On the drive home when I left University after a six-year spell, most of which was spent enduring the Black hell that was its law faculty, I decided I was resolute in leaving that life behind me forever and starting it anew. A central part of that was dropping my christian name and seeking out some coherence in being addressed as Sekoetlane – my given name.
It wasn’t so much because I disliked my christian name or thought it any less than my given name. After all, next to her dom-pass, this was probably the most important thing my grandmother left me . And boy, did she fight for it. Right up to the alter at my christening where, as my g-dmother, she declared it so in spite of my parents’ adamant objections. Rather, it was because of what it grew to be a marker of throughout my life. And the violence it continues to wrack on my psyche in spite of its innocuous generic self as christian names go.
For most of us who inhabit bodies like mine, we spend our lives forcibly dislocated from ourselves. We are coached into and terrorised by having to experience life in the third person – unmaking parts or all of ourselves with every interaction in order to present to others our best appropriate versions of ourselves.
Living in a country like South Africa, which has been indelibly marked by, formed out of, and continues to be determined through a particular hegemonic historical trajectory, it would be inevitable for bodies like mine to endure this unyielding violent erasure of ourselves. It was inevitable that I would be presented to an all-white class of little boys and girls who doffed their caps and curtsied before authority, and asked how I would like to be called when the grown-ups and I all knew that Sekoetlane was definitely the wrong answer. As inevitable as watching your parents boastfully reproduce the fiction of their he-speaks-so-well-people-on-the-phone-ask-us-if-we’ve-adopted-a-white child, while terrorising you for it dare you disrupt the myriad unspoken rules that prescribe how to be an eternal child in a Black household.
I would even be required to be a willing participant in my own erasure. Over and over again. I was well-primed to offer an easier alternative for those bashfully “less-dextrous” tongues which I heard roll the likes of Siobhan and Llandudno so readily. Or keeping Sekoetlane dead to all concerned, avoiding the anxiety of having to explain what my “real” name means, recalling the shame of being told it could’t possibly be real because I was unable to fully articulate its meaning – I still can’t, even though I know it.
It has been three years since I decided I had grown weary of the relentless violence of being required to deny knowing myself as Sekoetlane and, still, I find myself having to explain what does it mean (as though it would unlock some mystery to how it ought to be pronounced). Still I have to insist that there is no way to shortening it (unless I call you mother). Still I have to explain that I did not allow you to choose to ignore Sekoetlane as much as I did not invite you to call me by my many Other names – Tota, tied to Sekoetlane; Tebello tied to the other. Three years, and still, I’m expected to denounce multiple generations of history bound up in my name because it was decidedly inconvenient for you and the many generations you have, here, to not respect me enough to see me.
So, after three years of negotiating, pleading, acknowledging your shortcomings and giving you a near-decade’s worth of history’s benefit of the doubt, I’m ending this abruptly. My name is Sekoetlane [si-kwe-θlɑː-ni]. I’ve said it enough times for you to hear it, I’ve given you enough pronunciation guides to say it, and I’ve explained enough times that you are not permitted to call me any differently.
And I will not acknowledge you if you insist otherwise.
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