Tell me the story of your name.
Every semester, in every new class, this is where I begin. I ask the students to share how their names came into being, what was desired for them before they were born.
My mother had chosen another name for me, but it was stolen by her sister. So now I have a cousin Lenika who’s done well by my old name, and my mother was forced to reinvent another.
When I asked Forrest Hamer to autograph his books, I had never seen anyone so upset about such a small mistake. We were at the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop where he was teaching and, like all the other students there, I became enamored with his work and unassuming nature, wanting nothing more than to spend the last few nights surveying his words. As he signed his books, he misspelled my name, and when I crossed out one letter for another, he apologized to no end. He held me there, despite the line forming behind us, repeating, “I’m so, so sorry about that. Names are important. Please let me take care of things.”
I was sorry to have pointed out the mistake in front of him, as he seemed so deliberate in showing each student deference and care. In addition to being a poet, he is a listener, a psychologist and psychoanalyst, the combination of which, he’d explain during our interview, were “twin efforts to discover mind through language merged.” He said: “You have to be an avid listener, as a psychoanalyst, and an intense kind of listening has to happen to be a poet as well.”
After the signing mishap, he offered to buy me another set of books and was sincere in this, though I refused. But the fact that he was willing to do so told me that he is a poet, and human, of shrewd watchfulness and deep compassion; he hears what’s singing in us and bears out our glory.
The first boys I fell in love with taught me to sing their names: Ronnie, Bobby, Ricky, and Mike, and especially Ralph, though he was singing lead and is left out of that particular refrain. New Edition, a group part Jackson 5, part pop-locking, falsetto-waving new R&B wonders. When I was four, my big cousins Delanya and Darveen—already in high school and too cool for most things—introduced me to New Edition, their walls plastered with Right On! magazine posters of the group, and my Walkman and heart were never the same.
When New Edition sang “Delicious,” a distant cousin to Stevie Wonder’s “Summer Soft,” love appeared before and after the storm. Their voices looped and faded to just the inner part of the verses and what’s almost unsayable lodged in the bursting heart. I played every New Edition cassette or album—my first record in my own collection was their third, All For Love—until the tape’s ribbon wore down under incessant rewinding or until the album skipped. If anyone had listened to the New Edition catalog back to front, they’d have known most of my giddy hopes, the love language I carried with me, my glittering fears.I ask the students to share how their names came into being, what was desired for them before they were born.
So, for a few weeks before I was married, I listened to Drake tracks looking for what my soon-to-be daughter found irresistible. I knew the deep love of boys singing soft and understood this was part of Drake’s appeal (and what others often criticized), but I was scouting what kept Sonsoréa in the constant haze of what was blasting from her headphones in the back seat of the car.
Her four-year-old brother, Michael, was easy-peasy. I gave him his space in the first few weeks his father and I began dating. One night while I was visiting them in Phoenix, a group of us—ten or so grandmothers (or soon-to-be mothers-in-law depending on your angle), aunts, cousins, sundry and all—were at Poncho’s Mexican Cantina, which I dragged them to three times a week.
Milling around the benches and palm trees in the outdoor area, we waited for our number to be called. Michael was across the lot intertwined with his grandmother, twenty or so feet away from where I stood laughing with his father. With no coaxing or warning, Michael wiggled out from under his grandmother’s arms and barrelled toward me. He didn’t say a word, put his hand in mine, and I became his favorite thing. Easy-peasy, this love, it needed no deciphering.
Sonsoréa was a lot more like I might have been after my parents divorced, if either had chosen to remarry. Respectful, kind enough, but on guard always. Like her, I, too, was wary of love in real life—not the kind New Edition told me was possible, but the falling-apart kind that was unbearable if people who were supposed to be grown up, responsible, didn’t actually know everything, even ruined things, barely listening to us or each other. At thirteen, my parents split up, I was the best soloist in middle school choir, and I met Sonsoréa’s father, years before she was ever imagined.
