“Real names” and magical thinking

Well, if this isn’t a night for posts to the new ol’ blog.

Many years ago, a lifetime away, I made friends with a Jamaican who was in graduate school with my then wife.

Sondra was a brilliant intellectual and a frequent guest in our home. We had got into a conversation during one dinner party about music, and when I mentioned that I had an undergraduate degree in Jazz Studies and about 9 credit hours of graduate work in composition, she asked me if I would speak to her son, who was considering pursuing a music performance major once he graduated high school.

Now, I knew Sondra (not her real name) and her oldest son Michael (not his real name). I’d met Sondra’s lover Geoffrey (not his real name) and her daughter Liz (not her real name). This was while Sondra was pregnant with Nicholas (not his real name). But when I first went to visit them in their own home, Sondra (not her real name) was now Sheila (not her real name) and her son Micheal (not his real name) was now Raymond (not his real name). Liz (not her real name) introduced herself as Abby (not her real name).

I floundered around for a bit, not knowing what to call anyone. “Oh,” say Sondra/Sheila (not her real names), “It’s an old Jamaican tradition. We have one name we use outside the home, and then we have a house name. It’s okay. You’re not Jamaican. Just use whatever name your comfortable with.”

I have limited experience with Jamaicans outside Sondra (which is the name I decided to stick with). Perhaps there’s a tradition of house names in Jamaica; perhaps there’s a tradition of outside-the-house names in Jamaica. Or perhaps Sondra’s Maroon/South Asian family had an African-diaspora tradition that they’d preserved in the face of modernity, or perhaps it was a familiocentric quirk. I’m not an Afro-Caribbean anthropologist. What I do know is that these were dear friends, generous in spirit, and I never had any problem identifying anything regardless of the names attached.

***

Among the ancient northern Europeans, there was an elaborate folklore involving “true names.” If you knew something’s true name, you had power over it. Magic involved learning the true names of things.

***

When I moved to Cincinnati back in the days when there were newspapers, I noticed a very strange quirk about the Cincinnati Enquirer. Whenever they had an article about a black rapper who had adopted a stage name, they would always add a parenthetical gloss on the performer’s “real name”: “50 Cent, whose real name is Curtis James Jackson, yesterday said . . . . ” I mean seriously, what kind of bullshit is that? Is anyone’s knowledge enriched by knowing that Curtis James Jackson III performs under the stage name 50 Cent? And why, for gawd’s sake, did the Cincinnati Enquirer not extend the same courtesy to Madonna Ciccione, Archy Leach, or Samuel Clemons?

***

With the rise of social media (okay, I realize it’s been years, but I’m old), there’s been this weird emphasis on “real names.” All the major social media sites run automated checks against various registered accounts, compare them against white pages entries, etc. and try to determine a “real name.” Real names are magical thinking. The folkloric story that my Jamaican friend gave me about house names involved demons, God, and whatnot. But it was all magic. We’ve now programmed magical thinking into web-bots. Apparently, there are such things as “true names,” and these true names have magic power.

***

I like Ernest Valdemar. Poe’s character is largely a cipher, which allows me to read all kinds of things into it. I first adopted the Valdemar avatar a) when avatars were de rigeur on the Internet, and b) when I was suffering from as-yet undiagnosed chronic obstructive apnea. I loved the literary quality, and as an undiagnosed apnea sufferer, the idea of a transfixed corpse with full mental function was particularly apropos.

For a while I had a Blogger blog under that name, where I blogged on popular culture, and the horror genre in particular. At that time, there were very few horror bloggers, and I had developed a certain following. But then zombie movies went mainstream, my sleep deprivation turned dangerous (falling asleep in traffic), and I couldn’t maintain it.

It’s been ages since I’ve seen a good exploitation film or read some really engaging horror fiction (not for lack of trying), but I really like the character. Just like Sondra’s family had house names and public names, I really like the name Ernest Valdemar. It’s still me. Get used to it, Internet.

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