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The power of names

SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:

Every week at this time, we bring you a podcast we love from the NPR network. Today, we're sharing an excerpt from Ten Thousand Things, a podcast from member station KUOW. In many Chinese sayings, the phrase 10,000 is used to convey something vast, unfathomable. Ten Thousand Things, the podcast, highlights ordinary objects that tell us something about the Asian American experience, from a secondhand novel to a blue suit. Shin Yu Pai is the podcast host and the civic poet of Seattle. Sometimes, the show takes poetic liberties with what counts as an object. In today's excerpt, the object is a name.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "TEN THOUSAND THINGS")

EBO BARTON: My name is Ebo Barton.

SHIN YU PAI, BYLINE: People young and old take new names for many reasons - among them, marriage, immigration, and to make a name easier to say for those who can't pronounce it.

BARTON: Ebo Gemilla Graham Barton.

PAI: You may have a special Burning Man moniker or a name from hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or a name given to you in the military. In my own extended family and culture, many of my female cousins altered their given names by adding or removing a single stroke to the Chinese character depicting their name to mitigate the bad luck that plagued them. This cultural practice is called the rectification of names.

BARTON: By day, I am the director of housing services at a nonprofit called Lavender Rights Project.

PAI: Other times, a name may just feel like it doesn't fit.

BARTON: And by any other time, I'm a poet and cultural worker in Seattle.

PAI: Some of us make the choice to make a name change official, shed what doesn't fit. What we are called can become a dead name, something that is retired, as if the identity that went with that name has moved on and beyond, to a distant shore.

BARTON: So as a transgender person, I came out in public, and my journey has been documented in that way because of how public I've been about all of my identities. So it kind of gives me this privilege to be able to change my name publicly as well with no shame. But I think that a lot of transgender folks don't have that same privilege 'cause we just don't live in a world where it's safe to do that yet. Like, we don't all get to talk about the journey with our name. It's just - it's really cool that I get to talk about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAI: Ebo Barton never identified with the name that their mother gave to them.

BARTON: My mother named me Carmella Lynn (ph). And, you know, I've always sort of hated this name. I never felt this name was mine.

PAI: They tried to cut it down to a shorter version and to change it entirely.

BARTON: You know, I noticed that a lot of people in my life cut their names down to, like, the first part of their names. And so I was like, oh, well, I can be Car. And then in my child brain, I was like, well, that's not interesting enough. I want to be Motor Home. And so I told people to start calling me Motor Home for some reason. And so it was this constant, like, feeling of this name that just - I could not figure out.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAI: In choosing our names, our parents come with the best of intentions. Some spend months looking at long lists of baby names. My husband and I went back and forth for months over the symbolism and qualities behind each potential moniker when thinking about how we'd name baby Pai-Bergman.

BARTON: Carmella was - it was the character that one of her favorite Filipino actresses played, and it was a villain. And I think that I've always hated this story. I was like, why would you name me after the villain?

PAI: I also have a birth name which I don't go by, and my father named me after an American actress and celebrity, Doris Day.

BARTON: Oh, yeah.

PAI: Yeah. It's interesting that Carmella was this villain. My father gravitated to Doris Day because she was, like, this, you know, kind of wholesome, you know, like, all-American kind of thing. And...

BARTON: Yeah.

PAI: ...Just, you know, like, what they gravitated towards or saw as kind of cultural icons.

BARTON: Yeah.

PAI: That's really interesting to me.

BARTON: Really interesting. And, yeah, like - and I also wonder if it's the character that they played that inspired the name, or is it the homage to the actual person?

PAI: Sure.

BARTON: Yeah.

PAI: (Laughter) Can we ever know?

BARTON: Right. Exactly.

PAI: To their family, they were Ella (ph), an abbreviated version of Carmella.

BARTON: I definitely tried to identify with it more just because it wasn't that full weight of the name. I felt more comfortable in my skin with that version.

