I made peace a long time ago with having a first and last name which could be interchangeable. While I have never regularly gone by “Joseph” for most of my life, a few years ago and in the professional arena, I started to try on my full, given first name as an alternate for “Joe”. I’ve always been “Joe” and have never been “Joey”, even when I was really young. I feel that “Joe” fits me: direct, monosyllabic, and easy to read and pronounce. The only times I can recall being called “Joseph” was either when I was in trouble, in which case my entire string of names would come out, or by my beloved grandmother. I am still sometimes addressed as “Dennis”, however, with a frequency that puzzles me.
I might have been in only the second or third grade when I learned that a comma separating two names in a list meant that the first name I read was that person’s surname. “Dennis, Joseph” was how my name was going to appear on the attendance sheet when the teacher took a roll call in the morning. How is it, then, that working adults of (presumably) at least average intelligence reading or responding to an e-mail from me mistake “Dennis” for my first name? I don’t find this offensive, but just baffling. There will also always be individuals who will deliberately try to irk me by calling me “Dennis” and acting like it’s oh, so confusing for them to figure out which name is my first and which is my last, to which I often choose simply not to engage. I’ve sometimes even signed off returned correspondence as “Dennis” in such cases almost as if to convey how unbothered I am by this, even if I’m secretly annoyed.
I was blessed with coming from a background that is not only multiracial, but multi-cultural, as my father was from the western African nation of Liberia. (My mother’s side of the family identifies as being primarily of German and Irish extraction.) Every time I look at my drivers’ license, I’m reminded of this fact by the representation of no less than six names on it, all of which were sourced from family. One of my middle names is purely Anglo in origin, but the other three are tribal names from my dad’s side which, while easy for me to spell and pronounce, are challenging for pretty much everyone else.
When I was growing up, one of my parents would give a presentation on Liberia in the gymnasium of my elementary school for “Culture Day”, dressing me in a country cloth or batik print dashiki and hat. At some point, I’d be asked to stand in front of the gym and pronounce my entire, legal name for the whole school (and it really was everybody, inclusive of all grades, teachers, and students). I became accustomed to people asking me to repeat my full name at least three or four times, with requests for me to go progressively slower with each repetition. Other students didn’t have to do this, and I suppose it was because of my father’s status as both an immigrant and a college professor that my family was given special attention that day.
The bus ride home that day would seem to be filled with echoes of butchered variations on what the other kids had thought my name sounded like, and also with snickering about slides they had just seen with “naked boobies” in them, as I sat on those hard, flat seats upholstered in industrial grade vinyl. As a kid, I had sadly started to become embarrassed by my connection to my father’s culture and had felt violated by being forcibly put on display in my school for the other kids (White, Black, Latinx, Asian, etc.) to pick apart, some of whom not only didn’t appreciate my string of west African tribal names, but found them funny sounding and sourced them for nicknames I didn’t like. I later grew to cherish every letter of each of my names as one significant part of my heritage and identity as a modern, authentic American.
Switching gears, let’s take a poll. The last time you saw an example of one of these specialty Italo-American Chryslers from the late 1980s, did the correct nomenclature of “Chrysler’s TC by Maserati” roll off your tongue? Be honest. Did you remember the apostrophe in “Chrysler’s”? It’s right there on the left portion of the trim panel on the trunk. It does seem like a lot to say for this little two-seater, and having said what I did about my six, legal names, I identify somewhat with both this car’s unusual naming as well as its cross-continental heritage. This grand tourer was the brainchild of Lee Iacocca, though, so you know it was going to be extra in every way, including its name. In fact, when you think about this car, can you imagine it with a model name that’s the equivalent of “Joe”, “Jane”, “Bob”, or even “Jennifer”? (All great names, by the way.)
There was really nothing else I felt like adding to the vast canons of factual information available on this storied model, which ultimately fell short of expectations. I’ll go on record as saying I like them, and I still have in storage somewhere the brochure I took of one from the North American International Auto Show in Detroit from 1987. Back then, I thought it was breathtaking, and to my eyes, it still looks good today. Make an effort to try to say its name correctly the next time you seen one. And whatever you do, do not call it a “LeBaron” – which I’m sure many people did and still do. I’m sure that like I’m accustomed to being addressed as “Dennis”, this owner of this TC has heard it all before.
Edgewater, Chicago, Illinois.
Saturday, April 3, 2021.