George Floyd. Derek Chauvin. Breonna Taylor. Brett Hankison. Donald Trump. Joseph Biden. Colin Kaepernick. Cathy Park Hong. Amanda Gorman.
We say their names and call forth their presence, evoke a memory or produce a feeling within us. We clinch our teeth or shout into a megaphone, applaud, raise a fist or point a finger. Saying, hearing, reading their name, these particular words have meaning for us.
In Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Juliet says,
‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title.
Love them or hate them, names, these embodied words, draw enemy lines and come with divisions, roles and responsibilities, expectations and traditions that we are bound by.
They also call for and mark our entry or are the cause for an exit. Stage left. Because their name is mud.
Behind our names are stories and family members we will never meet. Long gone, their names, good or bad, are all we have left of them.
And yet, these names can set the stage for future generations, casting them as leading actress or supporting actor, antagonist or protagonist, hero or villain.
We put letters, more words before and after our names. Add and drop names. Some of us hope to become a household name. We say, “I’m going to be famous. Mark my words!”
From the beginning and in the end, you and I are but a collection of words, words made flesh and bone.
We are words written down on paper, one choice among others until our parents decide on the name they like. We are but a few words written down on a birth certificate and an application, a driver’s license and a speeding ticket, a yearbook and a degree.
Despite our society’s attempts to majoritize and minoritize, we are not a number. We are the alphabet expressed and manifested.
We are called by and answer to a series of letters. Life and death in the power of mother and assimilated tongues, we are letters held together by history, tradition and memory.
We are names and addresses, dates, times and experiences, hopes and visions. We are our parents’ dreams of who they wanted to be but never got the chance to. We are our ancestors’ and elders’ prayers answered specifically.
We are first, middle and last names with new endings and old beginnings. Altogether different or a different spelling, we don’t enter the world to imitate, maintain the status quo or to follow the rules.
As children, we may have been exposed to or experienced teasing, taunting and bullying. Our parents said to us, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will never hurt you.”
But they do. In fact, stick and stone words become brick and mortar systems of depravation, distortion and dis-belonging.
Now adults, many of us are watching our words, supervising them and following the words of others around to see where they end up. We should be mindful of the words we build up because they have the potential and the power to tear other people down.
It’s all about finding the right words, words that balance us, that even us out. We must speak faithful and feeling words, words that maintain covenant and connection.
This is why language is so important, why it is imperative that we speak thoughtfully and thoroughly, intentionally and from places more informed. Because one wrong word and it’s all downhill from there.
Beware of slippery slopes and smooth talkers as this word-work will take time and will not happen all in one place or be done by one people group.
There’s a word for that: domination. We must fight against it and not allow it to talk over us.
Because there are better words and better ways. It is all predicated on what we say and don’t say. It is time to put our tongue-swords away.
Northern, Southern and Middle America. Democrat, Independent and Republican. Conservative, moderate and liberal.
Pro-life and pro-choice. First and second amendment rights.
Female, male and gender nonconforming. Heterosexual, homosexual, transsexual and asexual.
Beige, black, brown, red, white and yellow.
Any of these words will make us fighting mad. So, maybe we need to keep talking until we create bigger, richer, truer words. I am calling for newer words.
Because we are fighting words. But we are also the ones doing all of the talking.