When my son was a baby, his babysitter called him Little Bean because Bean was my family’s nickname for me. When we celebrated his fifth birthday this year, the ex-babysitter’s daughter came with her son and she referred to my son as Little Bean, to which he replied, “my name is Miles.” She looked at me as if I would intercede and correct some perceived rudeness on his part, but I did not say a word. She tried several times to impose this nickname on him and every time he responded the same way, “my name is Miles.”
Well, the daughter must have told her mother about it because when my mother came to town and the ex-babysitter visited she had this long talk with Miles about how calling him Little Bean was important to her and she pleaded with him to allow only her to call him by this name. Reluctantly, he consented. The next day, however, he said to me, “Mommy, I don’t want that lady calling me Little Bean,” to which I responded, “then when you see her again, be sure to tell her how she should address you.” “My name is Miles,” he told me and I said, “be sure to tell her that.”
I guess there are many opinions concerning what counts as impudence from a child. Clearly, the ex-babysitter and I disagreed about my son’s display of good manners. As far as I’m concerned, my son has the right to decide what name he will respond to and how he should be addressed; especially since he’s a black boy. The earliest experiences of the black folk in the United States involved having names imposed on them. That beautiful scene in Beloved comes to mind when Baby Suggs asks Mr. Garner, “Why you call me Jenny?” In response, Garner matter-of-factly states, “‘Cause that what’s on your sales ticket, gal.” After Baby Suggs details how she self-identifies, Garner again imposes his ideas concerning what her name should be, “Well…if I was you I’d stick to Jenny Whitlow. Mrs. Baby Suggs ain’t no name for a freed Negro” (142). The experience of Pullman Porters also comes to mind regarding the will to overlook how black people self-identify. Black Porters were generally called “George” despite their given names or their self-appellations. If you ever get a chance to see 10,000 Black Men Named George, you should check it out–it’s not bad at all.
And since I’ve been thinking about Muhammad Ali, of course the 1967 fight between Muhammad Ali and Ernie Terrell comes to mind. In this interview and clips from the fight, you can witness how far Muhammad Ali was willing to go to determine what he would be called:
Now of course I’m not advocating taking to the ring whenever a person refuses to call you by your name, but in this regard, my son offers a very good model: he risked impudence. I stood right beside him, proud of the fact that he was willing to risk not being in her favor, not being considered nice and sweet because he gave her the power to tell him how he should be called. My son seems to have a sense of what freedom means. He understands that he doesn’t have to answer to what someone else chooses to call him. If you call him anything other than “Miles,” expect his rebuke and his mother’s support of it.