PAI: A name is one outward marker of an identity. Other markers of Ebo's identity also telegraph complexity. Ebo is a transmasculine, nonbinary person, and they're Filipino and Black.

BARTON: I've brought a lot of Filipino culture to my Black identity, but I also think that I've brought a lot of my Black identity to my Filipino side.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAI: Being mixed race isn't easy as a kid. Mixed-race children may not always see the world reflected back to them. Ebo struggled with being enough just the way that they were. They were viewed as the Black kid by the Filipino side of their family and as the Filipino kid to the Black side of their family. Ebo felt conscious of having to perform their identity, prove that they belonged to the culture.

BARTON: I remember being in Disneyland, and a Filipino family was behind us. And me and my sister had braids in our hair. And they were talking in Tagalog about us, talking about, you know, when they have hair like that, they don't shower and kept saying all of these terrible, terrible things. And without thinking, because this is also my language, I turned around - I'm 8 years old - I turn around. I'm like, that's not true. No, you're not. And it was just this shame that they felt, obviously, and they left the line. But oftentimes, it was not as easy as explaining that to folks. That was definitely a scarring moment for all of us, where it was just like, oh, even - you know, like, even if we speak the language, you're still not seeing us for who we are.

PAI: Ebo's relationship with language became a place for deep liberation. Ebo found creative writing. And through diving into the written and spoken word, they were able to explore their identity, speak it aloud and into being, like an act of magic or conjuring.

BARTON: I was the youngest in my family, very confused about race and ethnicity and identity and gender. And writing, what I discovered was if I made it sound pretty enough, everyone wanted to listen to me.

PAI: But literature classes didn't provide the models that Ebo needed to stretch their imagination fully.

BARTON: In high school, I wasn't really exposed to a lot of poetry in the classroom except from, you know, old, dead, white guys that I didn't care about. So I thought that I invented spoken word when I was, like, 14. And I was like, no, my poetry is different. It needs to be said out loud. It was this idea that I did want to share because this poetry had to be read out loud. I just didn't have the resources or access to do that.

PAI: An identity is created over time. You may think you have a handle on who you are, but that person evolves. As a young person, Ebo connected more with their Asian side, through food, language and family. But that changed when Ebo left home and joined the military, where they were seen as solely Black.

BARTON: You were either Black or white in the Navy, in my opinion. And so that's when I had to figure out, like, what this was and how it works out, and depending on what environment I'm in, like, who am I going to identify with, or how will someone perceive my identity?

PAI: Not having to think about how we're perceived or seen is not a right afforded to everyone. Ebo was aware from a very young age of stereotypes and judgments directed towards them, and these misperceptions showed up everywhere, from the magical kingdom of Disneyland to the U.S. Navy.

BARTON: So I was in the Navy during the Don't Ask, Don't Tell. A lot of parts of my LGBTQ identity were hidden because I just didn't want to deal with whatever was going to come. That particular policy wasn't enforced across the board in the same way and with the same people, and so there was always this fear of, I could be the example that they set, so I'm just not going to engage with that part of my life at all. So it's sort of this removing the titles, removing the mask of all these things that I am so that I can just be serving the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAI: But while Ebo struggled to feel at home in their skin and in their name, they found something else - a place to belong. They found the Seattle poetry slam scene.

BARTON: Back then it was in the Fremont neighborhood. And I showed up, and it was this whole magical community of writers that wanted to know what you were doing and how you were doing it and, you know, like, conversing with each other about their next work.

PAI: Were there other poets of color in that group?

BARTON: Yeah, very much so, and they were excited to see me, which was also the, like, most exciting 'cause usually I feel like, in predominantly white spaces, we become each other's competition. And so I walked in, and it was immediately, like, who are you? What's your name? Like, hang out with us.

PAI: Shared love of words evolved into a community of like-minded people, a community that surrounded and supported Ebo and their creative self. At the age of 32, Ebo came out as a nonbinary person. They came out during their show called "How To Love This Queer Body Of Color: An Unapology." This new recognition of self made the name Ella feel even more like a misfit.

