Published on Academy of American Poets (https://poets.org)


Give Your Daughters Difficult Names

Assétou Xango performs at Cafe Cultura in Denver.


“Give your daughters difficult names.
Names that command the full use of the tongue.
My name makes you want to tell me the truth.
My name does not allow me to trust anyone
who cannot pronounce it right.”
      —Warsan Shire

Many of my contemporaries,
role models,
But especially,
Ancestors

Have a name that brings the tongue to worship.
Names that feel like ritual in your mouth.

I don’t want a name said without pause,
muttered without intention.

I am through with names that leave me unmoved.
Names that leave the speaker’s mouth unscathed.

I want a name like fire,
like rebellion,
like my hand gripping massa’s whip—

I want a name from before the ships
A name Donald Trump might choke on.

I want a name that catches you in the throat
if you say it wrong
and if you’re afraid to say it wrong,
then I guess you should be.

I want a name only the brave can say
a name that only fits right in the mouth of those who love me right,
because only the brave
can love me right

Assétou Xango is the name you take when you are tired
of burying your jewels under thick layers of
soot
and self-doubt.

Assétou the light
Xango the pickaxe
so that people must mine your soul
just to get your attention.

If you have to ask why I changed my name,
it is already too far beyond your comprehension.
Call me callous,
but with a name like Xango
I cannot afford to tread lightly.
You go hard
or you go home
and I am centuries
and ships away
from any semblance
of a homeland.

I am a thief’s poor bookkeeping skills way from any source of ancestry.
I am blindly collecting the shattered pieces of a continent
much larger than my comprehension.

I hate explaining my name to people:
their eyes peering over my journal
looking for a history they can rewrite

Ask me what my name means...
What the fuck does your name mean Linda?

Not every word needs an English equivalent in order to have significance.

I am done folding myself up to fit your stereotype.
Your black friend.
Your headline.
Your African Queen Meme.
Your hurt feelings.
Your desire to learn the rhetoric of solidarity
without the practice.

I do not have time to carry your allyship.

I am trying to build a continent,
A country,
A home.

My name is the only thing I have that is unassimilated
and I’m not even sure I can call it mine.

The body is a safeless place if you do not know its name.

Assétou is what it sounds like when you are trying to bend a syllable
into a home.
With shaky shudders
And wind whistling through your empty,

I feel empty.

There is no safety in a name.
No home in a body.

A name is honestly just a name
A name is honestly just a ritual

And it still sounds like reverence.

Credit


Copyright © 2017 Assétou Xango. Used with permission of the poet. Published in Poem-a-Day on June 9, 2020. 

About this Poem


“This poem does not technically have a title, but it has been circulated under the opening line ‘Give Your Daughters Difficult Names.’ This opening line is a quote by Warsan Shire, a poet who I truly admire and highly recommend. This poem is in direct response to conversations I had after taking on a name that was more representative of my heritage than the name I was given at birth. I quickly noticed a connection between the alienation of non-white people and the disdain for having to learn the pronunciation of my new name. This connection is something I continue to explore. This poem urges you to explore it with me.  

Pay attention to the words used by the media to address certain bodies and skin tones. Pay attention to the words that arise for you and how they may be tainted by a conditioning of White Supremacy. How does this language relate to the violence we are seeing against black bodies? How does it relate to the cages and treatment of our fellow humans at the border? How is it used by the American Government to incite fear or violence? If you take away nothing else, I want you to remember that violence never starts with violence. It always begins with a callous word or a shrug of indifference.”
Assétou Xango

Author


Assétou Xango

Assétou Xango is a poet and community activist. They were the poet laureate of Aurora, Colorado, from 2017-2019.

Date Published: 2017-06-01

Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/give-your-daughters-difficult-names