At the Callaloo Workshop, Hamer was quiet and observant. It seemed like most of the students there were extroverts or at least a bit eccentric, and he was just the opposite.* I worked with Natasha Trethewey and Hamer had another set of poets, but I remember—in the large forums where we’d all meet together—feeling like Hamer was “reading” us (maybe like patients?). He made us think of ourselves, and others, as individual critical beings. We were all fully invested in his heart and eye (as he was so “care/full,” as Lucille Clifton might have put it), and we hoped his keen observations would make us keener as well. By the end of the workshop, a hush would fall over the room every time he started to speak.
*Case in point: the night of the big student readings, we all gathered to hear the work we’d created during our time together. In lieu of a traditional introduction, I asked a favor of poet Douglas Kearney (who I’d taken to calling Big Brotha’ Doug and who’d taken to calling me Peaches). Doug was endlessly kind, unabashed, and had an immense repository of song lyrics, experimentation, and “for the culture” detours at the ready. So I asked him to simply go to the stage and belt out an a cappella rendition of the first verse of Das EFX’s “They Want EFX” to get the room hyped before I read a poem about my grandmother cooking meals for folks walking from Baltimore down to the March on Washington. Somehow, with all the quirky, whiz-kid Black writers in the room, it worked.
When I interviewed Hamer, he expressed that, as poets, we are “surrendering to the process of discovery through language” and that he hopes “by paying closer attention to what has been said we will be better able to say what has yet to be imagined.” But in his book Middle Ear, most of the poems start in the middle of quiet, loss. I question why he often mulls over what’s missing and he explained: “I’m half-deaf and the meanings of listening have been amplified by that fact of my constitution. It highlights the idea that there is more sound than one can hear—regardless of one’s capacity—and another that sound is both an exterior and interior matter.” He said, thinking about himself as a therapist and a reader, “I respond acutely to the tension between what is sounded and what is not, and I try to listen for presence and absence at once.”
What wasn’t said between myself and my daughter—who turned thirteen two days before I married her father—but what I’ve come to know for sure is: thank God for Beyoncé (a sentence many have uttered in these decades she’s graced us). If it weren’t for Beyoncé, another girl like us with an untraceable name, we wouldn’t have had much in common. What my daughter doesn’t say is plenty, so I must listen to the in-between.
Of course, a kid will never tell you you’re cool; you’re old, for heaven’s sake. If they did compliment you, you’d still make them clean their room, so what would the point be? And anyway, it was clear to the children, to anyone really, that I was on the nerdy side since I always had a book in hand. Sonsoréa wasn’t impressed until she discovered I, too, was a Beyoncé stan.He doesn’t run from who he is and is wise enough to know “Girls Love Beyoncé,” so we should give him credit for loving women who love the names they’re given.
Though I wasn’t fully convinced of Drake’s powers—as I would point out his dichotomy years later when I wrote the poem “Love in Stereo”—I was polite about him, as I knew half his appeal, at least to my daughter, was that he felt so openly. He was not infallible; love still hurt him. He turned up, but also longed for trustworthy others. She said, “His music is more of a journal than anything else,” and told me we could trust him because he went by his real name, more or less. He doesn’t run from who he is and is wise enough to know “Girls Love Beyoncé,” so we should give him credit for loving women who love the names they’re given.
A few weeks after her father and I were married, Sonsoréa found me on a deep dive of live concert clips on YouTube. She was shocked and pleased to discover I knew half the routines and all the lyrics, in their right order and pitch, to the songs in King Bey’s catalog. What Beyoncé does isn’t easy, though critics posit about her angle (But whose power is she enacting? Can we really call her a feminist?) and range. I was just grateful for joyous conversation with a teenager who said little but went back and forth excitedly about Beyoncé’s samples and footwork, outfits and lighting, how to reclaim our power and bodies, and the meaning of all our über-Black, made-up names.
Hamer and I turned to music briefly when I asked about the blues myths and mythos that appear throughout Middle Ear in poems like “Arrival” and “Crossroads.” He said he shunned the blues as a child, but living a bit more, growing up, gave him an acute understanding: “I could hear loss—of love, of hope, of security—in a way that let me hear the survival and the thriving implicit to the blues. So blues helped Middle Ear come into being with its repetitions, its worrying of lines, its holding of contradiction, its gut-uttering, and the meditation on what we do and do not bear to hear.”
