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Daddy holding me and welcoming me to the world on the day I was born.

Daddy holding me and welcoming me to the world on the day I was born.

My parents chose authentic names for me. The first one meant “the powerful one”. The middle name meant “the perfect one”. I was the only girl in the family, and naturally felt that this was the optimal position with which to have ample influence. That I was bossy, articulate, and unapologetically right most (read: all, from my girlhood perspective that is) of the time contributed greatly to things going my way.  Ultimately, I felt my name’s combined meaning, “of perfect power”, was more than appropriate for who I was be(come)ing.

My father chose the first name, Erika. My middle name, like all our middle names, was an African name, Kamillah. And my last name was also accented on another “K” sound. Early on, the triple “kuh” effect in my name fascinated me. It was so intensely important to me that people spell my name correctly, that I often introduced myself as “Erika-with-a-K”, as if it was one word. Countless awards, trophies, and certificates were sent back for replacements because they’d written the wrong name down. It perplexed me even more when other peers weren’t disturbed by seeing their misspelled names in writing. Something about the finality of ink on paper made the proper rendering of my name an urgent matter of self determination. I didn’t know it then, but all these botherations were preparing me to understand certain nuances about my process as an artist later in life.

I wore Erika well. I felt great pride in being named for power, and not something banal, like beauty or grace, of which I felt I had a deficiency. Underneath my mask of control, I secretly longed to be more beautiful– it did not matter that my father called me “Beauty Girl” everyday, because I knew he had to say such things– with lighter skin, longer, less-nappy hair, and a flat stomach. All this I prayed for one night, but in the morning when I saw God was unresponsive, I realized that I had been wisely named for something far better and certainly more attainable. In Erika I had great breath and freedom to excel. To be excellent. To be intelligent, which was how I perceived power as a child.

Being smart was everything to Erika, who struggled miserably with summer camp, the french horn, drawing, the bicycle, roller skates, and the swimming pool. But gifted and talented, accelerated mathematics, the honor roll, 1st place science fairs, and bible trivia competitions were all mine for the taking. When I turned ten my birthday gift was a set of school supplies. I was genuinely ecstatic with my large, purple, fabric-covered notebook, packet of blue and black Bic pens, and brightly-colored, spiral-bound notepads. (My birthday was usually on or around the first day of school. But still, that’s a bit extreme, right?) Erika was brilliant, and brilliance created more power. It also enabled a sense of entitlement to all things considered “above and beyond” in life. And it was in this spirit of being the first (in my family) to go so far, that I announced to my parents in the fall of my junior year that Erika was going to Ghana for a semester.

It didn’t occur to me to ask for permission; it rarely did. I had found the perfect program. This was a chance to expand my horizons, learn new languages, see “the world”– and it incurred no extra tuition burdens. What could my parents have said no to anyway? So with their blessings, too many clothes, generic malaria pills, and more prayers from them than I’d ever be able to fathom until becoming a parent myself, I left what was home. And by doing so, made an irreparable tear in the understanding of who I was.

My parents drove me to New York for the departing flight on a very cloudy day in early February of 2003. Walking through the security gates at JFK airport, I felt equal parts terror and excitement as the distance between our waving hands grew greater. With each step, I sensed I was leaving something else other than just the United States. Something I could not yet articulate was beginning to come undone. The slow, inevitable unraveling of my be(come)ing. The one that had been so lovingly, and so perfectly woven together as Erika, who was, up until then, complete.

~~~

This essay is a part of the Be(come)ing “Binahkaye Joy” collection which tells the story of my name. Explore this collection and other conversations on identity in the Of Roots & Rivers: Mapping Mutable Identities series. 

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