By Mame Kwayie
In retrospect, we’d probably crossed a professional boundary. But I wanted the insight, so I kept our conversation going. I was in my early twenties, working as a communications director in San Antonio, and chatting with a presenter before one of my company’s seminars. The discussion was focused at first: She wanted to know a little bit about the group she’d be speaking with and what their interests were. There was a digression I didn’t see coming but ultimately leaned in to.
Terry was a real estate agent and motivational speaker. Within minutes of meeting, I’d confessed to her that I’d a) allowed people to mispronounce my name my entire life; and b) that I was having no luck meeting men who treated me well. She offered a straightforward hypothesis: Maybe I’d struggled with dating because I wasn’t allowing a truth about myself—the proper pronunciation of my Ghanaian name—to be heard.
I didn’t see the connection, and I didn’t want to do the hard work to figure it out. We also didn’t have time to unpack it; she was set to give her talk about real estate marketing in a few moments.
Soon, I sat in an auditorium with about 50 members of the trade association I was working for, many of whom I knew well.
“So earlier I was talking to Mah-may, and she mentioned that many of you are looking to improve the marketing for your businesses,” Terry said as she stood on the dais. She launched into her presentation, sure to look me in the eye as she said my name correctly.
“It’s May-mee!” A small chorus of colleagues called out to her.
She referred to me as Mah-may again, to which the echo of “It’s May-mee” grew louder.
Folks started to glance over at me as if to say, “I’m so sorry this woman is butchering your name.”
By the third time she’d said my name, it seemed as if half the room had rallied to say once and for all, “IT’S. MAY. MEE.”
I pressed my lips together, trying to shrink into myself and smiling nervously waiting for each moment to pass. There was a correct way to pronounce my name, which is spelled M-a-m-e, but in that instance, no one was wrong exactly. Both Terry and the chorus had only known what I’d shared with them, and everyone had the purest intentions to do right by me. I, however, was not ready to do right by myself.
I first wrote about my relationship with my name for The Root in 2014. My parents, who’d emigrated from Ghana to Houston (where I was born and raised), named me after my paternal grandmother. However, when I found that teachers and classmates hesitated before saying my name in a sea of Jessicas and Stephanies, I figured that emphasizing the long vowels in Mame would make it all much easier for me.
After all, there had been a first lady named Mamie Eisenhower, so I figured that switching up the pronunciation would be a reasonable compromise.
Yet teachers meeting me for the first time continued to pause when they saw Mame on the class roster. I’d still managed to get called all manner of “Maim” (as in Auntie Mame), “Mommy,” and “Mammy.”
The decisions we make for ourselves in Kindergarten and first grade are not usually the wisest. But I stuck with mine through college and into the early days of my professional career. It wasn’t until shortly before my conversation with Terry that I’d started to rethink it all.
I had met a man at a bar who looked at me incredulously and said, “Your name is May-mee? Please don’t tell me your last name is Johnson or something else country.”
It was starting to seem silly. “May-mee” didn’t even seem to fit who I had been and who I was becoming.
Sitting in the very crux of the Mah-may/ May-mee tension during Terry’s presentation had only solidified my growing discomfort. In the moment, I couldn’t give the May-mee chorus the full spiel of how and why I’d allowed them and everyone else I knew to mispronounce my name, so I stayed silent and embarrassed for Terry.
But it was clear that Terry was unfazed: She knew the truth, and she committed to telling it resoundingly.
Later that year, I moved to Chicago. There were so many things I wanted in my life at that point— among them was to get a graduate degree in writing and to have a big-city adventure. It was then that I decided to go by “Mah-may.”
I’d also realized that this pronunciation made much more sense to the eye of anyone reading my name. I cannot think of one moment after moving to Chicago when anyone egregiously mispronounced my name upon seeing it for the first time. (Except when I introduced myself in noisy restaurants and networking functions where folks said, “You said your name is Bombay?”)
More often, I’d be complimented on just how beautiful my name is. And it seemed that people were committed to getting it right.
I told my therapist, Swati, about my Root article when it published, and just as quizzically as dude at the bar, she looked at me and said, “But there’s nothing ‘May-mee’ about you.” She could not fathom that anyone would ever call me that—and especially that I’d asked for and allowed it.
Swati, who emigrated from India when she was seven, made it clear to me—completely unprompted—on our first phone call that her name was pronounced “Swa-thee” and not “Swatty.”
I’ve always wondered about her fortitude. Had she always been so direct with patients and other people she’d met for the first time? Was there a time when she just let people call her Swatty, and then later decided that she wouldn’t just let it go anymore? I would have asked her this during our sessions, but I didn’t feel comfortable prying into her personal life when I was her patient. She probably wouldn’t have minded, but for once, I wanted to respect a professional boundary.
Today, the only twinge of discomfort I feel around my name is when I go home to Houston. Inevitably, I run into a high school classmate in the grocery store, and I hear “May-mee!” down the aisle.” I avoid correcting them, less out of shame, and more out of not wanting to be the woman who moved to the big city and pompously exoticized her name.
There’s also an element of wanting to be polite (it’s how they knew me, after all) and not wanting to explain the entire journey of my name when I’m just trying to get my fix of Blue Bell ice cream.
These experiences have led me to wonder about identities. We often speak of that concept singularly—as if we comprise and embrace one identity our entire lives, when the truth is, the many versions of who we were often nest within each other.
The schoolgirl who just wanted to fit in—she’s still there.
The twenty-something feeling tugged by what she’d always called herself on one end and, on another, the essential truth of her father’s desire to honor his mother—still there.
The 30-something who feels bad that she let people mispronounce her name as she came of age, especially as she sees her name as beautiful and truer to her essence now—right here.
The woman who, yet, doesn’t feel so bad about her 25-year ruse that she corrects old friends in the grocery store; the woman more concerned about coming off as a pedant or a snob than being right—hello, it’s me.
The communications director who didn’t even bother to communicate to nor correct those who were loud and unknowingly wrong about her name; who didn’t thank Terry for taking a stand for her even when she couldn’t quite do it herself—she hopes everyone involved in that scene is reading this right now.
At any given moment, each of us exists as the sum of our various selves. We make decisions, we change directions, we say our names are one thing, but later wish to answer to something else.
I’ve often thought about what I would name my future daughter—10, 15, or 25 years ago, I would have said that I wanted her to have a common name, one that everyone could pronounce without a second thought.
But today, I think about meaning—about what I would want her to embody, what I would want her existence to honor, what I would like her to give to others and, mostly, to all the selves that will nest within her.
Every time she enters a room, meets a new person, says her name, reveals her shame, contorts her identities to feel acceptable, or breaches professional stoicism to just be human, I want her to abide by an ease and a gentleness and a kindness—for others and for her selves. I want her to forgive her selves, to embrace her selves. And I want her to do it sooner than her mother did.
I think I will name her Grace.