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Where We Come From: What's In A Nigerian Name

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

Where are you really from? It's a question immigrants of color and their kids get all the time. But the answer is complex. It's often not just about a place. The new NPR series Where We Come From brings us conversations from immigrant communities of color answering this very question. For some folks, it can be about family upbringing, food traditions, career aspirations, even their names. Here's NPR's Anjuli Sastry.

ANJULI SASTRY, BYLINE: This conversation, it's between two close friends - Luvvie Ajayi Jones...

LUVVIE AJAYI JONES: I am New York Times bestselling author and a podcast host.

SASTRY: ...And Tiffany Aliche.

TIFFANY ALICHE: Much better known as The Budgetnista, America's favorite financial educator, self-proclaimed. You know you feel me.

AJAYI JONES: Yeah.

ALICHE: And I am a friend of Lovette.

(LAUGHTER)

SASTRY: Luvvie and Tiffany are both Nigerian.

AJAYI JONES: You know, rocking the green, white, green in our blood.

ALICHE: Mmm hmm.

SASTRY: And for both of them, their names carry symbolic meaning.

AJAYI JONES: Ifeoluwa - that's like my first name. My family calls me Ife (ph). My name means God's love. So the Ife part is the love. My aunt used to sometimes call me Lovette as a nickname.

SASTRY: Luvvie and Tiffany both realized something about how their names were pronounced as they were growing up in the U.S. It built a community among folks who could actually say their names right. And when people couldn't pronounce their names correctly, they had to do things to take back ownership of their names. Here are Luvvie and Tiffany.

AJAYI JONES: So I was born in Nigeria. When I was 9, we moved to the U.S. Downtown Chicago is where we moved. So most of the kids didn't even look like me. And they, for some reason, thought Jamaica was Africa. And I remember the principal walking me to my class...

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR OPENING)

AJAYI JONES: ...And kind of like pushing me in the class and the teacher being like, oh, welcome to our new student. Introduce yourself. And 9-year-old me was instantly like, my name is too different. The way I'm talking is too different. It's not going to work. So I instantly - instead of saying my name when the teacher goes, introduce yourself, I go, my name is Lovette. And, of course, it came out rude - yeah, my name is Lovette - because...

ALICHE: (Laughter).

AJAYI JONES: Like, it came out real extra strong because I was this girl.

ALICHE: Yeah. It's funny that you said at 9 is when you make that transition because that's when we made our transition from, like, the small little town of Roselle, mostly working-class Black and brown families, to Westfield, N.J., which was a bigger town and almost completely white. And I, too, made a transition with my name during that time. So up until 9, everyone - friends, everyone called me Odochi, which means God's gift or God's present, right?

AJAYI JONES: Yes.

ALICHE: And it's - I remember we were going to move to Westfield. And my father decided - he said, we're moving to this new town, and I'm wanting it to make it easier for you guys. You can choose another name to add to your name. And I was excited, you know? I didn't think, you know, anything of it. I was like, yes. So he literally let everyone choose their name. And he said, you have the summer kind of like to decide. So my sisters and I would try out names. And I would say, OK, this week, call me Jenny (ph). That was one of - that was a viable option, Jenny. Oh.

AJAYI JONES: Jenny.

ALICHE: You will become Jenny the Budgetnista.

AJAYI JONES: (Laughter).

ALICHE: And then I remember I wanted Renee (ph). And I was like...

AJAYI JONES: Renee?

ALICHE: I liked Renee. I could see myself as a Renee, you know?

AJAYI JONES: OK. OK.

ALICHE: Right? But then, like, there was another Renee in class. And when I told her, she was like, you tried it. That's my name.

AJAYI JONES: (Laughter).

ALICHE: And then - oh, thank goodness my dad said no. But I wanted Symphony. I was like, oh...

AJAYI JONES: Ma'am.

ALICHE: ...Yes.

AJAYI JONES: Symphony though?

