“What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;”
Such are the words of the Immortal Bard, placed in the prayerful mouth of Juliet so that she might lament the name and familial ties of her beloved Romeo. For the past few years, we have witnessed the bizarre inverse of these sentiments performed in the arena of American political discourse. Unfortunately, the accompanying play is a pathetic, poorly written farce that seems yet to have reached the horror-inducing climax we can all see coming.
I write, of course, about the furor over the true religious affiliation and national identity of President Barack Hussein Obama. Yes, stating his entire name was entirely intentional – just as intentional as when the hate and conspiracy mongering voices of the Radical Right do the same. They have their point to make, irrational and misguided as it is, and I have mine to make. My point is, in fact, in response to theirs, as the topic would not even register in my consciousness (or sub-levels thereof) had they not brought it up in the first place. But what really set me off today was an article about an anonymous blogger’s baseless attack on a fellow citizen. I will post a link to the article below, but I politely request that you read it only after reading what I have written. You will understand why in a moment.
The victim of the blogger’s menace is named Judge Elijah Williams. At this point, I have given you no information about the victim other than a name. Now, I ask you: Upon hearing the victim’s name, what do you know that you did not know a moment ago? If you guessed that the victim is male, you would be correct. Elijah is a man’s name, as commonly understood in the United States and many other places. The surname Williams is also common to the western world. But what are we to make of the first appellation, Judge? Is Elijah Williams actually a judge or is that simply his first name? Actor Judge Reinhold might have something to add to the discussion, as the judicious sound of his own name has been used to comedic effect on more than one occasion. I will go easy on you and tell you now that Elijah Williams is, indeed, a judge in the Family Court of Broward County, Florida.
So far, we are safe in assuming that our victim is male and, judging by his title, that he has met certain higher education required by his profession. Now for the good stuff: Was he born with the name Elijah Williams or did he change it from the original at some point? Was he adopted? Was he born male or is he transgendered? I can provide no answer to these questions, so let us move on. What of his ethnic heritage? Is he of European or African ancestry or some combination thereof? I can tell you that, according to the article, he is black. The accompanying picture (See below.) suggests the same, but whether he is descended from Africans or Australian Aborigines is not stated.
If he is also an equal part European-American or some other ethnicity, I cannot say. Nor can I comment on what generation American he is. He could have been born outside of this country – and not necessarily in Africa – or his ancestry could include slaves from the shameful history of this or many other nations. In fact, both possibilities could be true.
Does he speak with a foreign accent? Is he hearing impaired, choosing instead to speak with his hands? The article doesn’t say so. It doesn’t even imply it, but you never know. I could go on and on with such questions, but I would not be able to reliably answer most, perhaps any, of them. More to the point, neither would you. Without the article as reference, we would have to speak with the man before having any idea as to his origins or the story that began with them. Naturally, we could only assume the honesty of his responses, but when, in the course of human interaction, is that not the case. For you and for me, Judge Elijah Williams remains a title, a name, a photograph, and all the prejudices with which we choose to color our perceptions.
With this in mind, I will ask one more question: What is his religion? The anonymous blogger I mentioned above either assumed him to be a Muslim or chose to paint him as one. My guess is that it was more likely the latter, given that Judge Williams was up for reelection – which he won despite the blogger’s success in arousing suspicion among the electorate. It should come as no surprise that the claim of Williams being a crypto-Muslim had no basis for evidence beyond the man’s skin color and the fact he shares a first name with Elijah Mohammed, founder of the Nation of Islam. That William’s also has this in common with Elijah Wood probably never crossed the bigot’s mind, but I doubt he would have accused the judge of being a Hobbit.
I do, by the way, mean bigot in every sense of the word, for what else can it be but racial and religious bigotry? Did the blogger consider that Williams could have been Jewish? Elijah, after all, is a major prophet in Judaism, not to mention Christianity, with particular significance among the Mormons. Hell, by his mind-numbing logic, Williams could have been a Bahá’í – assuming the blogger even knows what that is.
It has been this exact same bigotry behind the rabid, paranoid scrutinizing of the familial, national, and religious origins of our president, characterized by the telling full-name referencing of him. Of course, Barack Hussein Obama is probably used to this treatment. I myself try constantly not to proscribe to racial thought or theory, which is no mean feat, having been raised in the South. I consider the race to be an outdated and dangerous method of classifying human beings, one that says far more about group-think than it does about a particular group. This does not, however, mean I am incapable of wading in those muddy and muddled waters when discussing such issues, just as my atheism does not prevent me from thinking critically about religious arguments. So when I say that our president is equal parts black and white, it is only because the numerous elements of our society who think in these terms see his mother and father through the same dim lens. They need not know anything about his parentage beyond skin color to make this distinction. Likewise, they need not know his parentage to see him as a black man.
It is no secret that President Obama has long-since chosen to self-identify as African-American. Who can fault him for it when a heavy (and multi-colored!) thumb has long tipped the scales to the point of making no other choice reasonably possible. That he has answered calls to produce his birth certificate or authenticate his faith with only passing acknowledgement is a testament to his character rather than testimony toward conspiracy. He surely understands that no proof, no matter how definitive, can satisfy; his accusers are guilty of covering their own eyes.
For my part, I know I am seen by most as a white man, though my ancestry is so diverse that I could self-identify with any number of vastly differing cultures. Like most, my chromosomes are the untied ends of many overlapping and entwined threads: some Celtic, some Anglo-Saxon, some Germanic, a good deal Native American, and many of which only a geneticist could unravel. I can even claim some Black Dutch, that ambiguous notch in the bark of so many Southern family trees, which can mean anything from Native American to Sephardic Jewish to Moorish. I suppose I could tie my fate to any one of these cultures and not feel the fool for doing so. Instead, I choose to simply call myself an American, though doing so tends to make me wince as of late.
Now, I wonder: Going on nothing more than my name, could you have deduced any of what I just divulged to you? I doubt it, as it is a pseudonym. Telling you my real name would not help the situation, but I can assure you that I am not a handsome, Scottish carpenter.
Here is the link to that article I promised.