The Book of Benjamin
By Ben Robinson
Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use” begins with the protagonist, Mrs. Johnson, waiting for the arrival of her daughter Dee. Dee has been away at university in the city and is coming back to visit her mother at their family home in an unnamed town in the American south. Upon her arrival, Dee tells her mother that she will no longer go by “Dee,” the name given to her by her family, but will instead be known as “Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo.” For the remainder of the story, she is referred to by a combination of the two names with one or the other bracketed at any given time. When Mrs. Johnson inquires about the name change, Dee/Wangero explains to her mother that she “couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress [her],” to which her mother replies, “You know as well as me you was named after your aunt Dicie.”
I bring up “Everyday Use” here not because it is an exact analogue for my situation – my name refers more to the people who have oppressed than “the people who oppress me” – but because it has hung over this writing. I tried to avoid the story but it has been insistent about its inclusion, partially because it so perfectly encapsulates the two parts of a proper name outlined by Errol Morris: “the beliefs associated with it and what it refers to” – the specific/individual context and the broader socio-historical context.
When Dee/Wangero thinks about her name, she sees that broader socio-historical situation that led to the erasure of traditional African names by white slaveholders. When Mrs. Johnson sees the name, she thinks of the generations of women in her family who have both been oppressed and resisted that oppression.
My name refers to me. I am Ben. The name associates me on the specific level with my parents who chose it for me. It is meaningful in that it was given to me by my family. Ben is also a word that predates me and, as such, associates me with other Bens across space and time. This is the trap of language: that a finite number of letters which combine to create a finite number of words in a finite number of languages are not enough to capture the richness and complexity of experience – things which are not exactly alike will have to be called by the same name.
My name is a reminder of both the grounding nature of family and the insignificance of the individual in the context of the vast history of the universe. It is a marker of the inescapability of history and of context, a reminder that to be born into and named in a world which pre-exists us means that we begin signifying even before we take our first breath.
Ben Robinson is a poet, musician and librarian. In 2019 he published three chapbooks: Mumbles in Hollywood, California (Simulacrum Press), The Sims in Real Life (The Blasted Tree) and Talking Gibberish to Strangers (above/ground press).
He has only ever lived in Hamilton, Ontario on the traditional territories of the Erie, Neutral, Huron-Wendat, Haudenosaunee and Mississaugas. He is @bengymen on Twitter.