Every two weeks, I will be publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week’s essay is “How to Name Your Black Son in a Racist Country” by Tyrone Fleurizard. Tyrone is an emerging writer from Bridgeport, Connecticut. His work has appeared in Inside Higher Ed and Fulbright Malaysia. You can follow him on Twitter @tyrone_af.
This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
Do not argue with your wife when the time comes to sign the birth certificate. If she wants to name her baby boy after a famous Erykah Badu song, let her. Despite the statistics on black maternal mortality, she made it out alive. But your son might not. During delivery, he inhaled meconium and is struggling to breathe. The doctor wants to keep him in the hospital to monitor him closely. But after being in an incubator for three days, your son will come home on the same day Jesus rose from the dead. Do not revel in this symbolism because you are not very religious. Your God is Work. Everything else is sacrilege.
If you were religious, you would know that none of the Gospels provide much detail about Jesus’ birth, so the real symbolism lies in the possibility that Joseph was not at the birth of his son just as you were not at the birth of yours. Instead, you leave your pregnant wife at the hospital to catch a train to Boston for your green card hearing. She is angry, but she does not understand. She already has her green card and has nothing to prove. But you do. The time will come for you to convince a judge that you are committed to the American Dream. But that time it isn’t now. The hearing you left your pregnant wife for has been postponed.
What happens to a dream deferred? Apparently it turns into a nightmare, one where you finally meet your newborn son and his name is Tyrone. Decide that you will never call him this. Give him the middle name Austin. Austin is a good Christian name derived from the biblical name Augustus, which means holy. But you are not very religious. You chose the name Austin because you fear that in this country, a name like Tyrone will get your son killed.
Your son will learn about the murder of Black people in his western civilization class at the predominantly white, all-boys, Jesuit Catholic high school of your ex-wife’s choosing that your child support will not be enough to pay for. Do not worry that you might have to go bankrupt to help pay for your son’s private education. The truth is, in this country, the kind of school that teaches western civilization instead of Ethnic Studies is your son's best shot at making it.
It’s at this expensive school that it will occur to your son that even with a name like Jesus, which means salvation, nothing could have saved him from being crucified. It will also occur to him that God sent the angel Gabriel to Mary to instruct her to name her son Jesus. Because he’s surrounded by more biblical names than gentile names at this school, he will wonder why God did not send an angel to his mother, too. If you were religious, you might appreciate that God named His son Jesus knowing that his country and his countrymen would one day kill him. If you were religious, you would be able to tell your son that God did send an angel to his mother, and that angel carried her anguish and bore her up while she watched him struggling to breathe. You could have told your son that God sent an angel to every Black parent in this country, too, which would mean that every Black child born in America is named by God.
But you are not very religious.
The truth is, if God had sent the angel Gabriel to instruct you on how to name your Black son and with the message that he would one day be killed, you would have told him to get lost. If God wants to sacrifice His own son, that is His business, but you will not be sacrificing your Black son for anybody.
You will not even sacrifice your son for his hero at the time, a man named William Shakespeare, a playwright you do not know or care to know because you grew up in the Haitian countryside and they do not read that nonsense there. Your son will love Romeo and Juliet and will be enamored by that famous line “What’s in a name?” because he has feelings about his own name that he can’t yet articulate. Romeo, who was ready to resign his name, will become your son’s North Star, his beacon for how to grapple with the names we are given. But because you have never read Shakespeare, you will not know that that white boy kills himself. And because you do not care to be well versed in Black history, you will not be able to advise your son that the only North Star he should be following is the one that helped Harriet Tubman lead 300 enslaved Africans to freedom.
You are only equipped to advise your son on the rules of engagement in this country. Strongly suggest he study pharmacy when he goes to college, but not because you think he would like it, but because the title Doctor means money and respect and because you think there is nothing funnier than the irony of your Black son selling drugs. But your son will switch his major from biology to sport management to political science to psychology. He is unsure about his future and unsure what he wants to be called. He will get a job as a tour guide and introduce himself as Ty. He will find him a Nice White Girlfriend that calls him T. He will join a white fraternity whose members think he is their boy. If you had known this, you probably would have scoffed. This would not have happened if your son went by his middle name because Austin is not a name you abbreviate or bastardize.
