All opinions expressed are those of the writer.
Have you ever pondered the meaning and origin story behind your name? When you hear others speak of historically renowned people, places or things, do you ever wonder where those names came from, what they mean, and why they are significant to their identity? Names may not seem integral to who we are, but in reality, they are a critical piece of our individual identities. I used to take the meaning of my name for granted, but after learning about the power of names during my first trip to Israel, I discovered newfound value not only in my own name, but in myself.
I first traveled to Israel in the summer of 2018 with a combined group of two colleges. After we landed, we met our Israeli tour guide, Sharon Pelleg. One of the first things she told us was to pay attention to names. She told us that the meaning behind her name was “the Forest,” and that the name of any person and place in Israel was vital, because every name had a meaning or a story behind it. Her words have remained with me since that first day in Israel.
All throughout Scripture, we see the importance of names. Jesus’s coming was foretold by an angel of the Lord who proclaimed that he shall be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God is with us” (Matt 1:23). The God of the universe is called many different Hebrew names by the children of Israel out of their reverence. For instance, the Hebrew name of “El Shaddai” means Lord God Almighty, while the general Hebrew names for God, “Adonai,” “Elohim,” and “Yahweh” mean Lord Master, God, and Lord Jehovah respectively. From this variety of Hebrew names for God, we can see that His presence was very much revered, known and sought after throughout the children of Israel’s compelling history.
The name of Jacob, the son of Isaac and father of the twelve tribes of Israel, means “holder of the heel/supplanter,” because not only was he holding his brother Esau’s heel at birth, but he also managed to steal Esau’s birthright later in life. After Jacob wrestled with the Angel of God, his name was changed to “Israel,” which means “to wrestle,” because “as a prince he was appointed to power with God and with men, and hast prevailed” (Genesis 32:28).
Regarding my own ethnic heritage, I am a Nigerian-American born in America. Like Israel, names in Nigeria are also something to acknowledge and respect . My full name is Jason Chiemeka Chukwu, which hails from the Igbo tribe. “Chiemeka” is the Igbo name my parents gave me, meaning “God has done great things.” My family name, Chukwu, has a divine connotation in Igboland, translating roughly to “God.” It is known throughout Nigeria’s spiritual folktales as the supreme deity and the higher source and ruler of all other Igbo deities and tribes. Every Igbo name has a deeper spiritual meaning, connecting it to Nigeria’s complex history of spirituality.
When I was younger, I craved fitting in with everybody else, so I never paid much attention to the meaning of my Igbo name, nor did I pay notable respect to my cultural identity as a Nigerian. Clearly, I stood out from everyone else, but I wanted to become Americanized and blend in with the crowd. This came with consequences; for several years, I dealt with having my family name mispronounced, misunderstood, and even made subject to unnecessary and confusing nicknames by my fellow white peers. I put up with this careless treatment of my last name for years, because I was convinced that these nicknames were compliments. I was eventually challenged by the words of a courageous friend of mine about standing firm for our own identities. Soon, after recalling Sharon’s poignant words concerning the importance of our names, I realized that I could no longer allow my Igbo family name to be disrespected, disregarded, and ignorantly played around with. I would have never dealt with this treatment had I known and embraced the value of my name.
I’ve realized that it’s both my responsibility and my right to ensure that my name and identity are represented correctly to the people around me. I may not always be in control of how I am received by others, but I can control how I choose to present my identity to them. If we do not take responsibility to correctly represent our names and identities to others, then we give them permission to be careless with our identities. If we allow that to continue, people will never truly understand nor respect who we are, the emblem of our stories, and what makes us unique as individuals. If our names represent our identities, then we ought to take pride in our names and protect them.