Several Republican politicians have recently made a point of mocking Vice President Kamala Harris’ name. At his mid-October rally, former Georgia Senator David Perdue, at the time in a runoff election with Jon Ossoff, intentionally mispronounced the vice president’s name: “Kamala, or Kamala-la, or Kamala-la-la.” Perdue’s disrespect for Harris’ identity is made clear by his mockery. To Americans of color, and specifically Black Americans, an identity is a precious thing; it is something that we had to reclaim and rebuild after it was stolen from our ancestors during enslavement 250 years ago. When they mispronounce Kamala Harris’ name, white politicians attempt to deny her humanity.
For Black Americans, names have a long history of denying individuality and enforcing control. It was common during the Antebellum period for white slave masters to decide on new names for their slaves, stripping away and erasing Afrocentric identities. Between 1629 and 1799, the most common names for enslaved women were Bet, Mary, Jane, Hanna, Betty, Sarah, Phillis, Nan, Peg, and Sary. Sometimes, enslaved women were even named after animals — Cow, Horse, Pig. Today, to be a Black American and to name a Black child is to reclaim a sense of individuality and basic humanity that was once stolen. To be white and to intentionally pronounce a Black person’s name incorrectly, is to deny them their identity and cultural memory.
“Names are precious,” Harris said in an interview with Trevor Noah, a popular comedian and political satirist. “Names are one of the greatest gifts your family can give you; the first gift that a child usually when they enter the earth receives from their family. It is usually informed by tradition, and love, and the hope and aspiration the family has for that child. It is something precious and sacred, and it is a part of their identity.”
Although African cultures are diverse and varied, there is a pattern regarding how names are valued and interpreted. Harris alludes to a spirituality that binds most African people together, and guides their physical existence. In the African cultural worldview, the essential ingredient and essence of everything, including humans, is spirit. For most Africans, your name is your soul and has celestial powers. For example, the name Ade originates from Nigeria and means “royal.” Eshe, a traditional Swahili name means “life” and “energy.” Names are more than title signifiers; they are pieces of a larger memory, a greater spirit at large. The practice of renaming enslaved African Americans was an active and violent erasure of parts of their culture, and worked to decompose Black people’s connection to Africanism. Kamala Harris is right: Names are precious.
My name is Elson Amiri Nash. However, I have always been called Amiri. My father’s name is Elson, and so is my grandfather’s. That my family was able to pass it down through generations to me has given me a sense of strength and belonging I cling to. My parents named me Amiri, a name of Swahili origin meaning “princely,” because they wanted me to know I was their prince, and had domain over my life. It was a gift that they gave me.
Likewise, Kamala’s parents in naming her gave her a gift of identity and meaning. Harris’ mother was from India, and her father is of African descent from Jamaica. ‘Kamala’ means “lotus” or “pale red” in the Sanskrit language. The lotus flower is a cherished symbol across multiple Eastern traditions. Growing naturally in ponds, the lotus starts out rooted deep in mud and scum. In order to blossom, it must make its way through the murky water until it finally breaks the surface. In time, it emerges and blooms in the sun, beautiful and whole. Because of its unique transformation, the lotus has long been regarded as a symbol of enlightenment, purity, rebirth, and triumph over obstacles.
Anyone who intentionally stumbles over or pokes fun at Harris’ name ignores its bond to a legacy of triumph and light. Worse still, Kamala Harris’ name isn’t even hard to pronounce. There is a video of children explaining how to pronounce her name. But even if it were, the highest elected officials in this country, the people who we elect as our role models, guiding leaders, and representatives, should have the competency and decency to learn how to pronounce it correctly.
When you think about pronouncing Kamala, or any BIPOC (black/indenious/person of color) person’s name incorrectly as a joke, know that their name is more than just a name. Names are not simply the way we identify others, but rather also have deep ties to soulfulness and cultural history. Names are a form of identity that were once stolen from us as Black Americans. Names are a way of reclaiming freedom and self. Names are a gift. Names are power. So no, President Trump, it is not ku-mah-la, ka-ma-lala, or anything else along those lines. It’s comma-la. Kamala. And it is not her job to correct you. Like a lotus, she has shown us that we can triumph over obstacles; sprouting out of the deep mud and scum to bloom and shed light.