Me Llamo Theresa by Theresa Okokon

printing press letter block for lowercase t

On the inside of my right ankle sits the lowercase letter “t.” It’s not often visible to passersby, but every once in a while it will provoke a comment. Is that an anchor? (No.) Are you very passionate about tea and abbreviations? (No.) Is it so you don’t forget your name?

I got the tattoo as a sober decision after a drunken night. Many of my evenings, especially on the weekends my first year after college, were spent in a local gay bar in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The bar was called XS, and we were regulars. The owner, who also worked as a bartender, knew upon seeing me to start mixing up my favorite drink, the Stop n’ Go. The drink had Midori liqueur at the bottom, a heavy syrup cordial which allowed a layer of pineapple juice to sit above it, and a layer of cranberry mixed with vodka sat on the very top. Green, yellow, red: the Stop n’ Go.

One evening, a woman came in and she had the letter “E” on her shoulder. It was curvy and scripty, and I loved it immediately. Her name started with an E, maybe Erica or Emily, and that’s why she had the tattoo. I pointed it out to my friends, semi-drunkenly exclaiming, Wouldn’t it be fun if we all got our initials tattooed? We could all go together and do it at the same time!

I’ve always loved the idea of group tattoos. I see them like a voluntary, forever inclusion — but individualized, and unique on each one’s skin. My friends all agreed to the idea; there were almost a dozen of us who planned to get this done together. C, K, T, E, J, Z, E, R, B, and T. Becky loved drawing our names on sheets of paper for us to hang in our office spaces at work, and she determined it would be her role to draw all of the letters for our tattoos.

Many days later, after everyone had sobered up, only three of us remained committed to the plan. R, B, and me: T. We scheduled the appointment and went in for our group tattoo. It was my second tattoo, the first being a slightly altered version of Picasso’s Dove of Peace painting, and it had not occurred to me that I would be asked to answer why I got it. No one had ever questioned my decision to brand myself with a marking of peace.

Like many kids, perhaps especially those socialized to be girls, I used to spend a lot of time thinking about my future kids’ names. The bright pink box for Barbie’s sister proclaimed her name as Skipper, but when I got a Skipper doll for my birthday one year, I renamed her “Keys” because I thought it was more unique. It was the name I planned to give out once I had a daughter of my own, and this red-headed, cream-skinned, plastic toy gave me a place to test drive it. My Cabbage Patch doll was named Victor. When I got him for Christmas, my sisters and I immediately peeked under his shorts to see if he had a penis (he didn’t, his crotch was just a single stitch, the same as the girl Cabbage Patch dolls they had received). Victor had brown skin just like mine, and he wore a crisp white shirt with a yellow collar and green shorts. As though it were a prophecy directly from the toy factory, I decided my future son would one day be called Victor, too.

I am named for my dad’s favorite sister, Aunt Theresa, about whom I have always only known but two precious facts. The first is that she once bought a goat in my honor. When my dad told me this as a kid, I thought, Well, that’s an odd thing to do: buy me a goat on the other side of the world. It’s not like I could snuggle it or play with it. It’s not a pet, my dad would have told me, It’s for food, and, eventually, they did slaughter and eat it. When my dad told me about the slaughter, he said it with an excited, reverent pride, as this, too, had been done in my honor.

I never met the goat and I never met my aunt Theresa, either. Because, the other fact about her is that she, like all of my dad’s family with the exception of my cousin Emman, ceased all communication with me, my siblings, and my mom following my dad’s death. Not even my name was enough of a peace offering to maintain a relationship with my now silent namesake.

While I was given my name by my dad, I feel about it the way my mom has always felt about hers. Which is to say I have very little connection to the series of syllables that spill out of a person’s mouth when they look in my direction to start speaking. I’m a girl who doodled her name in the margins of her notebooks, who named her dolls in anticipation of her future children, who branded the initial “t” into her skin. And yet, the name Theresa is, at best, an assignment not connected to my identity.

