If you’re a white person, I’d like to give you a window into Blackness just for a moment. Let me give you just a tiny glimpse at the many layers of things happening all around you that you probably miss. I’m going to do this by talking about names.
My name is Samuel James. Pretty simple. You could probably make some correct guesses about me from just seeing that name printed. You could also make some wildly inaccurate ones, and those guesses could be dependent on whether or not you’re Black. For example, if you are white seeing that names in print might lead you to guess that I am quite a bit older than I am. If you are Black however, you’d likely know the importance of tradition in Black first names and so you’d know that age isn’t really detectable there.
Allowing you a further look into that window, I can tell you that as a performer, my name gets said a lot. It gets announced. It gets printed. What I couldn’t possibly tell you is the amount of times a white person has said my name as “Samuel L. Jackson.” It’s been said onstage by white presenters; printed in ads and flyers by white venue owners. Yes, with the “L” and everything.
But I have it easy. Black folks with African-derived names? Holy lord, that drops into a whole other level of power dynamics. Spelling is a big one. Language itself is meant to be spoken, but as the desire to retain and spread information grew, printing language became necessary. Access to information has always been policed and spelling is a common way to do that. It’s a touchstone of permission. You’re very unlikely to see a comment thread anywhere that doesn’t have at least one person attempting to invalidate an entire point of view by pointing out a misspelling.
All languages are fluid. Words get added all the time. Some words change definitions entirely—sometimes to include their previously opposite definitions. Correcting someone’s spelling isn’t so much an informed action defending language as it is an act of asserting oneself as the arbiter of right and wrong.
Now imagine if your name was allowed to be wrong. Not wrong like Madysen or Maddyson or Maeddaessaen. Wrong like wrong for this college or this job kinda wrong. Wrong like you’re in the wrong neighborhood kinda wrong. Wrong like longer sentences for the same crime kinda wrong. Wrong like your voice. Wrong like your hair. Wrong in a way that reveals all the rules about behavior and hard work and merit are only there to hide the actual rule: the existence of your Black self is wrong.
And, all together, everyone from elected officials to your average worm on the internet can give themselves plausibly deniable permission to laugh at all the ways this world abandons and destroys you just by pointing at the spelling of your name.
Let’s put a pin in that for now.
As of this writing Elon Musk is meant to buy Twitter. He might back out or he might do it. I don’t know, but either way we all know where this is going. His fascist views on “free speech” are no secret and the ubiquitous racism throughout the companies he already owns predicts a certain outcome.
As I write this “Bye Felicia” is trending on twitter. If you’re not familiar, it’s a joke reference from the 1995 movie Friday starring Ice Cube and Chris Tucker. The intent of the phrase is to dismiss someone who is annoying to you. But it’s not being tweeted by fans of Black cinema. Just the opposite. It’s being tweeted by Elon stans at twitter users who are worried that Musk will turn twitter into 4chan.
OK, so, with all that I’ve told you, please peer with me back into that window of Blackness. As you look, think about all that is implied—intended or otherwise—by the Elon stans or the culture at large when they type out “Bye Felicia.” Think about the what it means to not only defend a billionaire, but one that continuously perpetuates a culture of racism within his companies. Think about what it means to defend that particular billionaire with a catchphrase from a Black movie. Now consider how much deeper the matters of agency get when you learn that the two Black writers of Friday spelled the character’s name as Felisha.
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Imge by Hadi Basirat via Unsplash