A name is more than just a word. It’s a connection to our family, our heritage, and our identity. That’s why Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., one of the world’s leading experts on African American history, decided to explore the origins of his own name. In this short video, he shares what he discovered.
In the essay “What’s in a Name?” Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reflects on how his father stood up for him in an emotionally charged scenario as a 5-year-old child at the time. Growing up, Henry Louis Gate Jr. had everything he needed: from money to every material item he desired.
One day, his father told him that he could no longer be called “Sonny” and had to start using his given name, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. This change marked a shift in Gates’ perception of the world and how he related to his family. Through this experience, Gates learns that a name is much more than just a way to identify someone; it is a representation of one’s identity and heritage.
While many people take their names for granted, for Gates, his name was a source of great pride. It represented everything that was important to him: his family, his culture, and his history. For Gates, a name is not simply a label; it is a way to connect with the past and present. In a world where so much is constantly changing, a name is one of the few things that remains constant. It is a reminder of who we are and where we came from. And for Gates, that is what makes a name so special.
I do not know why I’m so emotional, but as soon as I started reading this essay, tears began to flow. My father used to take us camping every summer and everyone in my family would build a fire on the beach or by the lake. We’d all sit around it and sing songs while roasting marshmellows over the flames. It was so much fun that even now when I think back on it, my eyes begin to water.
The way he explains his feelings and how this event has effected him speaks to me and I understand what he is trying to say. Family is a big part of our lives whether we like it or not and sometimes we take them for granted. This essay is a great example of that.
When Henry Louis Gates Jr. was younger, he never quite understood why his family had such strange names. His given name, for instance, was “Henery Louis Gates Jr.,” which seemed needlessly confusing to him. However, as he grew older and began to learn more about his family’s history, he came to realize that their naming traditions were actually quite meaningful.
Gates’ ancestors were slaves who were freed during the Civil War. At that time, many former slaves took on the last name of their former owner as their own. Gates’ great-grandfather, for example, was given the name “Gates” by his former owner.
While this practice may seem strange to us today, it was actually quite common at the time. Many freed slaves felt that they needed to keep their connection to their past in order to maintain a sense of identity. By keeping their old names, they were able to remember where they came from and who they were.
Today, Henry Louis Gates Jr. is a world-renowned scholar and historian. He has used his platform to shed light on the importance of understanding our history and the stories of our ancestors. Through his work, he has shown us that there is power in our names.
“George,” I recall him saying. “I had forgotten the incident completely, until I read Trey Ellis’ essay “Remember My Name” in a recent issue of Village Voice (June 13, 1989). But there it was at the top of an extended italicized list of the bynames of ‘the race,’ and George. Now the events of that very short discussion come rushing back to me as if they were still happening.
I was eleven years old at the time, and my family had just moved to an all-white neighborhood on the West Side of Cambridge, Massachusetts.
I had gone to the local five-and-dime with a white boy named Steve who lived next door. As we came out of the store, a black kid about our age—a boy I had never seen before—walked up to us and asked our names. Steve told him his name, and then it was my turn.
I remember thinking to myself, “ Now what am I going to do?” My given name is Henry Louis Gates Jr., but everyone in my family called me “Skip.” All my friends called me “Skip.” But I knew that if I told this boy my nickname, he would either make fun of me or think I was putting on airs. If I used my real name, however, he would know that I wasn’t from around there. Either way, I was going to be marked as an outsider.
I don’t remember what I said to him in response, but it must not have satisfied him, because he asked me again. This time he used my full name: “ Henry Louis Gates Jr.? Now what kind of a name is that for a nigger?” He said the word with such venom that I will never forget it. It was the first time I had ever been called that word to my face.
I was stunned. I didn’t know what to say. I just stood there, looking at him. And then he punched me in the stomach and ran away.
It was a long time before I forgot that incident. In fact, I think about it every time I hear someone say “What’s in a name?” because for me, everything is in a name. A name is who you are—it is your identity. It is how you are known to the world. And, as that boy so cruelly reminded me, it is also how you are judged by the world.
A name can be a curse or a blessing; it can be a source of pride or a cause for shame; it can be a label that is thrust upon you or a badge that you earn. In my case, it has been all of these things. My name has been both a source of strength and a source of weakness; it has opened doors for me and slammed them in my face. It is who I am—for better or for worse.”