Winneba is about thirty-five miles west of Accra, the capital of Ghana. It is a smallish city about the size of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and there, at some point in the early 1950s, two neighbors were embroiled in a feud. This disagreement was over a seemingly simple thing so many neighbors disagree over: land. Where one person’s stops, and the next person’s begins. Like most neighborly disputes, this one was eventually resolved amicably. But unlike most, at the end of this argument one of the neighbors decided to name his next born child after the previously disgruntled neighbor, a White woman named Enid Wells. The man, a Black Ghanaian and royalty in his Fante tribe, was my grandfather. And, as luck would have it, his next-born child was my mother. And so, my mom received her name by way of a peace offering over the placement of a driveway.

Perhaps because of these origins, my mom never really connected with her name. She seems to regard it as a formality, an obligation; we all have to have one and this one was directed to her. This might be why my mom didn’t have names planned for her kids. She never test-drove the names of her future children on her dolls, never doodled in any margins. She never had a list of names she was hesitant to tell her friends about, worried those friends would have children first and steal the name Taylor or Olivia or Sophia before she could claim it.

Lucky for my mom, my dad was a lot like George Foreman. He believed ALL of his children should have his name. My dad went by “Rick” to his classmates and later with his colleagues, but his name was Africanus. And so, my name is Africanus.

My father had a method for naming his daughters. The first name is an English – more specifically, Christian – name. This name was for formality’s sake and was never meant to be used. The second name is a traditional Ibibio one, the name the daughter would be called. And finally, each girl’s third name (and my brother’s first name) would be his name, Africanus. Theresa, the name everyone now calls me, is my formal English name. The one that was never meant to be used.

It is common in my family to go by more than one name. My dad did it. My cousin Ekua used to go by Julie because it was easier for her coworkers to say; my Uncle Ato used to go by his first name, Rich, at times when he owned a business in Milwaukee. I knew my mom went by Enid to her coworkers, but when family visited, everyone called her Auntie Kukuwa.  It was normalized that this was a thing that grown-ups did – having two names. It did not occur to me that I might one day follow in their rebranded lineage.

My middle name is Ini-Obong. My dad always told me this name means “God’s Clock” or “God’s Time.” I am a woman who is habitually late, who arrives at destinations and goals on her own, entirely self-directed schedule. A woman who uses stories to unfreeze time; so I’ve always felt like my name was particularly well suited for me. Growing up, my family called me Ini for short. And while I don’t know if any children feel any particular connection to their names, I was certainly the only Ini that I knew, so I for sure felt as though my name belonged to me.

River Falls, Wisconsin, was about one-fifth the size of Winneba and exactly the opposite in terms of the race of its population. It was 1989, and I was one of just two students of color among twenty-five to thirty kids in my kindergarten classroom, which was probably double the number of non-white students most teachers at Westside Elementary School were accustomed to having. The other student of color was Korean, and when her mother gave her name to our teacher, Mrs. Wilson determined the name was too challenging to pronounce. The girl began to instead go by the name Meadow, since going for walks in the grassy park near her home was one of her favorite things to do.

When I imagine myself meeting Mrs. Wilson on my first day of kindergarten, I see a small, proud child. I am unscathed, unaware, and blissfully blind to what lies ahead of me. I am lifting the chin of my round, brown face to meet Mrs. Wilson’s eye. I am smiling. Feeling great about my first day of school outfit, the breeze kisses my scalp in the sharply drawn parts between multiple ponytail twists done with so much care by my mom the night before. A crown of nappy hair tamed into careful sections, a barrette or a bally-ball tie at the end of each one. The plastic of my hair jewels clack against each other as I grin and announce myself as Ini.

Mrs. Wilson would have cocked her head to the side, furrowed her brow a bit as she pursed her lips like she had tasted something sour. She removed her eyes from my proud gaze to look instead at my mother. Is there anything else we can call her? Mrs. Wilson asked. Does she have a real name? An American name we can call her?

