In a gesture of self-making intended to obliterate my parents’ hold upon me and immolate the daughter they hoped for rather than the one I was, I changed my name. I abandoned Valarie. She was the princess my mother wanted me to be, all silk and taffeta and sugar and spice. She was the pampered girl my mother would have been had she grown up in her father’s house. Valarie wasn’t a family name but one she had chosen for me to assuage the shame of being Dr. Dinkins’s outside daughter. Valarie was a name weighted with the yearning for cotillions and store-bought dresses and summers at the lake. It was a gilded name, all golden on the outside, all rawness and rage on the inside. It erased the poor black girl my mother was ashamed to be.
So in my sophomore year in college, I adopted the name Saidiya. I asserted my African heritage to free myself from my mother’s grand designs. Saidiya liberated me from parental disapproval and pruned the bourgeois branches of my genealogy. It didn’t matter that I had been rejected first. My name established my solidarity with the people, extirpated all evidence of upstanding Negroes and their striving bastard heirs, and confirmed my place in the company of poor black girls—Tamikas, Roqueshas, and Shanequas. Most of all, it dashed my mother’s hopes. I had found it in an African names book; it means“helper.”