By Joel Daniels @JoelakaMaG
Someone came up with the name, pickaninny. There’s a mountain in California. The mountain is named Pickanniny Buttes. Fortunately, no Black men were caricatured or murdered during it’s creation, at least to my knowledge.The origins of the word pickaninny, as most words that have taken shape over the centuries, is hard to trace or track. However, it’s most referenced usage comes in the form of the hapless African-American character Topsy in the 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Wikipedia lists at least seventeen examples of the term being used in popular American culture. Oddly enough, it’s also used as a chess term, describing the use of a black pawn. Convenient.
I am most interested in the naming of things; how give governance and rightful ownership to the purveyors, to those we credit with the gift for naming something an actual “thing”. Oddly enough, spellcheck doesn’t recognize “pickaninny” as a word. A sign, perhaps? Someone decided yes, nigger is the appropriate terms to describe a people, and then a large contingent, a largely popular grouping of people decided that the term should stick. Someone then decided to take the word, remove an -er from its ending, affix an “a” and by doing so, role reversed the shit out of the power dynamic that word once afforded those in positions to dictate the firmness in its meaning (or, at least, that’s what we thought). Who names, names? Hospital, Cleo, Spades, appropriation, Jimmy, dick, pussy, eggs, chicken. Names are titles, names are labels, but what do they mean?
What is in a name? Inside the linings of a story? I was born with a name, with a label. My mother named me Joel. Joel in Hebrew, (Yo’el) means “YAHWEH is God”. Joel was a prophet, the Old Testament version goes, the author of the Book of Joel, which describes a plague of locusts. In England, it was first used as a Christian name after the Protestant Reformation. My mother told me Joel means “comes from God”. My father, I was told, wanted to name me a “John”. I knew a John in kindergarten. John had to sit in the brown chair all the time it felt like because John was always in trouble. I was no prince, neither in the charming or fuck yo’ couch manner, but I knew then I was not a John.
John was an apostle in the New Testament. I know this because I have read the Bible before, before the summers of 90’s filled with hydrants on the brink of bursting. It was those early summers where I learned to distinguish the names of apostles, as well as the names of the sinners their tongues kept dry for. Interestingly, the name “John” is also the name of a man who solicits sex from streetwalkers. And, who knows? Perhaps the John in the beat-up Chevy with a hard-on for brown-skinned transgender women on Jerome Avenue may be a salesman, too, dabbling in the fine art of proselytizing. Maybe those John’s looking for magic in the mouths and open legs of sex strangers, are apostles as well. What is the context? Say I walk out into the street. Let’s choose a street. Let’s choose Hunts Point, the famed intersection in the Bronx made famous by HBO’s docu-series “Hookers at the Point”. Say I was out an indecent hour. We’ll choose an indecent hour to be sometime after midnight. We’ll choose after midnight, because ‘round midnight is all Coltrane, but after midnight in New York City is something else. Say after midnight in New York City, you are carrying a Bible, speaking words out of Genesis, trying to connect the dots for the sinners, which are all of us, based on what I’ve understood to be writing in the good book. And say, while connecting those dots, decked out in a suit fitted from the finest of sales racks, you just so happen to see someone, perhaps a woman, who proceeds to offer you a good time for all your soapbox spittle deliverances you are proffering for the small, one-time fee of deliverance, and you oblige this woman’s offer, what kind of John are you — apostle, or creep? What is the difference between a magician, a prostitute, a savior, a slave? All providing services, all with their own forms of payment, all with their own hidden contexts and meanings, depending on the receiver, the giver of said services, the time and place of the services both received and provided. Some may argue there is no difference. Some may argue, the name only means as much as the power we allot to it.
Some call me nigger. Some say nigga. Two letters change everything. Niger is a river. Negra in Spanish means Black. Negro is the masculine form. My brother calls me MaG. MaG was a former emcee alias. My mother would tell me MaG was a name that would not get me anywhere, that it was not the name I gave her. My name Joel is actually pronounced like Joe-elle.I have been called many a thing, at many different times, all meaning different things. Names are funny in that way. Names exist in different forms, in different tones and colors. And each name, depending on the speaker and with whom the name is being spoken to, who is being called by said name, will determine how it is received, how it is responded to. I have to go over the pronunciation of my birth name daily, normally. Caribbean, Latinx, Black people, they do not confuse the pronunciation of the name with the spelling of it. Jewish people, White people, pronounce the name like the Hebrew version. I am not Hebrew. But then again, we are all masterful versions of other selves, living and breathing through the labels society will affix upon us at a moment’s notice. And our names all exist as the tapestry of said selves, branding us with labels and affixing us in boxes and definitions long before a formal introduction is made.
Yasiin bey was Mos Def before we knew that Yasiin came before Mos. Jay-Zs real name is Shawn Carter. Shawn is an Irish baby name. Shawn, in Irish, means: God is gracious; gift from God. A gift is a present, but the present is also now. Now, is a gift, but not in the way one shares a boxed bracelet or sterling silver earring set. Etymology has so many beginnings, so many starts to something that leads to another story for a word, a phrase, a slur, a name. We name things. What are the beginnings of those names? Of the lives in them? How long is the story enfolded in the creek, the creases of those origins? There are no beginnings, much in the same way there are no endings, either. Names only have meaning if we associate meaning to them, context to them. So, what does that make me? What does that make us? If anything, that makes us real. And since, names much like anything else, begin and end with the creators of the names, the generators of the labels we attach to people, places, and things, that makes us human.
Joel L. Daniels is a writer, actor, father, emcee and dreamer, and story-teller, born and raised in the Bronx. He was the recipient of the Bronx Council of the Arts BRIO Award for poetry, and his work has been featured in the Columbia Journal, The Boston Globe, Thought Catalog, The Smoking Section, Blavity, Huffington Post, BBC Radio, RCRD LBL, URB, BRM, AllHipHop, The Source, RESPECT, and HipHopDX. He's spoken/performed at the Apollo Theater, Joe's Pub, Rockwood Music Hall, Columbia University, The National Black Theater, NYU, Webster Hall, Pianos, and Brooklyn Bowl.