ALICHE: (Laughter) Yes. I said, it's different. He said, too different. And then I - but I always liked the name Tiffany. And so I told him, I think I like Tiffany. And my friends loved it. I loved it. And so Tiffany I became.

AJAYI JONES: Yes.

ALICHE: But I just think it's so interesting how...

AJAYI JONES: Take on this new name.

ALICHE: Yes, but in an effort to protect what we held dear, which is our true identity.

AJAYI JONES: Yeah because for me, it wasn't even a matter of I was ashamed of my name. It was that I wanted to protect it from other...

ALICHE: Yes.

AJAYI JONES: ...People trying to make it ugly. You know, like...

ALICHE: Yes.

AJAYI JONES: ...The moment they will see it, they'll instantly think, I can't say it. So then they will kind of, like, add burden to the name.

ALICHE: Yeah.

AJAYI JONES: And for me, it was my protective measure.

ALICHE: Yes.

AJAYI JONES: It was a sacred space that I honored. It was also one of those things where because I had already been the person I was for nine years, I didn't change who I was when I got here.

ALICHE: Mmm hmm.

AJAYI JONES: I still went home and spoke Yoruba. I still ate pounded yam and egusi. At home, I was still Ife. So all of that did not change. When I stepped outside the doors, it changed.

ALICHE: Yes. My maiden last name's Aliche.

AJAYI JONES: Yeah.

ALICHE: My husband's name is Smith. I didn't take on Smith because, well, one, Tiffany Smith, I'm - that's, like, 20,000 people.

AJAYI JONES: It is. It is.

ALICHE: But also, two, that name Aliche meant so much to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ALICHE: The first time I went to Nigeria, I didn't understand how our village worked - right? - because my dad really grew up in a village, and my mom grew up in the city. So my dad would introduce me to - this is Jacob (ph) Aliche. Ah, me, too. I'm Aliche. This is, you know, Nwannem (ph) Aliche. Ah, me, too - Aliche. After the third one, my dad said, ah, everybody here is Aliche. That's the way a village works, Tiffany. I didn't know that a village was extended family. And this is how you knew who to marry, who not to intermarry. This village is related to this village. So they kept very, like, awesome historical...

AJAYI JONES: History.

ALICHE: ...Notes. Yes.

AJAYI JONES: I love that because, yeah, I think our names really do - can, like, tell our stories.

ALICHE: Yes.

AJAYI JONES: Like, I love the fact that yours ties you to your village...

ALICHE: Mmm hmm.

AJAYI JONES: ...And ties you to your father's legacy.

ALICHE: There's just such power in tracing who you are and how you became. You know, and sometimes there's pain in that for some folks, you know, because...

AJAYI JONES: Yeah.

ALICHE: ...Sometimes their name is tied to trauma. But still, it's still part of your history.

AJAYI JONES: Yes. And I think us doubling down on where we're from, who we are, is one of those things we can't feel bad about.

ALICHE: Mmm hmm.

AJAYI JONES: We are here in spite of where we came from and because of it. And some of the pride that we show is because we remember when we...

ALICHE: Yeah.

AJAYI JONES: ...Couldn't go by our names because we'd be ridiculed. It's because we remember when people would make fun of us purely because they think we're African and we are uncivilized. And this pride today is the type that they can't take away from us. And we are the ones that can now also make sure we're passing that affirmation to our kids.

ALICHE: Mmm hmm.

AJAYI JONES: The fact that kids can now see these names in these grand stages, it will expand their possibility and let them know that they might not be the doctor, attorney. They could be the writer. They could be the financial educator who built her own path. And I think that's powerful. And the fact that we carry these very African names is just such an affirmation of it all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCCAMMON: That's Luvvie Ajayi Jones and Tiffany Aliche. For more of this conversation plus other audio and video episodes in the Where We Come From series, visit npr.org/wherewecomefrom. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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