by Bruce Dunlavy             (My blog home page and index of other posts may be found here.)

In 1964, after winning the heavyweight boxing championship, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., announced that he had become a Muslim and had changed his name to Muhammad Ali. As Muhammad Ali, he became the most recognizable individual in sports and ultimately one of the most respected and beloved figures in the world. But in the United States, there have always been those who dislike or even downright detest him.

Ali took the boxing title from Sonny Liston, an ex-con who was himself extraordinarily unpopular because he had twice defeated the well-liked Floyd Patterson. But the brash, arrogant facade Ali wore publicly made him so divisive that even people who did not follow boxing formed an opinion about him during the years leading up to his first title bout. When he defeated Liston and announced that he was no longer Cassius Clay but Muhammad Ali, the already controversial champion immediately became even more controversial.

There are still plenty of people in the USA who don’t like Muhammad Ali one bit. I know some of them and, curiously, most of them refer to him as “Cassius Clay.” Is it because of his Muslim name? Apparently not, since these same people do not call Kareem Abdul-Jabbar “Lew Alcindor” or Ahmad Rashad “Bobby Moore.”

There must be more to it, and I suspect it is this: these are not young people, but old-timers who remember when Ali first came to prominence – a loud, assertive (dare we say “uppity”?) black man at the time when the Civil Rights Movement was dividing the country like nothing had since the Civil War. When he followed that with opposition to the equally divisive Vietnam War, Ali was solidified in American culture as an opponent of what mainstream America considered “the way things ought to be.” By the time of Abdul-Jabbar and Rashad, things had calmed down enough for people to accept the taking of Muslim names. And, besides, those men were, in the public mind, more likeable and better-behaved than the public persona adopted by Ali (which is actually very different from his private persona).

So what about those old-timers who cannot accept Ali’s name change? I suspect that their refusal to accept his name change is a manifestation of their refusal to accept his attitude and behavior.  It is as if, by identifying him with his old name, they are identifying him with the old concept of what behavior they expected.

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What does a person’s name say about him or her? Not very much, actually. Unless, like Ali or many actors, rappers, and international soccer stars, you chose your name yourself, it says little about you and a lot about the values of your parents.

Nevertheless, when asked, “Who are you?” we invariably answer with our name. Our name is so inexorably conflated with our identity that one defines the other. The flip side of “Who are you?” is “Who is [name]?,” the response to which is to point out the individual or, if not present, to give a description full enough that there can be no mistaking who is being connected to that name.

Here’s the key conceit: If you are your name, and your name is you, then if I can control your name I can control you. If I can establish some ownership of that which identifies you – indeed, is “who you are,” – then I have some ownership of you. In the USA before the Civil War, slaves were routinely assigned names by their masters. The same was true of servants in English households through the early Twentieth Century. Slaves and servants were not free-willed individuals, but under the dominion and control of those who ordered their lives, so the first thing taken away was the sense of self granted by determining one’s own name.

Consider the political opponents of President Barack Obama. Not those in the national spotlight, but certainly those at the corner diner or the club function, refer in casual conversation to “Obumma,” “Obummer,” or “Barry,” (the name he used as a young man, perhaps so saying it will conjure his immaturity), as if by diminishing his name, they can diminish him and his authority.

In the same way, opponents of the New Deal referred to Franklin Roosevelt as “Ruze-a-velt.” During the presidency of George Bush the Elder, his vice-president was Dan Quayle, and some of those who wanted to underscore his patrician origins and the supposed snobbery resulting therefrom sometimes referred to him by his given name, the snooty-sounding J. Danforth Quayle.

The 43rd president, George Bush the Younger, was well-known for assigning nicknames to everyone around him. In government service, where one is presumed not to be working for personal financial benefit, the medium of exchange is not money but power. Thus power over your name may confer or represent power over you. President Obama used name-control to take a jab at an entire organization when, at his 2015 State of the Union address, the seats reserved for media were placarded “CBS News,” “NBC News,” etc., except Fox News, which was just “Fox.”

This even goes on in international relations.  The nation of Burma officially changed its name to Myanmar in 1989, but many governments – including that of the USA – and large news media still call it “Burma” as a sign that they believe the government of Myanmar to be illegitimate.

I have a friend who – consciously or unconsciously – mispronounces the last name of almost everyone he knows. I suspect this is an effort to gain some control over the others he believes have too much influence on his life – maybe more influence than he has. Some years ago a member of the Ohio governor’s cabinet dealt regularly with a Federal government official who had an unusual name, which the cabinet member deliberately mispronounced because he knew it unsettled the Federal official. Whether he was seeking to gain an edge in negotiations by distraction or got some inner satisfaction from controlling the other’s name cannot be known.

In my favorite movie, Chinatown, Jack Nicholson’s character, J. J. Gittes, tries unsuccessfully to control the windstorm of events whipping around him, and his lack of ability to do so is metaphorically underscored by the repeated mispronunciation of his name. Everyone he deals with pronounces his name wrong, and no two pronounce it wrong the same way. Gittes seems not to notice or react, suggesting that he is not as aware of himself or his world as he thinks he is.

Like our possessions, our names are our own. In fact, they are more than our possessions. They are our identity as well as our identifiers. They are us. They are who we are. What are we to do with those who would deny us the proper use of our names? Are they thus denying us the right to our own identity, to our own selves?

What’s in a name? Apparently, quite a lot.