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(Finally) Becoming My Father’s Daughter…

June 5, 2013

(photo credit: The Emilie Davis Diaries at Penn State University Library)                       My upcoming book, “Notes from a Colored Girl: The Civil War Pocket Diaries of Emilie Frances Davis” (USC Press, 2014) **My book includes both an edited and annotated version of Emilie F. Davis’ diaries from 1863-1865 and a reconstructed narrative about her life**

©2013 by Karsonya Wise Whitehead

Last month, my editor wanted to know if I had made a decision about what name I was planning to use on the front of my book. He said that since I had so many of them (he knows because he has used Google to look them all up), I had to make a choice about how I wanted to be introduced to the world. He believes (as do I) that my book will travel to places that I will not go and interact and impact the lives of people who I will never meet. By writing and publishing my book on Emilie, I know that I am providing people with a small window into my world. I have spent the last five years of my life writing the Emilie book and I have poured everything I had into it. My name on that book will be all that people have that connects Emilie to me. I have spent a lot of time thinking about his question and trying to make a very difficult decision. It may seem simple on the surface but for someone who has spent a lifetime naming and renaming herself, it was not an easy decision. I suppose, like so many other things in my life, I could blame my parents as I came into the world and lived for the first couple days of my life without a name.

My birth name is Karsonya Eugenia Wise and I am named after my father, Carson Eugene Wise, Sr. I once asked my mother how did I end up with my father’s first and middle name. She said that when she was pregnant, the older women in her town told her and my father that they could tell her by the way that she was carrying me that I was going to be a boy. When my father first heard this, he held on to it and decided right then to call me Carson Eugene Jr. It never even occurred to my parents to choose a girl’s name because in their eyes, there was no need. When I showed up, they were not prepared so for the first three-four days of my life, I was simply called “Baby Girl Wise.” My mother laughed when she told me that when my father first told her my name, she initially disliked it. “It’s too big for a girl,” she complained. “She’ll grow into it,” my father replied. “But why that name,” my mother wanted to know, “Why not Dorothy after my mother? Or Maria after yours?” “Because she is not a Dorothy or a Maria. She is unique. Special. And she needs her own name,” he replied. “But,” my mother continued, “she’s named after you, which probably means that she is going to be a lot like you.” My father, according to my mother, simply picked me up, whispered something in my ear, and carried me over to the window. She thinks that he whispered my name, I suspect that he probably whispered his.

I am my father’s daughter. I always have been. Yet I have always struggled with my name. It was too big and awkward and people constantly mispronounced it.

I was in elementary school when I first decided to change my name. It was my first act of resistance. I remember the day that I gathered up my courage and asked my father if I could change my name. He looked at me for a long time and then said, “You can change your name to anything you like and I will respect it. I will call you what you want to be called. Your name, even though I love it, is yours to keep or change.”

So, in elementary school, right after I became the first girl captain of the safety patrol, I became “Sonia“–bold and brave. I felt empowered and in control because I had named myself. In middle school, I switched to “Cassandra” which I felt was a better name for a budding young musician. I joined a band in sixth grade and even though all we did was beat on our desks during class, we swore that we were making real music. I used to wear my daddy’s shirts to school, roll up my jeans at the bottom, and wear white tennis shoes without any socks. By the time I reached 12th grade, I was “So-So,” living a dual existence as a cheerleader and the editor of the school newspaper. I had been invisible for three years, so when I became a cheerleader and became popular, I felt I needed a new name to go with my new life. I learned a difficult lesson that year, that my name (like my father has once told me) does not define me.

I entered college as “Karsonya” and quickly became the president of my first year class. I was serious and studious and wanted to be the next Barbara Jordan. Along the way, I became Angela Davis instead. I read Malcolm XAssata Shakur, and the Little Red Book. I pledged Delta Sigma Theta, started growing dreadlocks, and changed my name to “Akilah Fatima.”

It never even occurred to me that people would not call me by what I wanted to be called. My parents did and if they could call me “Sonia,” “Cassandra,” “So-So,” or “Akilah,” then everyone else could as well. And just about everyone did, because that was who I was and what I had chosen to be called. In my last year of school, I traveled to Nairobi, Kenya and lived for a while with a Masai family. Before I left the country, they inducted me into their family, giving me both a traditional Masai apron and a family name. After the ceremony, I sat with the mother and laughed as I told her that I already had too many names and that I really did not need another one. She shook her head and said, “You don’t have too many names, you have one name and that it was the one given to you by your parents.” All the rest of them, were mine to use or not but my name, the one that my father may have whispered in my ear, was the first gift that my parents had ever given me. I thought long and hard about what she said and about how important it was for me to finally know and claim not just my name but my life and my family history. I thought about my father and the conversation that we had right before I left for the continent. We went out for a short hike and he shared with me that  his dream had always been to go to Africa and since he could not go then I was going to go for both of us. He said that when our ancestors first arrived in America, they came as slaves, in chains and bound one to the other. They went forward without knowing what lay ahead of them. They were survivors and as such, we are survivors. It is something that comes as natural to us as breathing and being. We are descendants from people that chose to survive. “Since I can’t go to Africa,” he said very quietly, “I am sending them the next best thing. I am sending them you because you are my daughter and where you go I am there with you.”

Although I have never changed my name again, there are some people who do not know that my name is actually Karsonya, as they believe that it is Kaye. When I was in graduate school at the University of Notre Dame, I decided that I wanted to be a documentary filmmaker. My friends convinced me, one late night over tapas and gelato, that I needed an artistic nickname, something “funky” to go with my new image. I told them that I would not change my name but I would shorten it, so I started signing my films as “K. Wise.” The problem is that while I was living in New York nobody ever called me “K. Wise,” they called me “K.” and when they e-mailed me or wrote my name, they wrote “Kaye.”

My name is Karsonya and people are still free to call me that but everyone, including my husband and my family, calls me Kaye. I can always tell how long people have known me based upon what they call me when they first see me. And I answer to them all: to my South Carolina relatives, I am “Sunya;” to the folks from high school, I am “So-So” or  “Sonia;” to my friends from college, I am either “Karsonya,” or “Akilah,” or “Winnie” (which is another long story); and everyone who knows me from when I was working in film and television or from when I was working as a teacher or who have recently met me since I became a professor, calls me “Kaye;” but underneath all of that, I am still my fathers daughter. It is that name—the one that is both his and mine, the first gift that I have ever received—that will go on the cover of all of my books. It is my name and it is who I am and who I have chosen to be.

My dear sweet parents: Reverend Dr. Carson and Bonnie Wise

My dear sweet parents: Reverend Dr. Carson and Bonnie Wise

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