Excerpts from Chapter 1:
WHAT MAKES NAME A UNIVERSAL PRINCIPLE? (pp. 8-9)
Name is the starting point for all universal and sacred laws of life, whether it is called Universal Mind, Divine Oneness or God Almighty. It is universal because all human activity—personal, socio-cultural, economic and political—issues from a name, from the smallest quanta of matter or energy to the largest telescopic view of the celestial heavens. Names and naming are basic to etymology, language development and linguistics, and to the formation and evolution of human occupations like horticulture, engineering and psychiatry. But did you know human beings have the mandate to name? This feature makes this principle universal, spiritual and audacious all at the same time.
NAMING TRADITIONS. Naming in primary, a-literate or pre-historic cultures was multi-faceted, and many forms of early naming traditions continue today. Especially in societies that are less media-saturated than Western ones, child naming is a huge event, and one’s name signifies a connection to clan and community. For example, if a dramatic event occurs to a mother and the child is born soon afterward, the family leader may decide the baby’s name and base it on the event. If the clan or tribe experiences some upheaval or transformation and it coincides with the birthing, the child may be named for this circumstance. If someone dreams of the baby telling its own name, this is another way a child claims its name.
Many societies wait seven or eight days before naming a child to see what the world brings forth or what the child does to give a clue to its name. Infant behavior as well as situational changes as a result of infant arrival result in unusual but appropriate names. Some children are named for the day, week or month they were born, or for a predestined life path that their date of birth indicates.
In West African culture, the name and exploits of wealthier and well-named children were traditionally memorialized by griots and recited throughout the land. People still believe that one’s name must be read or recited into life because this life is where the name and the named one are going to reside. In formal settings, to be unannounced is not befitting and can be interpreted as disrespectful. (Where household or wait staff are present among people meeting for social or business events, they are usually not introduced or announced because to do so would be a distraction.)
These beliefs are why there are naming ceremonies and rites of passage marking milestones, including puberty and earned name changes, reached by cohort members. Some people mature into a new name because of a profession or creative work. There are nicknames, stage names, pet names and pen names (often, in the singular, referred to as a nom de plume) that people take on and release—it goes both ways. Sojourner Truth, Marilyn Monroe, Whoopi Goldberg, Chevy Chase and Malcolm “X” Shabazz are examples of name-changers.
MY NAME STORY (p. 27)
I found out who I was by undertaking a journey to rename myself. My birth name triggered me, I felt a bumble of words in my head that did not help me to locate who or where I was in time. Bumping up against my given name meant I was missing a point of access to who I was being in the world. My vision of the world felt obstructed.
Nancy Regun Ethelind Clare. Not only was Regan misspelled on my birth certificate according to my mother, the order was wrong. My beloved grandmother’s first name Ethelind should have been before my father’s sister’s middle name Regan. Nancy Regun was uncomfortably close to Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s wife. As First Lady of the U.S. and Republican party, she and I had little in common. My discomfort with Nancy begins with the shrill manner in which my mother called me which communicated impatience and criticism. It was not the “Nancy With the Smiling Face” lilt sung by Frank Sinatra about his daughter. My mother’s aunt was named Nancy. I eventually read that Nancy meant grateful or grace of God, as did Ann, Jean, John, Ian, Sean, and similar European names. They were derived from John the Baptist, said to be the first person so named.
When I learned all this I had already been on the hunt for a creative name. I was riding the wave of liberation identity politics and sought a name reflecting my African forebears. I was in college, and the name needed to add flourish to paintings and poetry while it also kept me anonymous. I knew John Coltrane had a song named for a woman and it was a pretty name, “Naima,” named for his first wife. I didn’t know it at the time and dreamt it was “Niamo.” I woke up one morning declaring, “the angels have given me the name!”
