:: Article

It’s Not What They Call You

By Tyler Mendelsohn.

Until the miller’s daughter speaks Rumplestiltskin’s name out loud, all of Rumplestiltskin’s power rests on his sole knowledge of the word.

In German, similar word “Rumplegeist” means “rattle ghost” or “poltergeist.” Like this poltergeist, Rumplestiltskin’s power is in remaining invisible, unnamed.

But the daughter overhears his name and, by naming him, wins.

Interestingly, she is never named. She is always “the miller’s daughter”. Her father claims she can spin straw into gold; without a name she is only known as “the person who can spin straw into gold.”

But then she hears Rumplestiltskin say his name out loud, in what he’d thought was a private moment. His self-definition is hers to exploit.

*

For a project in which I spoke to transgender and non-binary people about their names, Angela told me that people try to exercise power over her by refusing to accept her name.

I hated writing my old name. I feel like sometimes people want to do that to you, to try to get you to accept their reality: your so-called “real name.” My name, Angela, exists in the world. That makes it real.

When people refuse to call transgender people by their names, they’re saying, “My comfort is more important than your life experience.”

*

In Assata: An Autobiography, Assata Shakur talks about changing her name both because she herself has changed and because her birth name is tied to slavery.

A revolutionary and former member of The Black Panthers and The Black Liberation Army, Assata Shakur was shot and captured by the FBI, then framed for the murder of a cop.

The Black Panthers gave Shakur an African name, but she wanted to come up with her own—one that meant something to her. Talking about her birth name and how she decided on Assata Shakur, she says:

The name….began to irk my nerves. I had changed a lot and moved to a different beat, felt like a different person…I felt like an African woman…My mind, my heart, and soul had gone back to Africa, but my name was still stranded in Europe somewhere. [The birth first name] was bad enough, but at least my mother had given it to me. As for [the birth last name], well, I could only come to one conclusion. Somebody named [last name] had been the slavemaster of my ex-husband’s ancestors…

…So the name finally had to go. I thought about Ybumi Oladele, but there was one problem. I didn’t know what the name meant. My new name had to mean something really special to me…I wanted a name that had something to do with struggle, something to do with the liberation of our people. I decided on Assata Olugbala Shakur. Assata means “she who struggles”, Olugbala means “Love for the people,” and I took the name Shakur out of respect for Zayd and Zayd’s family. Shakur means “the thankful.                                                                    

*

Shakur began receiving anonymous phone calls. On one occasion, she had been speaking into a recorder to practice for a public speaking engagement—the person on the other end of the line said, “Stop speaking into a recorder” and hung up. It was as if this stranger had been watching her.

The more Shakur became involved with The Black Panthers, the more the police tried to exert power over her. They tried aggressive intimidation tactics, and ultimately shot, captured, and tortured her. She escaped to Cuba. Since then they’ve unsuccessfully tried many times to bring her back to America under false pretenses.

Shakur’s determination to be the leader of her own struggle threatened white people. Her name change was an embodiment of that determination; no one could name her but herself.

*

In Audre Lorde’s memoir Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, Lorde writes that her name was originally spelled Audrey. When she was a child and she wrote her name on the page, she hated how the y would hang below the line. She had a hard time writing in a straight line anyway. She liked the evenness of “AUDRELORDE.”

But her mother made her spell it Audrey because, in Lorde’s words, “that was the way it had to be because that was the way it was. No deviations were allowed from her interpretation of correct.”

Lorde’s resolution to keep her name straight and even can be seen as a sort of queering.

*

Every time I think about the Rumplestiltskin story—about Rumplestiltskin alone in his house getting off on the thought “no one knows my name”—the Cheers theme song runs through my head. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name; sometimes you want to go where nobody knows your name.

In the Cheers song, “name” is interchangeable with “you”. You want to go somewhere where everybody knows you. Implicitly, to be known by others is comforting.

*

However, the cops used their knowledge of Assata Shakur—and her power—against her. Counting on America’s racism, they created a public smear campaign. Threatening violence, they coerced her to pose for photos in the same outfit worn by a woman caught robbing a bank, then posted “Wanted” photos of her in banks all over New York City. By the time she was on trial, people had already heard so many lies about her disguised as facts. Some of the “Wanted” posters had even called her by her deadname.

*

People who deadname others are often consumed by hierarchal power. They want to believe they have power over other people’s experiences, power to decide what’s real and what’s not real.

But when you give yourself a name that fits your values and strengths, the name conjures you. That’s a kind of magical power.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tyler Mendelsohn is a writer and editor living in Baltimore, MD. Their creative writing, essays and book reviews have been featured in publications such as The Establishment, Little Patuxent Review, JMWW, BmoreArt, Baltimore Fishbowl, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. Their book Laurel was published in August 2019 by Ink Press Productions. They play the drums in Baltimore-based band Cool Judy. Tyler lives in a Baltimore row house with their partner Trish and cat Cosmo.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, December 19th, 2019.