What's in a name?

What’s in a name?

Last year, when I was working as a college professor in a teacher education department, I told my students (some of you were there!) about some little-known pioneers in the field that I had uncovered through my historical research.  As usual, I could barely keep from crying when I said out loud the names of the four African American women­—Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young—who were Philadelphia’s first Black kindergarten teachers (and as far as current scholarship tells us, also the first Black kindergarten teachers in the United States.)

What’s in a name?  Why did it feel absolutely essential to me that my students hear these names out loud?  That I speak them out loud?  Why did doing so bring up such powerful emotions?

I’m still figuring this out, but something in me knows that there are ways that names matter. 

There are ways that speaking a name—and speaking it correctly—matters. 

As I ponder this question of the importance of names, I think of a movie I saw—I’m not even sure what it was—in which a character shouted, “Say my name!”  I think of the cover of a book on my shelf that I haven’t even read yet;  it’s about the experiences of Black men and the title is “Speak my name!”  I think of a video I watched on Facebook recently in which multiple people shared the story of having their names consistently mispronounced—or worse, changed to “something easier” because they were viewed as being difficult to pronounce. 

I think about the fact that all my students know the name “George Washington,” but none know the names of the people I study who are mostly either women or African Americans, or both, and children.

One reason that my students know George Washington and not those I study is because he was famous and held a position that only a few have held over many decades. There is, after all, just one president at a time and thousands of teachers—but that not the only reason they know George Washington’s name and not the names of these four women. 

It’s about respect.  It’s about who is deemed important enough to make knowing their name important, and of course that is not disconnected from who has access to positions of power and influence.

As women and African Americans, these four women I mentioned had no shot at being president when Washington was elected.

Among a number of other roles, I am a historian and often I have felt ashamed of my tendency to spend time doing historical research.  It seems so impractical, so insignificant.  Compared to changing the world by reforming laws and societies in practical ways, what do I have to offer?  

Well, one thing I can do is uncover some names—and the stories of the lives they represent.

Historians of the past few decades have done a lot of work uncovering hidden stories, stories of those deemed unimportant…

·      stories of brown-skinned people in a culture that valued “whiteness,”

·      stories of women in a culture that has viewed the female sex as incapable of significant thought or leadership,

·      stories of children, whose activities and perspectives are consistently deemed trivial and insignificant in comparison to the activities of adults. 

This is work that I am proud to continue.

Because of my work I can say these names out loud—Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young, America's first Black kindergarten teachers.  I am so proud of these women, these pioneers of early education.

I can honor the lives and work of four women who, because of their race and their gender and perhaps also because of their vocation working with young children, were deemed “not worth remembering.” 

I can’t quite explain it fully yet, but somehow it matters. 

I encourage you to say their names— Annay Alger, Mamie Lindsey, Nettie Steward, Annie Young.

Then say your own name and claim your story as you do.

Here’s to thriving for equity,

Deb