What’s in a Name.
Many years ago I was sat in my bank manager’s office with my partner, bob. We lived in a small town in North Wales called Bethesda, where my mother was born. We had a little shop there called ‘Quarry View Stores.’ From the back window of our shop we could see the huge slate mountain, which had been the home of the Penrhyn Quarries, once famous for its slate throughout the world. We didn’t call our shop Quarry View Stores because we could see the quarry. It had been the name of mam’s family’s shop, a grocery owned by her parents, and we wanted to continue the tradition.
It was the summer and we had been summoned to the bank to discuss our finances. For me it was a good time to switch off, to not be responsible and I left it to the men folks to deal with such matters. I settled myself down in the warmth of the room and watched the sunlight illuminate the motes of dust by the window. It was beautiful and I lost myself in reverie.
The bank manager’s name was Williams, the same as my father’s- Denis Williams, but unlike my Guyanese father he was a Welsh man. I could hear the bank manager being rude and patronising, as people with a very little power sometimes are. I suddenly had a thought that perhaps his forebears had owned and named my father’s ancestors in Guyana. After all Williams was one of the oldest of Welsh names.
Later, I went to the library. In the archives department I held the original documents from the Pennants plantation in Jamaica, the family that had developed the quarry that dominated the town. I was aware of being a black woman, probably the first black person to see these papers, reading through a long list of names with no surnames. The archivist was very sensitive and helpful but he seemed embarrassed. These were the names of slaves – Pennants, real people with real lives that were documented as commodities, chattels. They had no identity save their owner-given names. Their belonging was only to the slave master. Nobody would ever know their real names. I was in awe. I was shivering. I felt myself to be trespassing in another world, as if I had no right to be there, to be witnessing this history.
I was able to find no other acknowledgement in Wales of involvement with slavery, even the Pennants, whose name meant something in the Welsh language, are generally regarded as English. The negative connotations of Empire are always attributed to the English, but my family name, a slave name, was a Welsh name. It was then that I decided to change my name.
I came from a family that had come to Wales in 1959. There were very few black people in this area back then but over the years the family has grown into dynastic proportions and being a ‘Williams’ meant something. But what did it mean? My paternal grandmother was called Isabel Adonis: I had been named Isabel after her and decided to adopt her surname as well.
I discovered that Adonis had a mythical and spiritual significance and it added to its specialness, originating as it did from Adonai meaning ‘lord.’ Adonis in Greek mythology was a beautiful man, loved equally by Persephone and Aphrodite, the goddesses of darkness and light, and because neither would give him up, he divided his time equally between his two lovers. The name was also connected to rebirth so it couldn’t have been more perfect and more meaningful to me. It was still a family name and it seemed to give me access to the feminine side of my father. I was the only daughter amongst my sisters named after a black woman and it gave me a strong sense of intimacy with this dark mother.
Mam had been a Hughes. Of one thing she was quite sure: when it came to a disagreement she would always revert back to her Welshness.
“Don’t forget I’m Welsh,” she said, and there was something rigid and autocratic about this statement. Once I asked her if she thought I was Welsh; if she was, why wasn’t I? She answered:
“It would take a long time for you to be Welsh.”
“But mam, how long would it take?”
But having established her bottom line she couldn’t go further and see the whole problem of identity, that it was about power and who belonged to who and nothing else. She would not explore her feelings, which were well defended. When my father left mam she continued to use his name and couldn’t let her wedding ring go and get a new partner. She continued to own him through his name Williams. Despite having a Welsh name, he wasn’t Welsh and neither was I, his daughter. No amount of time would change that.
My father had never spoken about his background as though he was entirely self made. To mention that I’m Denis Williams’ daughter in a Guyanese context has significance, whereas in Wales it has a false meaning. My father could never live here and in the context of Wales it sounds like somebody Welsh, somebody white. Moreover my father’s name of Williams, was a black name that spoke of oppression, cruelty and endurance, but in Wales that association and is denied.
The American Indians changed their names throughout their life to acknowledge psychological and spiritual transformations. They might have three or four name changes in a lifetime. We limit our identities to a small space of the body, but extend ourselves through a long lifetime, but not everyone is the same throughout their lives. People can change; changing your name doesn’t make you different but it symbolises change. The tradition of patrilineal surnames extends this identity through the generations in a particular form, which in the case of slavery has been broken. From the fragments of this fractured history, one has to seek an undivided individuality, and a name that symbolises connectedness. In Guyana it might be different, but in Wales the name of Williams symbolises the fracture, while my grandmother’s name, Adonis, asserts with it’s uniqueness here, something of my Caribbean and African heritage.