How one Nigerian name became a catalyst for self-discovery.
My grandfather named me Oluwadamilola. In Yoruba, it means God gave me wealth. As the patriarch of the family, he’s responsible for naming all of his grandchildren. To this day my father keeps a piece of paper listing the names of my siblings and me tucked in between the pages of a Bible resting on his nightstand. One day my father will name my children, and I, too, will have their names tucked away for safekeeping. As an adult, I look forward to continuing this tradition; however, as a kid, I struggled to see its value, let alone the beauty of my name.
As a first-generation Nigerian-American, I grew up in a predominantly white suburb with predominantly white classmates. In my starkly pale environment, I stood out for all the “wrong” reasons: my dark skin, my braided hair, and, of course, my long, seemingly complex name.
“If I mispronounce your name, please correct me” was how every school year started. Because my last name begins with an ‘A,’ I was frequently the first person called on the attendance list. From the first grade, I would watch teachers wrinkle their noses in confusion after glancing at the list and brace myself for the inevitable disclaimer. It happened every single time. By third grade, I’d raise my hand in exhaustion and blurt out, “It’s me, you can call me Dami,” in order to make my presence known preemptively. I couldn’t bear to hear them struggle through my name, especially when the rest of the list was so easy to say with common American names, such as Stephanie, Kelly, and Jonathan.
Since I couldn’t blend in by name, I focused on my appearance instead. When my mother suggested that I start relaxing my hair to straighten its tight coils, I didn’t protest despite the burning sensation that singed my hairline whenever it was applied. When shopping for clothes, I begged my parents to skip Marshalls and take me to Rave Girl and Mandee like all the other girls in my class. I convinced myself that my favorite color was pink (it’s actually blue) and stuffed myself into stiff, heavily embroidered jeans and terrible platform Skechers.
It wasn’t long before I started making regular stops at CVS in search of makeup I’d seen my classmates wear: thick eyeliner, heavy mascara, sparkly eyeshadow. I’d spend my lunch money on lipsticks, mascaras, and eyeliners I truly had no business buying. I, of course, steered clear of drugstore foundation because even back then I knew my shade wasn’t widely available, and I wasn’t willing to look ashy on purpose.
As for my name? I fantasized about changing it to something more quintessentially American like Stacy. My mother’s friend, who I admired for her tall height, light skin, and boisterous personality introduced herself to Americans as Stacy — although her Nigerian name is Mosun — so I figured I could follow suit.
Auntie Mosun, as I affectionately called her, wasn’t the only one. My father changed his name upon his arrival to this country in the late ’80s. He decided that his first name, Olajide, would become his middle name. He adopted the first name Michael (inspired by Michael Jackson, his favorite artist in high school) to bypass the failed attempts to pronounce his name. He admitted that going by Michael “makes it easier for everyone.”
Such is the case for many immigrants and first-generation children who settle in this country: Out of fear of being othered and ostracized, we shorten our names, soften their syllables, and, sometimes, change our names entirely — all to make them more palatable for our American teachers, neighbors, bosses, and friends.
Even actress Thandiwe Newton, previously known as Thandie Newton, fell victim to this. In an interview with British Vogue, she revealed that she dropped the ‘W’ in her birth name while attending Catholic school, where she was once forbidden from taking a class picture because of her cornrows. “The W of her name drifted inward, out of sight and earshot, in a futile hope to make her feel less different,” wrote journalist Diana Evans. It took Thandiwe surviving a range of experiences — from racism in Hollywood to an eating disorder sparked by low self-esteem — to finally reclaim her name, and in so doing her identity. I interpreted Thandiwe’s reclamation of her name as a symbol of her strength, an act of rebellion against the figures in her life who attempted to make a mockery of her blackness.
It wasn’t until college that I started to embrace my name. It happened when I befriended another Nigerian-American, named Bunmi, for the first time. Bunmi is best described as a burst of color. She was filled with the energy of a thousand suns and seemed to beam from within; not to mention, she was so unexpectedly funny.
Bunmi got a kick out of singing her full name to everyone we’d meet. It tickled her to watch friends stumble over its pronunciation, then she’d patiently break it down phonetically without a hint of irritation. With the utmost pride and a look of elation on her face, she’d dance to Afrobeats music I’d never heard before and speak liberally in a Nigerian accent, all of which I suppressed at home. We’d laugh about our shared, dreaded roll call experiences (her last name also started with an ‘A’) and talk endlessly about the similarities in our childhoods.
Bunmi, along with my school’s African Student Association (ASA), brought my Nigerian upbringing into full view. Before then, I’d never been surrounded by a group of people my age who not only shared the specific experience of being a first-generation kid in America, but made a point out of expressing their roots out loud. My social circles were suddenly filled with names like Adeola and Femi. And, for the first time, I wasn’t met with questions or odd looks after sharing my name. Even having braids felt commonplace. In fact, I saw a wide variety of styles on campus — everything from faux locs to twist outs — and was comforted by the different shapes and forms of Black hair. This all culminated in events sponsored by ASA where young Black students socialized together and dressed in their finest attire, including traditional Nigerian garb like aso ebi and gele.
As a result, my appearance began to evolve again. By my sophomore year of college, I decided to ditch the relaxer for good and go natural. I cut all of my hair off and wore a short, tapered cut for several years. I went from shopping at trendy stores in the mall to thrifting and shopping almost exclusively online where I was more inclined to find unique pieces. The CVS beauty buys came to a halt after I was introduced to Sephora by a Ghanian friend who shared my complexion and taught me how to color match the right foundation. That led to many nights in YouTube rabbit holes searching for makeup tutorials that focused on Black skin. It’s through beauty gurus like Nyma Tang that I learned of beauty products and techniques that suit my skin tone.
Needless to say, when I returned home after graduation I was no longer interested in blending in. My time in college allowed me to view my Nigerian background with fresh eyes; it became clear that my culture is intrinsically a part of who I am and neither makeup, clothes, nor a name change could erase that.
These days, I like to have fun with my name and have experimented with breaking it up in different ways (which, given its length, feels like an overlooked privilege). I currently go by Lola, while my family and childhood friends call me Dami, the common nickname for Oluwadamilola. No matter what part of my name is being used, what’s most important is that I’m called by my given name. Within Oluwadamilola lives the story of my Nigerian parents and our family, the richness of our culture, and the prophetic blessing bestowed upon me by my grandfather. I’ll take that over plain old Stacy any day.