Baratunde Thurston is a stand-up comedian, award-winning blogger and the director of digital for The Onion, the popular satirical news outlet. An EBONY Power 100 honoree, his first book “How To Be Black” is part memoir, part “guide” that offers advice on how to travel the often difficult road that is being Black in a world that seems to prefer that one be anything but.
In this excerpt from Chapter 1-“Where Did You Get That Name?”, Thurston reccounts one of many awkward experiences with trying to explain how an African-American kid from Washington, DC ended up with a Nigerian-inspired name. “
I love my name. I love people’s attempts to say it. I love that everyone, especially white people, wants to know what it means. So here’s the answer:
My full name is Baratunde Rafiq Thurston. It’s got a nice flow. It’s global. I like to joke that “Baratunde” is a Nigerian name that means “one with no nickname.” “Rafiq is Arabic for “really no nickname,” and “Thurston” is a British name that means “property of Massa Thurston.”
In truth, Baratunde is derived from the very common Yoruba Nigerian name, “Baratunde.” A literal translation comes out something like “grandfather returns” but is often interpreted as “one who is not chosen.” Rafiq is Arabic for “friend or companion.” And Thurston, well, that really, probably, is the name of he white guy that owned my people back in the day.
Of all the groups of people who react to my name, I’ve found that white people are the most curious about its meaning and origin. Upon hearing of its origin, they want to know when last I visited Nigeria. Other non-black people are nearly as curious, assuming “Baratunde” to be a family name that goes back generations, that are passed to me through a series of meticulously traceable Biblical begats. Black Americans, on the other hand, rarely even pause to ponder about my name. Considering how inventive Black Americans have been with their own names, that’s not very surprising.
Where I never expected any particular reaction, however, was from Nigerians themselves. Nigerians have very strong opinions about my name. They don’t like it, and they want me to know. Constantly.
I call this phenomenon The Nigerian Name Backlash. Rarely does a week go by without a Nigerian somewhere on the Internet finding and interrogating me. I first encountered the NNB when I was near twelve years old. I called my Nigerian, who went by “Tunde,” on the phone, but he wasn’t home. Instead, his extremely Nigerian father answered, and our interaction proceeded as follows:
“Hello, who is calling?”
“Hi sir, this is Baratunde.”
“Where did you get that name!?”
Let’s pause the exchange right here, because you need more context. Father Nigeria did not simply ask where I got the name as one might ask, “Oh, where did you get those shoes? They’re really nice. They’re so nice that I need to know where you got them so I can possibly get myself a pair.” No, that was not the tone. The tone was more along the lines of “Who the hell do you think you are coming into my house, stealing my gold, priceless family jewels, my dead grandmother’s skeleton, my porridge, and attempting to walk out through the front door as if I would not notice? By all rights, I should kill you where you stand, you thieving, backstabbing boy.”
Shocked by the question, but determined to be both honest and respectful, I answered.
“I got it from my parents,” I told him.
“Do you know what it means?” Father Nigeria asked me in the same way you might ask a dog, “What model iPad do you want?” Fortunately, I knew exactly what it meant, and I proudly answered, “It means grandfather returns or who is chosen.”
As I was about to explain to him that I’d just the very same thing, he launched into a tirade: “This is the problem with you so called African-Americans. You have no history, no culture, and no roots. You think you can wear a dashiki, steal an African name, and become African? You cannot!”
Remember, when this self-appointed Father Nigeria decided to indict, judge, and reject all African American for it attempts to rebuild some small part of the ancestral bridges burned by America’s peculiar institution, I was twelve years old and not in the best position to argue that maybe he should calm down and stop acting like a bully.
His reaction stunned me, but it also prepared me for the regular onslaught from members of the Nigerian Name Backlash community. While he made a sweeping dis against all black Americans who sought cultural identification with Africa, most other Nigerians I’ve encountered have more technical complaints. Every few weeks a new batch finds me on the Internet, usually Twitter, and swarms with the same basic set of questions and challenges:
“Are you Nigerian?” they excitedly ask.
“No. My parents just wanted me to have an African name.”
“You know your name is Nigerian right?”
“But it is wrong, your name. What is this ‘Bartunde’? You mean ‘Babatunde’ right?”