What’s in a Name
An Excerpt from
I’m Still Here: Loving Myself in a World Not Made for Me (Adapted for Young Readers)
Austin Channing Brown
Paperback: Convergent Books, 2023
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I love being Black. And yet, when I was a kid, white people liked to inform me that my skin color didn’t matter. Teachers. Counselors. Coaches. Principals. All were eager to assure me of my own invisibility. It was weird because they also all used the same words to explain it to me. I sometimes wondered if there was some secret video being passed around that told them what to say. If I had to create a playlist for these conversations, these would be the hit songs:
Track 1: “I Don’t Even See Color” by the Racially Color-Blind
Track 2: “Character, Not Color” by Misquoting MLK
Track 3: “You Could Be Black, White, Green, or Purple” by Utopian Daydreams
Track 4: “We Are All the Same” by the Well-Intentioned
By the time I was eight, I had heard all these “songs” over and over again. But the common refrains didn’t ring true to me, because in the same school where everyone said race didn’t matter, people often looked at me funny. Teachers looked at me funny. Librarians looked at me funny. Other kids looked at me funny. Parents of other kids looked at me funny. If my skin color didn’t matter, why were people always eyeballing me?
For a while, I thought it was because I have a name that is considered a boy’s name. Every first day of school began the same way. I bounced into class, giddily greeting classmates I hadn’t seen all summer. We settled down when the teacher stood up to begin roll call.
When she got to my name, Austin, I raised my hand and kept it raised as the teacher scanned the boys in the class. When none of them moved, we watched the worry climb her face, concerned that a student was missing on the first day. She repeated herself: “Austin?”
Hand still raised, I’d tilt my head to the side.
“Yes?” she’d ask.
“Here,” I would say.
“Excuse me?” she would respond, looking at me funny.
“Here,” I would say. “I’m here.” If we had been in a TV show, crickets would’ve started chirping at this point.
“My name is Austin, and I’m here.” I would enunciate every word, giving it time to sink in.
The funny look would linger for a moment longer, then disappear.
“Oh, yes, of course! Thank you, Austin. Emily, are you here?” And she would continue on, letting her moment of utter confusion pass without comment.
By the time I was seven, I’d grown used to white people giving me funny looks. But I was stunned to learn the full reason why.
In my family we went to the library every few days. We checked out so many books at a time, we would find them hiding on the car floor, between the cushions of the couch, or under the mail on the dining table. My mom, little brother, and I all had our own library cards, but we weren’t selfish with them. We were always searching for the card with the lowest fines owed. Whichever card would release more treasures into our temporary possession was the winner.
One day we were visiting the library in our neighborhood, the one with an outdoor courtyard in the middle. I stood in line by myself to check out a stack of books. When I reached the front, I slid the librarian my stack and plopped a library card on top.
She scanned my card and frowned at the screen. Most librarians were impressed with the fines we owed; it usually led to a joke about doing our duty to keep the library funded. She did not smile. Instead, she asked, “Is this your card?”
I paused for a second, not entirely sure. I thought I handed her mine, but it was definitely possible that it was my mom’s or my brother’s. I nodded slowly, but she noticed my hesitation and filled the silence.
“Are you sure?” she repeated. “This card says Austin.” And then came the funny look.
Hmm. Another person who thought I would be a boy.
“Yes, that’s my library card,” I responded, with confidence this time. I waited for her to start stamping my books.
She didn’t move. Her furry eyebrows met as she squinted at me. She asked again, this time stretching out the syllables the way adults do when trying to give you a chance to take back a lie: “Are you suuurrrre this is yooouuuurrr card?”
Now I was annoyed. I resisted the urge to hold up the line by reading each book in my pile out loud, proving I probably knew my own name. But deep down, I knew she wasn’t questioning my literacy. I just didn’t fully understand what she was questioning.
“My name is Austin,” I stated, staring back at her. “That is my library card.” This time I didn’t move a muscle, daring her to ask me a fourth time.
She didn’t. She stamped my books and called, “Next.”
I was heated. I marched over to my mother, dropped my stack of books onto a nearby table, and demanded to know why she had named me Austin. (I have always had a slight flair for the dramatic.) My mother let out a soft chuckle but quickly stifled it. She could tell I wasn’t kidding; I wanted answers. She began recounting the story of my family lineage and how the last name Austin became my first name.
But I cut her off, “Momma, I know how you came up with my name, but why did you choose it?”
The amusement drained from her face as she walked me over to a set of green armchairs. She started talking in a slow, smooth voice. “Austin, your father and I had a hard time coming up with a name that we both liked. One of us thought to use your grandmother’s maiden name, because that would make you the final Austin of that family line.”
Excerpted from I’m Still Here (Adapted for Young Readers) by Austin Channing Brown. Copyright © 2023 by Austin Channing Brown. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Katie Selby is Associate Editor of The Englewood Review of Books. Prior to her family‘s recent transition to the Englewood Christian Church community, Katie served various churches and organizations in Nebraska, East Tennessee, India, and Ethiopia. She is an M.Div. graduate of Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan University.
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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