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What’s in a name? That which we call a rose

By any other name would smell as sweet.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616), “Romeo and Juliet”, Act 2 scene 2

So goes the quote by William Shakespeare, and many people believe this is true. However, to many of African-American descent, both past and present, to be “called out of your name”, is one of the greatest insults imaginable. “Mary,” a chapter from volume one, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” of Dr. Maya Angelou’s five-volume autobiography, details the horror and rage she felt, and the retribution she administered, at such an act.

The year was 1938, and Dr. Angelou, then going by her birth name, Marguerite Johnson, was 10 years old and working as a maid & cook’s helper for a white woman named Mrs. Viola Cullinan, the daughter of wealthy Virginian parents. According to Miss Glory, the cook whose family had been slaves for the Cullinan’s, she had married beneath her to a man whose money “didn’t ‘mount to much”. Marguerite pitied Mrs. Cullinan because she was old, fat, and ugly and couldn’t have children, though it was well known that her husband had two beautiful daughters by a colored lady. She tried to feel Mrs. Cullinan’s loneliness and pain, and tried very hard to make up for her barrenness by coming to work early and staying late.

One evening Marguerite was asked to serve Mrs. Cullinan and her women friends their drinks on the closed-in porch. When asked her name, Mrs. Cullinan answers for her, “Her name’s Margaret.” A close pronunciation, but incorrect, nevertheless. Americans are particularly inept, I think, at pronouncing anything that has a foreign flair to it, or a foreign sound to it, and it’s much easier for people to say “Margaret”, than “Marguerite”, or “Andrea” instead of “Andr?ica.” It is well known that the sweetest sound in any language is the sound of one’s own name, so we don’t take it mildly if somebody makes fun of our names or belittles us because of our name, or mispronounces our name. We proclaim ourselves with a name and we’re very defensive about them, it is a major part of our identity.

“Well, that may be, but the name’s too long. I’d never bother myself. I’d call her Mary if I was you,” said the speckle-face friend who had asked the question. The very next day, Mrs. Cullinan called Marguerite by the wrong name, and her dignity and pride, forged amid poverty and racism, became at stake.


Miss Glory asked, “Who?”

Mrs. Cullinan, sagging a little, knew and I knew. “I want Mary to go down to Mrs. Randall’s and take her some soup. She’s not been feeling well for a few days.”

Miss Glory’s face was a wonder to see. “You mean Margaret, ma’am. Her name’s Margaret.”

“That’s too long. She’s Mary from now on.”

African-Americans, in particular, have “a hellish horror of being called out of name.” After centuries of being called niggers, jigs, dinges, blackbirds, crows, boots, and spooks, anything that does not closely resemble the name either given to us at birth or chosen by us to represent how we see ourselves, is construed as insulting. Being renamed for the convenience of some white person had been happening since the slaves first came over, and Marguerite Johnson was not going to let it happen to her. She had to get out of that job, and soon.

In real life, unlike in Shakespeare, the sweetness of the rose depends upon the name it bears. Things are not only what they are. They are, in very important respects, what they seem to be.

Hubert H. Humphrey (1911 – 78 AD)

After Mrs. Cullinan’s renaming, Marguerite became a different person. She looked the woman in the eye as she called her Mary. She came late and left early. She left egg yolk on the dishes and wasn’t putting much heart into polishing the silver. She hoped Miss Glory would complain to Mrs. Cullinan, so she would fire her, but she didn’t. Finally, Marguerite couldn’t take any more. Her brother Bailey gave her the perfect solution to her dilemma. When she had again been instructed to serve the old biddies their drinks on the porch, she dropped the empty serving tray. When Mrs. Cullinan screamed, “Mary!” she picked up the woman’s favorite casserole shaped like a fish and two of the green glass coffee cups in readiness. When Mrs. Cullinan rounded the corner of the kitchen door, Marguerite dropped them on the tiled floor. Mrs. Cullinan fell on the floor, picked up shards of the cups and screwed up her face to cry.

Old speckled-face leaned down and asked, “Who did it, Viola? Was it Mary? Who did it?”

Everything was happening so fast I can’t remember whether her action preceded her words, but I know that Mrs. Cullinan said, “Her name’s Margaret, goddamn it, her name’s Margaret!” and she threw a wedge of the broken plate at me. It could have been the hysteria, which put her aim off, but the flying crockery caught Miss Glory right over her ear and she started screaming.

I left the front door wide open so all the neighbors could hear.

Thus, Marguerite Johnson, who changed her name to Maya Angelou during the 1960’s, showed her reaction to being “called out of name”, one of the greatest insults imaginable. Her horror and rage, and the retribution she meted out, came from the deepest part of her, striking back at the things closest to Mrs. Cullinan’s heart. Her matter of fact reasoning to the justice of her actions is best summed up in these final words from this chapter.

Mrs. Cullinan was right about one thing. My name wasn’t Mary.

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