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Exploring the power of names

Abena Sankofa Imhotep and her husband take a selfie on their wedding day.
Abena Sankofa Imhotep
Abena Sankofa Imhotep and her husband on their wedding day. Imhotep decided to legally change her given name to embrace her West African genealogy.

Following the introduction of a bill in the Iowa House that would require teachers to let parents know if a student wants to use a different name at school, several Iowans discuss what's in a name and why some people choose to change them.

The name we are given, the name we call ourselves and the names other people use to refer to us are powerful parts of our identity. Names are shaped by our culture, our relationships, our needs and our preferences.

Many people officially change their names in their lifetimes and even more unofficially change their names. Recently, the names that students choose to go by at school, if different than their given name, have been a source of controversy. Iowa lawmakers have introduced a bill that would require parental notification if a student chooses to go by a name or pronouns that differ from those they use at home.

Luke Fleming, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Montreal, says in some cultures, name changes aren't all that uncommon.

"We tend to think of our naming tradition not as a tradition," he said. "We assume that people all have first names and last names, but in many places, you have one name, or your name changes often during your life, so you don't have one name that sticks to you for your whole lifespan."

Fleming said in America, it's normal for the state to play a role in how we identify ourselves.

"State institutions are important to our identity. They legitimize our identity," he said. "We need our name to be changed on a passport, on an official document. In that way, the state is co-opting some of our power to determine our own identity. In many other societies that I've studied, people change their name when they're going through a string of bad luck. They'll say, 'I'm not being called by that name anymore, I'm changing my name.'"

And of course, name changes aren't all that uncommon in the United States, either — many women change their last names when they get married. For a long time, keeping one's maiden name was the exception, not the rule. That tradition has changed over time. Many couples now choose to hyphenate their names, adopt a third, different surname or not change their names at all.

Dr. Sarah Updegraff Murray, a principal who lives in Lansing, didn't initially change her name when she got married but decided to for her vow renewal ceremony 10 years later.

"I had just finished my doctorate at Drake, and I was really proud of that title. And so I wanted to make sure that I maintained Dr. Updegraff," she said. In addition, the couple "got married in the middle of a school year, and even practically thinking, asking high school kids to make a name change for you in the middle of the school year can be really hard. So some of that was also practical." Murray says her husband and the rest of her family was totally fine with that decision.

Ten years later, Murray says most of the students at school simply call her 'Doc,' and she and her husband have had a child together, whose last name is Murray. When the couple decided to renew their vows, Murray decided she wanted to change her last name.

"My husband has two children from his first marriage, all of whom have the last name Murray. And I just thought it was time for me to honor him and to honor them, so we could all have the same last name."

Murray now uses her maiden name, Updegraff, as a middle name, and she said the decision feels right.

Jasper Chung, who is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns, changed their name after realizing their birthname no longer suited them.

"It took me a while to realize that I didn’t like my birth name," Chung said. "A lot of my transition was just me being uncomfortable with the way the world was perceiving me. I didn’t realize how uncomfortable it was making me until I started looking for other names."

Chung said they would try out new names at coffee shops, giving the barista a name to shout out with their order. When they finally tried out "Jasper" after watching a TikTok on gender-neutral names, they realized it worked well with their siblings, all seven of whom also have names that start with J.

"I just said it over and over. I liked how it sounded, how it felt. It made me feel seen. I was like, 'This is the one.' The first time someone used it for me, it took me back — I forgot I had told them. They greeted me with it, and I almost started crying because it was so beautiful. I also Googled all of the names and there weren’t a lot of celebrities named Jasper. It’s mostly the name of towns and provinces. I looked up the songs. I looked up everything."

"I just said it over and over. I liked how it sounded, how it felt. It made me feel seen."
Jasper Chung, wedding photographer

Author Abena Sankofa Imhotep, who serves as the executive director of Sankofa Literary and Empowerment Group and Sankofa Literary Academy, decided to legally change her name to embrace her West African heritage.

"I'd long been curious about my history and Black history in general," she said. "My parents gave me a name at birth, which was a beautiful name. However, they chose that name for me, and I'd always been curious about culture and history and my own genealogy."

Through research and DNA testing, Imhotep learned she had Nigerian, Benin and Ghanaian ancestry. Naming traditions in Ghana, particularly within the Akan tribe, name a baby by the day of the week they are born as well as the name they are given by their parents. Abena is the female version of the word "Tuesday." "Sankofa" means to return to the past to retrieve knowledge for the future.

"There's nothing more powerful than knowing who you are."
Abena Sankofa Imhotep, author

Imhotep and her husband chose their new last name together and chose to carry the name of an Egyptian architect and powerful historical figure. She noted that her mother was sad she changed her name and took time to understand, but she stands by her decision to embrace a part of her identity that she says, in many ways, frees her.

"There's nothing more powerful than knowing who you are," she said.

Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio
Charity Nebbe is the host of IPR's Talk of Iowa
Josie Fischels is a Digital News producer at Iowa Public Radio. She is a 2022 graduate of the University of Iowa’s school of journalism where she also majored in theater arts (and, arguably, minored in the student newspaper, The Daily Iowan). Previously, she interned with the Denver Post in Denver, Colorado, and NPR in Washington, D.C.