The Names of Things -The Toast

Skip to the article, or search this site

Home: The Toast

amaryllis-229074_1280Some folks can call flowers by name. Dragonsbreathladysucklehibiscus. Dandiorchard Tigerpoppyleaf.

Dirt. Seed. Stem. That’s as far as I get.

Georgia Burt didn’t have a garden—she had 8 kids, the corner store, and a reverend husband slumped into a puddle of hooch. She had the Lord and his three names and always Newports— none of that CamelMarlboroughVirginiaSlims shit.

Oops, she’d say. Your mama don’t want me to curse ’round you kids, I’m sorry.

There’s promise born into the names of things. Can’t ask for shit if you don’t know the word.

Little brother texts me for the first time in months.

My name is Brantley now.

I tell him I like Hakeem better.

No. Brantley or Corbett. 

He’s last of three, but the only one awarded a proper Nigerian naming ceremony. The only one to ever get a party at our house. I dressed the part of princess, shuffling around in stiff, shimmery fabric Mom wrapped four times tight around my little hips, balancing a matching head wrap tied pretty well for an American wife, for a girl from Milwaukee with a surgically corrected lazy eye.

Your uncle told me when I grew up, I’d have a little girl ugly as me. But I prayed and prayed and prayed to God, Please let my daughter be pretty, and look at you! Girl, you better Praise Him!

The neighbors seemed to arrive at the same time in the same white people clothes with the same white people names, and though my parents still live in the same white people place, this was the last time they invited the neighbors inside. Dad showed everyone around the new Jacuzzi and the new sauna and the new deck. He wore all five components of the king’s outfit, and as required, older brother dressed the part of prince, my partner child doll in matching scratchy print.

He has Dad’s name, a full-mouthed thing with one too many vowels, so he sometimes just goes by TJ.

When girls called the house for this TJ, Mom would tell them they had the wrong number and hang up.

But the ceremony: Dr. Olu had the honor of naming the now year-old boy. Doctor of what, I don’t know—these are the titles Nigerian men use in lands that refused them kingdoms. Years later, he told me I’d be a doctor or a lawyer or nothing at all. Even at his funeral, no one’d heard his wife call him by his first name.

Hakeem Yekini Alabi, Dr. Olu proclaimed as the water cup blessed his tiny, squirming head. Yekini, after the grandfather who’d died in Lagos before we’d ever met. Hakeem, as in the dream, where the Lord spoke to Mom and told her to have one last child. She didn’t want to, but who was she to deny the voice of God? How could the boy He demanded have any other name?

It’s Brantley now. Or Corbett.

In English, my middle name is inevitably mispronounced. Asia, after my grandmother. But no: say, Ashaya. This is how I spell it now. Asia Alabi’s first and only visit to America was in January of the worst Wisconsin blizzard of my life. She only spoke Yoruba, so we watched Dad talk to her, sharing stories as though he’d always told stories, just never here, with us.

O tutu! O tutu!

Alabi, what does that mean? I’ve never heard Mom call Dad by his first name. He threw his head back and laughed.

It’s cold! It’s cold!

Mom bought a book and a series of tapes, but whenever Dad overhead her attempts to speak his language he’d laugh hard from his throat until he nearly choked.

In college, I met the first American Africans who’d actually lived in the land of their names.

What’s your full name? Just Kemi.

I know an Oluwakemi, a Folakemi, but not a just Kemi.

Older brother got Dad’s one-too-many-voweled name. Mom is just Kerry, American as sweet potato pie. Kemi is a compromise, a third world and second class pummeled into something that could maybe stand a chance.

You must get Kimmy a lot.

Yeah. And Cammy. I respond to both.


Years later, after she died, we learned Asia was a nickname. Grandmother’s full name was Asiata. No one had known.


A-L-A-B-I? And you say it how? I know a few Alabis. They don’t say it like that.

Every part of my name shivers like it might die refugeed in this empire’s mouth, mispronouncing itself. I throw my head back. I laugh until I choke.

Dad has never called me just Kemi, always Kemi, my lovely daughter. After the stroke, his words became a carousel of phlegm spinning around two languages, tilted on a half-junked brain. Six voicemails this week, all the same: Kemi, my lovely daughter, this is your dad, Taofiki Alabi. A reintroduction. A reminder. An affirmation.

Hollowed father, these are your children: TJ, Kimmy, Brantley.

Dirt, seed, stem; shit. I’m sorry.

Faithful mother, this is your God: trust me. When you pray for them, I know who you mean.

Lord, let our children be pretty. Let them bloom gorgeous in this empire’s mouth, and if there’s promise born into the name of things, let them be Georgia, Yekini, Asiata. Kerry. Taofiki.

May they know how to pronounce their own names. May they claim the language that spoke them into this world. May they own the land upon which they tend their gardens. May they know the words for every color, fragrance and bud.

Let them bury us beneath the roots and call us Amaryllis. Calla Lilly. Wild Bergamot. May they know every way to ask for Sun and Water. May they forgive us for the impossible soil below.

Kemi Alabi is a Wisconsin-bred, Boston-schooled poet and performer. She currently writes, works and stays Black in Oakland, CA.

Add a comment

Skip to the top of the page, search this site, or read the article again