But your son will never tell anyone his middle name because he feels like once they know, everything about him—including his customer service voice—would make the kind of sense he does not want to make. It took him a while, but he has decided that he doesn’t like “code-switching,” a concept you find stupid anyway because your son should always be speaking proper English. He has decided for himself that the kind of sense he wants to make is the type of sense that only makes sense to Black people. Be frustrated by this because you taught your son better: Assimilation is the key to making it in this country.
Education is also key in this country, so it does not make sense to you that your son will leave a PhD program to teach abroad. But do not protest when he tells you that he has won something called a Fulbright to teach in a place called Malaysia, although you will want to at first because you have no idea what a Fulbright is, nor do you have the slightest clue where Malaysia is. When he tells you that he wants to go because he wants to figure out how other countries deal with racism because America does not, do not wonder why everything has to be about race, and do not focus on what you will say to your colleagues. Instead, when you get off the phone with him, look up some information on Fulbright and Malaysia and call him back and tell him you are proud of him.
And then warn him. Inform your son that he will likely be the only Tyrone in the cohort of 100 Americans and that there will be white people in his cohort who think gentrification is a good thing and who do not read. Let him know that those white people are not worth his time and that he should make a group chat with the six other Black folks in his cohort because he will regret not doing so later. Foreshadow that he will make friends with “people of color,” Muslims in his cohort who will force people to say their ethnic names properly, and that he will be addressed as “Sir Tyrone” by the students and teachers at his school. Explain to him that in Malaysia names carry meaning, and he will not find a single Kayleigh or Jaxxon, and he will meet people named Fauzani Abdul Rahman and Ahmad Jamil Saad.
Before he leaves, buy him a copy of TheSouls of Black Folk, written by someone named William Edward Burghardt Du Bois of all names, and highlight this passage: “One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Sneak it into his carry on. It will help him process the expansiveness of being Black and American and Tyrone and Austin. Get him excited about the prospect of traveling and seeing other Black people in the most unlikely of places, like in the bustle of a busy intersection in Vietnam and in a canoe on a floating market in Thailand. Let him know that these experiences abroad will teach him how to be unapologetic in his blackness and stand in the power of his name. But you are not equipped to do any of this. You can only kiss and hug your son, offer him some cash, and pray that he comes back the way he left.
But your son won’t come back the way he left. He will return from his year abroad thinking international exchange programs are “neocolonial projects,” whatever that means, and he will also consider converting to Islam. Despite how you may feel about it, he will rebuke strangers who think they can just call him Ty, and he will leave his Nice White Girlfriend, and he will grow his hair long enough to put it in braids. Be supportive of this, even though you think braids are unprofessional. Do not, for the love of God, suggest he get rid of them when applying for jobs. This is the reality of having a Black son with 4c hair who does not care what white people think. However much you thought the name Austin might spare him from not being hired when he deserves to be, or from being turned away from realtors despite how good his credit is, the reality is, in this country, there is no escaping racism. In this country, there is no difference between your Black son and anybody else’s Black son. There is no difference between Austin or Tyrone.
The only difference is between you, a naturalized American who pledges allegiance to this country, and your son, born in America, whose only allegiance is to upend the systems that make it impossible for Black people to breathe. Do not get defensive when the time finally comes for him to confront you on this difference. Do not say that calling him Austin is your preference and your right. And do not, for the love of God, ask him to name his first-born son after you, either, because you will be disappointed by his reaction. He likes the name Kameel, which in Arabic means “perfect.” When the time comes, he will give his Black son a name that signals to him that he is fine just the way he is.
You would have done this if not for the immigration industrial complex that would ensure you prioritize citizenship to this country over citizenship to your family. You would have done this if not for the deeply entrenched belief in this country that success is determined by your proximity to white, middle-class America. Your son understands this, which is why he is not mad at you, although you do need a good talking to sometimes, like now. Try to see this conversation not as your son being wrathful but as him trying to make sense of himself and his country. The wrath you feel is not actually wrath. It is your son asking why you have forsaken him.
The next time your son plays that Erykah Badu song, pause for a moment. Regret that when given the opportunity to bear witness to one of life’s greatest acts of love and sacrifice, you chose otherwise. Appreciate that your ex-wife did the best she could with what she had, which, on that chilly, overcast afternoon in April, was a baby boy who could not breathe and no husband to watch The Jenny Jones Show. Wish you’d chosen differently. Sing the hook: call Tyrone.