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    What’s in a Name?

    By Jewelle Gomez–

    When Juliet asks Romeo, “What’s in a name?” her implication is that a name is just words that carry no weight. Well, we know how that turned out!

    For African Americans in the U.S., names have been the scarlet letters reminding many that we are disconnected from our heritage and are the property of other humans. Thus, Malcolm Little liberating himself became Malcolm X. Naming has been used similarly against women. A girl would bear her father’s surname until she married when it was expected that she would take on her husband’s surname. This rendered a female economically invisible—no credit cards, no mortgages, etc.—except when under the shadow of a male relative; at least until recently.

    During the second wave of feminism in the 1970s and ‘80s, activists interrupted that tradition. Some women, especially those with careers, attached their husband’s name to their own or just maintained their “maiden” names after marriage. (This discussion always reveals laughably archaic terms like “maiden.”)

    With feminism, it was exciting to consider how we might change the course of our lives by dropping paternal references and adopting a matronymic name or one related to the earth. A woman, Mary Smith, could honor her mother by becoming Mary Maychild. Mainstream magazines and television often derided such changes as laughable; with the same arrogance of people in the U.S. who don’t want to bother learning names with “too many” vowels. Still, the practice of self-naming continues.

    In the 1980s when I still lived on the East Coast, I read the work of Elana Dykewomon and admired her writing as well as the creativity it took to adopt a name that was sure to be reviled in mainstream culture. In a recent interview with The Jewish News ( ), Elana said, “I figured if I called myself Dykewomon, I would never get reviewed in The New York Times. Which has been true.”

    With or without a NYT review, Elana Dykewomon (1949–2022) had a phenomenal career as a novelist, poet, teacher, philanthropist, and activist. Her book Beyond the Pale remains one of the most significant novels about early 20th century Jewish women immigrants. When leading a poetry workshop, I always use her poems because of their precise language and rich emotionality.

    When we finally met in the early 1990s, I was a bit intimidated as femmes sometimes are in the company of butches who are lightning rods for straight society’s disdain. So, there I was with my same old patronymic name (carrying not only my father’s surname, but also his first name!) and Elana having taken on the world!

    The culture’s stereotype of the grim feminist might have infected even me, but it dissolved when we met. Elana and I became dear friends who shared our writing and political hopes with ease and laughter. We regularly used to have lunch at MoMo’s across from the Giants’ ballpark because it seemed like a halfway point between her home in Oakland and my then home in San Francisco. I loved sitting near the huge heart painted to look like a martini olive as we reviewed the state of world politics and the state of our current literary projects with equal fervor.

    Her name embodied all that Elana was committed to in her activism and her literary life: the liberation of women from patriarchal shadows and the autonomy of lesbians in a world that fears us. In taking her name Elana, she inspired other activists and drew to her a family of women who loved her for many years. As her health failed, they cared for her with the tenderness and strength that befit the name Dykewomon. The early Chinese philosopher Confucius said: “If names are not correct, language will not be in accordance with the truth of things.”

    Jewelle Gomez is a lesbian/feminist activist, novelist, poet, and playwright. She’s written for “The Advocate,” “Ms. Magazine,” “Black Scholar,” “The San Francisco Chronicle,” “The New York Times,” and “The Village Voice.” Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @VampyreVamp

    Published on August 25, 2022