I didn’t always like or embrace my birth name, “Annalise.” During my childhood and adolescence years, many teased me and arbitrarily shortened my name for convenience. I suppose in that light I was very uncomfortable with my name; it seemed inconvenient, burdensome, and not “classically beautiful” or cultural-enough for a young black girl. The discomfort that others had regarding my name, with saying the name, Annalise, when referring to me, caused me to implicitly reject it very early on. For the most part, I only used Annalise – the name that was assigned to me at birth by my parents – in formal settings, or when I had to. Otherwise, in personal and familial settings, I didn’t refer to myself as Annalise for a very long time.
As a I came of age, or when I began to develop my own identity (apart from my family and friends), and as my choices exposed me to the the complexities of life as a human being, I finally let go of the nicknames and used Annalise exclusively and everyday. Of course there have been some family, friends, and even some acquaintances, who have continued to “call me out of my name,” or to call me something other than Annalise. Mostly, when that happens, I take it as a term of endearment, but it also is indicative of how patterns (including speech patterns) are extremely hard to break. However, ever since I started introducing myself as Annalise, that name has been the name that I have chosen to embrace. It’s not Anna. Not Lise. But Annalise. My name is annalise [which is how I spell it intentionally – with low-case letters]!
Being known as annalise has been a very complicated affair. I didn’t know myself as annalise until I was in my 20s. Once I accepted it, and rather awkwardly back then, I gradually learned to like it, but the acceptance of my name took years to achieve.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about the new Shonda Rhimes’ television series, How To Get Away With Murder. Due to the central role that black women have been placed in these shows, Rhimes has challenged many viewers to consider taboo subjects and social conventions. Through black women characters, like Miranda Bailey, Olivia Pope, and Annalise Keating, Rhimes constructs a storyline that situates black women in personal and professional (as in working or labor-related) relationships with white men. The narrative that Rhimes has put together is very complicated and complex. As a black woman, I can totally relate to the intersectionality of this landscape because race, gender, class and sexuality are always converging and often when I least expect them to meet. Many of the black women that I know personally and those who watch the Thursday night Rhimes trilogy deal head-on with living their lives in close proximity to white men who often articulate (verbal and nonverbal) troubled expressions that have been aimed historically at black women – or what I refer to as women of apparent African heritage. A myriad of issues and factors go into the lives we hold and the names we have been called by white men and others. We have repeatedly been called “bad” names: like bitch, whore, wench, and cunt. And along the way, there have been some “good” names like: colleague, lover, partner, sister, etc. [but I will caveat that to say that the terms “good” and “bad” can be quite relative]. For example, last year, in 2013, I wrote a blog voicing my initial thoughts on the Scandal series featuring Kerry Washington as the main protagonist, Olivia Pope [which is not available because I am currently editing it for e-publication].
In spite of my criticisms of Rhimes’s characters and plots, I am still glad that she does what she does: write and produce television programs. That I don’t particularly like a perspective or an storyline does not mean that I have rejected Rhimes or any of her productions. In fact, I have continued to watch for a couple of reasons, at least: 1) to show my support for who Shonda Rhimes is and what she represents in the overall scheme of “Hollyweird”; and 2) so that I can continue to articulate an opinion from an informed and intelligent place. One of my biggest peeves is when people form opinions, but do not take the time to educate themselves about the subject or the landscape of their opinions (in fact, we really shouldn’t call such talk opinion at all, because it is really just blubbering on and on). Anyhow, since watching How To Get Away With Murder, I was not ready for how affirming it would be to hear my name, annalise, repeated over and over again and in reference to a lead, black female protagonist. I was not ready for the power of that act: of repeatedly hearing the name Annalise in reference to a black woman protagonist. As humans we learn and come to understand many things in life because of repetition. Yes, there are challenging and troublesome issues or factors associated with the part of Annalise Keating, but it has been very refreshing and powerful to hear a name that I once did not embrace, and a name that many do not associate with black women or black culture personified by Viola Davis, who is, in my opinion, one of the most awesome black actresses in Hollyweird today! It was so good (positive) to hear that I often found myself repeating it after certain startling scenes from the episodes: Annalise! Annalise! Annalise! [Like the one where Annalise removed her wig and confronted her husband Sam with his naked picture on the phone].
I spent the first twenty years of my life rejecting the name, Annalise, and now, twenty years beyond that (since I have embraced it for myself), a black woman actress who I respect plays a critical role that many can identify with across lines of race, gender, class and sexuality. In watching this particular television show by Shonda Rhimes, I have felt such an amazing and warm sense of validation for who I am and how I have “named” myself via the acceptance of my birth name. Truly, that feeling caught me by surprise! Who knew that a fictive television character would have such a good and positive impact upon my personal identity through the repetitive saying of my name? Indeed, many black people have know the power that comes from saying one’s name everyday with pride and respect in a world that has historically called us out of our names and assigned us names that we did not accept or agree with. I imagine that this is one of the reasons that some black people have rejected their birth names and assigned themselves new names to give voice and power to the persons they are and to the lives they wish to live. And, as a former United Methodist minister I know that this is one reason that many people, especially black people, have embraced fictive narratives and cultural myths, like religion or Christianity (however, I am not by any means arguing that one should exclusively situate or place one’s total human experience in a fiction, a myth or an outdated belief system).
As complicated as the characters in Rhimes’s shows may be, one thing is for sure: there are some black women writers and actors who are standing in the tradition of other black women, and men, and those in between, who dared to speak up, write bold new scripts, and break down the ignorance that held them back from expressing and loving ourselves as boldly and fiercely as they possibly could! So, what have I learned by watching How To Get Away With Murder? That no matter what, we – black women and all oppressed, disinherited people – must continue to speak our names, for in the everyday calling of our names, honestly and authentically, we can come to a better understanding and acceptance of who we really are!
©2014 annalise fonza, Ph.D.
N/B: Please note that there are allusions to several other writers in this blog, including: bell hooks, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Howard Thurman, Pearl Cleage, Alessandra Stanley.