Meadow’s real name may have been difficult for this midwestern White woman’s tongue, a tongue that somehow managed to learn how to shape itself into pronouncing words like the Wisconsin towns of Oconomowoc, Sheboygan, and Waukesha with accuracy, happy to learn how to twist correctly if for the sake of colonizing. But Ini is undeniably easy to pronounce. In fact, before having me in her classroom, I would be willing to bet that her tongue shaped up to allow eenie, meanie, miney, mo to spill from her lips a time or two when determining which kid would get to stand first in line, or who’s turn it was to sit on the favored carpet square during reading time. She had no reason to refuse my name. No reason other than that it was foreign to her, she was in charge, and she didn’t have to say it if she didn’t want to.

The name my mom offered to Mrs. Wilson on my first day of kindergarten was Theresa. It’s my name, after all. But at the time, I didn’t even know to answer to it. No one ever called me Theresa. On my first day in Mrs. Wilson’s classroom, I began to experience a particular type of identity crisis that so many immigrants and children of immigrants go through — where we are called one name at school or at work, but another name at home, and in our hearts. It is the same crisis that led my cousin to pull the name Julie from thin air, rebranding herself with one of the names she may have had lined up for her daughters. For my mother, this crisis began the moment my grandfather needed to make peace with the White woman next door; my mom’s name is the consequence.

My dad’s name — my name, my sisters’ names, my brother’s name — literally means “African.” But he, too, had this crisis, offering the name Rick when he was so clearly proud of the name Africanus that he would give it to all of his children. As a child, I never thought about what it might be like for my son Victor to tell the world he is named for his mother’s penis-less Cabbage Patch doll. But the names we give our children, the syllables we offer when faced with the question of how to refer to our flesh, do indeed have consequence. And, whether they intended to or not, by accommodating Mrs. Wilson with the name Theresa, my parents passed along this crisis and consequence to me as much as they passed along the strength of a name that could determine time.

Throughout my childhood, I tried on different nicknames, attempting to sand down Theresa into something that fit better within me. None of them stuck. I have a close friend named Elizabeth, and when asked if she goes by Liz or Beth for short, she says, All of those, I go by all of those names. I have always found it so curious. To have a name to which you so closely identify, that any version of it still belongs to you.

In Spanish, one way to offer your name is to say, Me llamo, which means, I call myself. This resonates for me as a shrug, not a declaration. A noncommittal, not-quite-ownership of one’s name. Today, I call myself Theresa, or sometimes just T. And perhaps my greatest peace offering, to myself and to everyone else, has been accepting this name and its consequence. I give this name so I keep getting invited into the conversation — because once friendships stop being arranged, people have to know what series of syllables to let spill from their lips should they decide to invite you in.

Meet the Contributor

T.Okokon.headshot

Theresa Okokon is a Wisconsinite living in Boston. She is a social worker, a storyteller, a yoga teacher, a nonprofit professional, and the cohost of ‘Stories from the Stage,’ a nationally televised public TV show. An alum of both the memoir and essay incubator programs at GrubStreet, she is working on a memoir of essays about memory, family stories, and the death of her father. Theresa’s essays (and bathroom selfies!) have appeared in midnight & indigo, WBUR’s Cognoscenti, and Boston.com. She Instagrams gorgeous cocktails, food porn, and pics about Blackness and fatness at @ohh.jeezzz.

  4 comments for “Me Llamo Theresa by Theresa Okokon

  1. Very interesting. To this day I have had several names. Each name is attached to particular part or phase of my life. Curiously, the name I love the most is the one my mother and father used before their deaths, “Nelvin,” and was used throughout my high school days – but not since.
    For my career, family, and Writing I have mostly been “Melvin” or “Mel,” which has been ambivalent most of the time.
    Now I go by the name “Django” which I chose when I became a deep musician, and which I handed down to my son.

    So today, when one asks what is “Mi Llamo?” I often think to myself, “Which Me do you want to know?”
    Thanks

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