With my daughter, and cousins, and girlfriends, I ruminated on this idea—this “survival and thriving implicit” to the creation of the thing—when Beyoncé released Lemonade. It’s not a blues album, it’s a hybrid of sorts; not pop, not straight-up soul. It’s an amalgamation of the embodied weight and wisdom of living: an accusation, a warning, a mingling of verse and reverb, what lies you’ve been told, and, despite this, what the body knows.
Beyoncé’s Lemonade appeared as I was researching my grandmother three times removed, born in 1859 and interviewed in 1937 for the Federal Writers’ Project slave narratives. The album was as much relief as distraction, which I was grateful for. My work was traversing the wider (gaping) spaces held in the Black women’s bodies I hold, and Lemonade was a deeply intimate and nuanced Black American women’s narrative, tackling what grandmother love is, daughter love, mother love, how to breathe life into what’s been broken, how to own your history, feast on it and birth what will carry you. This was what I was also looking to do, by tracing what my grandmother’s life might have been in those years after Jubilee, when the enslaved were freed.It’s an amalgamation of the embodied weight and wisdom of living: an accusation, a warning, a mingling of verse and reverb, what lies you’ve been told, and, despite this, what the body knows.
Looking for help finding variations of my grandmother’s surname, Fulkes (to date I’ve found twelve), I read thousands of names taken on by those reinventing themselves, then reinventing themselves and their futures, giving new, bold, and stylized names to their children. Many took last names like Rich, Sharpe, King, and Freeman (free man) as an ample starting place. But I am most taken by how they stake a new claim, naming daughters such embellishments as Season, Autumn, or Starling, signaling new beginnings, Revelia (Biblical, short for Revelation) or Iona (I own her), meaning This here God’s or This here mine or Make no mistake: this here both.
We go back to naming, legacy, and memory often in our house. When Sonsoréa was old enough to drive, like most teenagers (certainly like me at that age), she had surmised, for what felt to her like a long time, that someone’s world should revolve around her.
So I was not surprised when she began proposing I write a poem with her name as the title. A few times a year, I explained that “It doesn’t work that way. I’m not an ‘occasional’ poet per se. I don’t choose my muses; they choose me.” But, like most of what adults say that is out of line with teenage reasoning, these arguments were inconsequential to her.
I tried to appeal to her sense of justice to get me off the hook: “And what about your brother, Michael? Wouldn’t I have to write a poem for him too?” But she was sixteen and cared little about who might immortalize her brother. Besides, she argued, “He doesn’t have a very interesting”—I think the precise term she used was poetic—“name.” Touché.
My husband and I have just tested positive for COVID when Bey’s seventh album, Renaissance, drops during a summer heatwave. And it could be the meds, or that I’ve been quarantined to the back of the house for a week, or that the pandemic is dragging on mostly because of carelessness or selfishness or greed, depending on who you ask.
But by the time I make it past what I know will become my favorite track (“Cuff It,” a hardcore R and B funk jam), I am crying through her breathy delivery of “Plastic Off the Sofa,” an ode to her husband while my husband lays quietly beside me. I am moved to tears perhaps because I am so grateful to have some new joy to cling to as these recent years have given so little light. Maybe it’s because in the song Beyoncé reminds me that the world is too hard on all of us, and we must listen to our own fluttering, fearful hearts in the dark and unearth the wondrous, almost hidden good love of others despite this.
I’ll wake my daughter in the morning to ask her to make my husband and I breakfast and to kiss my grandson whose only love these days is dancing loud and wild in the living room, waiting out the distance from us. After my daughter has left what we’ve asked for on the tray outside our door, I’ll text to find out which tracks kept her up last night, what Beyoncé will name for us with her unapologetic creation this time.
Excerpted from Soul Culture: Black Poets, Books, and Questions That Grew Me Up by Remica Bingham-Risher (Beacon Press, 2022). Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.