I learned that Nia stood for purpose—its meaning in kiSwahili—while “mo” stood for a shortened form of nommo. Nummo or nommo are the first beings created on earth, according to the Dogon of northwest Africa. I decided “mo” was also related to om, the universal sound chanted by meditators around the world. Nyame is the Akan word for God. Nii Amon is a man’s name among the Ga of present-day Ghana, and is related to divinity tracing its roots to Amon-Ra of Kemet (ancient Egypt). I found much of this out over many years. At some point I condensed the meaning of the name to: “the one who hears her purpose through the universal sound.”
Not unexpectedly, I hung out with musicians and declared myself married to one in 1978. I met him at a Halloween party in Soho with live music by Olu Dara. The party continued into the early hours of the morning, All Saint’s Day, at someone’s home in the Bronx. This strikes me now as important but did not at the time. On his first visit to my home, Khalid Abdul Raheem (aka Jack) brought me a Qur’an to read. This began my Islamic education. Meanwhile, people had begun to call me Niamo based on my writings, since I had prefixed it to my name: Niamo Nancy Clare. I was so proud of this unique and beautiful name. In an otherworldly episode I learned to detach from it, and this was a turning point in my spiritual journey.
I got the surprise of my life while attending a showcase of a playwright’s new work. In the small audience of not more than fifty people I noticed a woman who looked like the late Elizabeth Taylor, noted for the Cleopatra stereotype provided courtesy of Hollywood. This woman could not be mistaken for Ms. Taylor, she just had that look and a stylish bearing to match. I had loved the movie Ms. Taylor starred in, National Velvet, as a child, partly because I shared a love of horses. I secretly fancied myself a brown-skinned Taylor because of my long mane. I looked nothing like her, but had been dazzled by her stardom. As an adult, to notice someone reminding me of her was no big thing but in reflection, I chuckled to myself.
At the end of the play my friend and I stayed a bit longer to meet the playwright, who she knew. As we were being introduced, I noticed the Taylor look-alike drawing nearer and she too knew the writer. We were introduced and I told her my name. She said, “Oh, I know someone named Niamo. That’s a pretty name.” I conveyed my thanks and surprise. The Niamo she knew resided in Chicago, where she was from. I asked if that woman had ever lived in California, where I attended college. She indeed had. When I named the college, she said she believed that was it. When I asked was she an art major and did she have blond hair and was she kind of tall and slim? Yes, she said, she was.
I realized there was a woman in my classes who liked the name I signed on my paintings. Most still called me Nancy at the time. My earliest college art was signed by the pen name Jam, because I liked the way “byJam,” with the “Y” and “J” connected, looked. This “handle” began in junior high school. At the time a jam to me meant a jam session, the ultimate in jazz improvisation. Later I read it symbolically. Years of French taught me je meant “I” and “Am” could be a short form of aime meaning love. So we could interpret Jam as I AM or I Love.
It was very important that I not be “Hordinary”—the worst thing a person could be, uttered by my grandfather in his Tobagonian accent. No, each member of our clan was committed to being special—anything but ordinary.
Anyway, I concluded, “This girl stole my name!” I looked at the irony of it—a “white” girl, a classmate who met me fleetingly, just up and took my name! I felt forced to deal with my unexpressed feelings. Anger—How dare she? Sadness—I’m not unique! Shock—this totally caught me off guard. Awe—She up and took my name and made it her own! Disgust and defeat—She doesn’t even know what it means, how I arrived at the name, or how important it is to me! This is horrendous, I lamented in self-pity. I am not special after all!
One of the things that helped me get over this was a few lines from “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf,” the ground-breaking play by Ntozake Shange. At the time, I mentally dared anyone to steal her name. The lines I loved were, “Somebody done walked off with alla my stuff and they don’t even know what to do with it.” Although spoken of a boyfriend, this line let me know people did take stuff and you would feel the loss of it. I felt loss and realized I could wail about it to no avail. My worry and feeling insulted would not change the experience. Plus, I still owned the name, even moreso than I had before. It took on new meaning. I found myself releasing the attachment to what I had held as an exclusive appellation. Although the name helped me feel special, it was more like the book cover of my life, and not me. It took years before I grasped the “book cover” nature of the name Niamo.
This saga has two more installments…. (the section continues)