Illustration for article titled How Black Is it Not to Know the Real Names of Folks in Your Family? Possibly Ever.
Image: Panama Jackson

So, I have a question that’s been perplexing me that will illuminate some things, possibly about me and you, your momma and your cousin, too. I’m hoping that I’m not alone in this; in fact, I’m assuming that I’m not. The question is: How black is this?

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But there’s a sub-question here, too. You see, some things that we assume are black, also happen to be regional. You need a “for instance,” don’t you? Here’s a for instance: If you ask most folks what black folks’ food looks like, you get items like “quality” mac and cheese and things like collard greens. Down South, however, I know white people eat all of the same things. Collards aren’t just on the menu at black places. How do I know this? Because Paula Deen cooked all that shit. So what’s my sub-question? I’m glad you asked.

Is this black at all?

What am I even talking about? You’ll get it once I give it to you.

I am 40 years old. I will be 41 this year in June. I’ve been to college and my home has actual leather-bound books. It does not smell of rich mahogany, but that’s mostly because my wife loves scented candles and likes to burn several at a time.

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Anyway, I’m 40 years old and it wasn’t until last year, my 39th year on this planet, that I learned the real name of one of my uncles, who for my entire life I knew as Meefi. And it turns out that was wrong since I’ve never had to write his name down on anything. It turns out his nickname wasn’t even Meefi, it was Meatfeet. But we just said it like Meefi, which, again, also wasn’t his name. It turns out, my uncle’s name is Eugene. In my 39th year I learned that my Uncle Meefi, who is really Uncle Meatfeet, is actually my Uncle Eugene.

I wish I could say this is the only time this has happened, but the previous times just aren’t as egregious as a damn near 40-year ignorance.

Oh, how did I find out what his name was? I texted my mother asking her to ask him how to spell it because for some reason, I was riding in my car and that question hit me. It was then that my mother was like, “Oh, you mean Meatfeet? His real name is Eugene.” Realize, I only know this now because I asked because I had a random rumination.

Mind. Blown.

When I was younger—and this is on my father’s side—I found out that the names for which I’d been calling several of my first cousins weren’t actually their names, but nicknames. Now, this isn’t a big deal, lots of folks have nicknames. Panama is a nickname as well as a pen name. It just works; Panama is employed. I don’t know if that’s a pun or a double entendre. It matters now.

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For two of my cousins, in particular, I was in my late teens when I learned their real names. Thing is, I never had a reason to ask. For my whole life, when I called them by their nicknames, they answered. Their parents called them by those names as did my parents and the rest of our cousins. Upon finding out their real names, I was not only surprised at their names, but that it never even dawned on me that their names were nicknames. I suppose one of them should have tripped a wire, but we’re also black and a black family from Alabama. Where blackness lives, names happen.

True story: where my dad is from, he goes by his middle name and I didn’t know this, definitely, until I was almost 18. Every time we’d visit, his hometown folks would be asking for this person, or saying I looked just like this ghost person. Turns out, they were talking about my dad. I can’t tell if I was just oblivious, aloof, or if my dad should have said, “Yo, by the way, everybody calls me by my middle name here.”

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I just come from a nickname-loving family. One time, my father was telling me about family members and I swear it just sounded like he was listing off names of superheroes and stuffed animal but as it turns out, quite a few of my family members just went by nicknames. I even found one such nickname on Census records from, like, 1910. My great grandfather’s name was listed as Pony. True story. His name was not Pony. It was Jesse James. Which is not a nickname.

But Meatfeet is. Or Meefi. And it took me 39 years to find that out. Which made me wonder, do other cultures manage to operate entirely on nicknames? I know white people don’t have cousins which is, obviously, odd for me because I definitely have white cousins. I just don’t know if my white cousins have other white cousins; they definitely have black cousins though. Did your brain just explode? Mine did.

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So, um, how black is it to not know the real names of people in your family, possibly ever? Scale of 1 to Robert Johnson selling his soul to be the best guitar player ever (Vantablack in my book—it only gets blacker if he wants to be the best drummer of all time).

Inquiring minds would like to know.

Me. I’m inquiring minds.

Panama Jackson is the Senior Editor of Very Smart Brothas. He's pretty fly for a light guy. You can find him at your mama's mama's house drinking all her brown liquors.

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