had a lot in common.

We did initial training together and worked together at Fort Hood, where we were even on the same team for a while, much to the constant frustration of those charged with leading us. We would both end up at Fort Bragg and we both served in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We had our kids around the same time, and even attended the same church for a while, where we were co-leaders of the youth group.

We were close.

Once we were out at lunch together, and a young Black soldier walked by in uniform. I noticed that his name tape said Hall. 

“Hey, that’s cool,” I said to my friend, “we have the same name!” 

My friend, who is Black, looked at me. 

“Jeff,” he said, “all that means is that someone in your family owned someone in his family.”

“Names aren’t just names,” he said, “they are markers.”

We went on to have a long conversation about the fact that while we shared many similarities, he and I often existed in very different worlds. We had very different experiences of an America we would both fight for, and both sacrifice for.

One of the things that he reminded me of is that many of the things I saw as part of the background – if I saw them at all – were acutely painful reminders to him of the horrific history overcome by his ancestors. To me it was just a Confederate flag on a truck, or a name on a uniform that matched mine, or serving on a base named for a southern Civil War general.

To him they weren’t names. They were wounds. They mattered.

Because names aren’t just names. Names are markers.

Names matter. They have power. They have the power to hurt, and they have the power to heal. What we call something can call attention to what it is, and what it can be. What a community decides to name a building or a road or a military base or a school tells the world who that community is, and who it wants to be.

After all, names aren’t just names.