What's in a name?
On January 23, 1977, Part I of the Emmy award winning Roots mini series aired. This story, based on Alex Haley's 1976 novel entitled Roots: The saga of an American family, is the heart-wrenching tale of Gambian Mandinka warrior, Kunta Kinte and his heirs, tracing their journey from the western shores of African, through colonial times, culminating in the post Civil War period seeing them through to gaining their freedom. Though I was born just 2 weeks post the airing of this series, it so impacted my family that both my cousin and I were nicknamed for two of the characters from the book/movie. My cousin was born on January 31, 1977 and I followed just 9 days later. Because I was a fair-skinned child and my cousin's skin tone deep and rich like that of mahogany, we were affectionately given the names "Missy" and "Kizzy" by the members of our families.
I was most struck by the scenes focused on names (a prominent theme throughout) and what that meant for one's identity. Kunta Kinte's refusal to answer to the name Toby; the naming of each of the children born. It's a central theme throughout the series. I thought back to a recent class activity that I was engaged in where we focused on various aspects of our identity (name, race/ethnicity, religion/faith, hobby, and gender) and what they meant for our positionality in academia. I'd always preferred the nickname, Missy, over my birth name, Dashika, and it was an agonizing decision for me to decide which name I would publish under as an academic so I could not understand why I was so connected to my name as we ranked various aspects of our identity in order of importance to us. I also could not reconcile why, at the same time, I was so attached to a name that represented a character who'd participated in such vile acts against African American people.
This entire experience has served to remind me of how complicated identity work is and how it is so important that we do not paint with a broad stroke in educational (or any other social) research. I proudly move forward embracing both aspects of my identity for one reminds of my roots (Dashika) and the other reminds me of the struggle (Missy).
Dashika (Missy) Cosby is a high school math teacher, RTI instructional coach, and PhD student in Educational Psychology/Educational Technology at Michigan State University.