BARTON: And so I wanted to change it so badly, but what I did discover during that time was that E sound felt like it was mine.

PAI: They started intuitively to look up names that started with an E sound.

BARTON: Ebo immediately showed up.

PAI: The significance of this name was both mythic and mystical. The Igbo people are an ethnic group in Nigeria or central West Africa. On St. Simons Island in Glynn County, Ga., a group of Igbo captives revolted against their white enslavers at a place that is now known as Ebo's Landing (ph).

BARTON: The myth is that rather than being captive, they killed all their captors and turned into birds and flew back home. The real story is that there was a mass suicide of these folks, but they did kill their captors. But the idea is that they would rather die than be put in captivity, and I thought that was such a powerful story. I took to that story.

PAI: There was another meaning. Ebo discovered the name also means a child born on Tuesday, which they were.

BARTON: Immediately, I was like, well, this is my name. It's calling to me.

PAI: Ebo had found their name. It was time to start trying it out.

BARTON: I started using my name at Starbucks - to be Ebo, to see how it felt to answer to it. Like, what does it feel like? Does it still feel like mine? And it totally did.

PAI: Ebo's confidence grew, and they decided to put their new name into the world. How? Facebook, of course. Ebo posted a note to their wall that their friends would see and read.

BARTON: I was really, really, really scared to post it 'cause I remember, like, typing it and erasing it and then typing it and erasing it. And it was like, hey, you used to know me as Ella. I'm thinking about being Ebo, and I want to change my name - or change my pronouns to they/them pronouns. I would really appreciate it if you would try to do this.

PAI: The timid post was received well. Friends showed support.

BARTON: My friend Greg was like, cool, Ebo, they/them, got it.

PAI: But Ebo's family struggled most with accepting and adapting to the change. There was complex grief to work through.

BARTON: There is somewhat of a grief that happens with family members that doesn't happen with other people. I think my mom is still grieving the daughter that she thought she had, right? So I try my best to be understanding of it, but sometimes it does hurt when the rest of the world has now got it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAI: The resistance felt somewhat surprising. Tagalog, their mom's native language, doesn't actually use gendered pronouns.

BARTON: So the pronoun in Tagalog is sha (ph), and it's not gendered at all.

PAI: That's a Chinese - yeah.

BARTON: It's very not gender - everybody's that, right?

PAI: Yeah. She, her, they - all of it.

BARTON: Yeah, she, her, they, him. And so I think that always confused me of - what was the barrier for her to change? Because I was like, well, in Tagalog there is no gender, so what would be the difference?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAI: For Ebo, their chosen name stuck, and there came a time when they were ready to take it public. Ebo curated and directed their first major production, a spoken word showcase that centered poetry on the strength and resiliency of queer people of color. Their show, "How To Love This Queer Body Of Color: An Unapology," was coming to an end. It was the last night, and it was the biggest audience of the two-week run, and the MC stepped in front of the mic and welcomed Ebo Barton to the stage.

BARTON: And there was this sort of, like, do I go up there now? And I did, and it was OK, and no one died, and I didn't burst into flames, and the applause happened - all of the things. And I was like, oh. And so there was this natural transition of, like, this is my name now.

PAI: Well, what do you felt like began to shift or change for you when you started using this name, Ebo Barton?

BARTON: Wow. Yeah. Like, that's such an interesting question. Like, I feel like I was granted a piece of confidence that I never got before because I get to be Ebo, right? Like, I just - and so it was just this authentic feeling of, like, OK, so now I get to just be myself. Like, what does that mean to be yourself when you haven't been for so long? But definitely, I feel like something happened for me on stage, being more comfortable in my skin and not feeling like I was hiding behind anything.

DAVIS: That was Ebo Barton on the podcast Ten Thousand Things from member station KUOW in Seattle. You can find Ten Thousand Things with Shin Yu Pai on your podcast app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.