Fun fact: There was about a decade of my life where I didn’t like to be called by my given name. After an early childhood of correcting anyone who dared mispronounce it, I spent most of grammar school feeling burdened by a name seemingly so difficult, no one could be bothered to learn to say it right. By the time I reached junior high, I just wanted to fit in with a cute nickname. The clique of “mean girls” who conditionally befriended me at that age were happy to oblige, suggesting I call myself “Misha” because it was “easier.”
They were right. Misha was easier than Maiysha. She was less ethnic, less complicated, less ... unique in the upscale Chicago suburb where I attended school. And it stuck; all through high school in the suburbs of Minneapolis and my elite liberal arts college years in New York, I was Misha.
It wasn’t until after college, while on a date with a brother who asked me point-blank why I hated the name my father had so lovingly chosen from the back of a Miles Davis album, that I began to ask myself. Very soon after, Maiysha took her rightful place in every introduction.
One of our undisputed #faves, Danai Gurira, had a similar experience in coming to accept—and embrace—her Zimbabwean name. The actress and writer—who’s rocking worlds this week as Dora Milaje general Okoye in Black Panther (and celebrated her 40th birthday on Valentine’s Day)—penned an intimate essay for Glamour magazine’s February issue. In it, she talks about accepting her African name, which she confesses not even knowing she had until she was 5 years old:
Born in Grinnell, Iowa, to Zimbabwean academic parents, I was given a nickname, Dede, that stuck before I was cognizant enough to have a choice in the matter. Danai was on the register, certificates, trophies. Dede prevailed still. My own endorsement made it so. It sounded close enough to a Western name and made me feel like I fit in, to some extent at least. We were one of only two black families in town, and Mom and Dad already talked differently from everyone else. A strong African name? Too much.
Despite having African-American parents, I knew that feeling all too well. And like me, Gurira had a “come to the culture” moment that inspired a major shift in how she self-identified. She shares that transition with Glamour:
I started reading Toni Morrison, Alex Haley, James Baldwin, speeches by Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I started to connect the dots around why I was rejecting my people’s cultural markers and the dominating effects of Eurocentric culture. I questioned why I didn’t speak my parents’ native language and began to test how much Shona I knew.
I can’t say exactly when it happened, but thank God that it did: I saw that rejecting my own culture, down to the name my parents had given me, was unacceptable. All of a sudden I needed to lay claim to what folks had fought and died for me to have—the freedom to speak my own language, my own name.
That freedom led Gurira to begin to refer to herself as “Zimerican,” acknowledging her Zimbabwean and American identities as equal and inextricable from each other. It also led her to truly embrace both the beauty and troubled histories of her home countries, which, she writes, currently “sit at defining moments: America faces political division and a crisis of leadership, and Zimbabwe is finding its footing in a transition of power after decades under one man’s rule.” Owning that history was empowering for Gurira, who writes:
I realized my heritage was to be celebrated, not denied. I didn’t want to fit into what I perceived as a more Western, more acceptable mainstream. My middle name, Jekesai, means to “illuminate,” taken from a hymn about praying for a light at the end of a dark tunnel. I was born amid the war for independence in Zimbabwe, and my parents didn’t know whether they’d ever be able to go back. Jekesai was a declaration of their hopes that light would come. I wanted to bring light to those who should be seen more, heard more: people of marginalized cultures.
Illuminating, indeed. In Shona, her parents’ native tongue, Danai means “to be in love” or “to love one another.” The name is perfect for a Valentine’s Day baby, but even more so for a woman who now consciously infuses her identity into everything she creates and chooses to participate in.
I began to ask people to call me Danai. That choice has affected every choice I’ve made since—the stories I tell, the characters I play, the activism I embark upon. It has influenced everything from plays I write (including Eclipsed, about a girl thrown into a rebel war camp in Liberia) to portraying a general of an African king’s army in Black Panther to co-founding the nonprofit Almasi Arts, a Zimbabwean American dramatic arts collaborative.
Just when we thought we couldn’t love her more, Danai Gurira keeps stunning us with her beauty, her strength and, now, her transparency. You can read Gurira’s full essay at Glamour.