What’s in my Name
Updated: Jan 28, 2020
I was sure that when I got married, I was going to keep my name for two reasons. First, it was an affront to patriarchy which demanded that women take on the names of their male partners which signified leaving the care of their fathers and moving under the care of their husbands. Second, I am a creative and for the sake of continuity and easy connection to the brand I am building, it made sense. However, when I got married, I was plunged into an existential crisis (ok, a melodramatic episode) about what to do with my name. This was not because of any pressure from my partner or new family but because I suddenly wanted all my names due to their historical significance but thought it was a bit excessive and felt like I needed to choose one.
In Liberia, where I am from, three groups mark one’s cultural identity. The indigenous or native group consists of sixteen tribes that have been in, or over time, migrated from other parts of Africa to that region. The Americo- Liberians are the descendants of enslaved people from the United States and the Caribbean who decided to return to Africa and the Congo people are the decedents of people from the Congo Basin of Africa who, on their forced journey to bondage in the Americas, were let off in Liberia and Sierra Leone upon the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade. As a means of survival in unfamiliar territory, the Americo -Liberians and the Congo people intermarried and formed alliances so tightly knit that the identity ‘Congo’ became interchangeable with Americo- Liberian and is still today the singular term used to describe anyone who is not indigenous. These two groups created an elite class of Liberian citizenship and ruled Liberia from the time their ships docked there until 1980 when they were overthrown by a military coup of indigenous rebels.
Though many Americo-Liberians saw the natives as beneath them, some perused right relationships with the natives as a means to gain political influence in the western style municipalities that had been created by the settlers. This is the context that brought my grandfather, Philip, an indigenous man, in the company of Joseph Innis a 'Congo' man. Joseph Innis served as governor of Grand Bassa County and my great grandfather, Dwah was a clan chief among the Bassa people. In order to keep those political alliances strong, Joseph Innis formed a special relationship with Chief Dwah. Rumor has it that in addition to wanting to have the support of the Bassa people in the county, this alliance between Joseph Innis and Chief Dwah was inevitable due to a crush Joseph Innis had on Chief Dwah’s sister. For these reasons, Joseph Innis offered to take care of my grandfather Philip by giving him access to a formal education, a tradition that was customary across Liberia between the Americo-Liberians and the native people whose lands they settled on. When grandfather Philip moved in with Governor Innis, in addition to sending him to school, he introduced Philip to Christianity and gave him his last name. From then on, my grandfather became known as Philip Innis. Though indigenous children who sent their kids to live with Americo-Liberians didn’t all have positive experiences as they were often mistreated, Philip saw Joseph Innis as a mentor who opened his eyes to a world he would not have known otherwise. For that reason, Grandpa Philip took the Innis name with pride and consequently passed the name to his children and grandchildren. Prior to Grandpa Philip being an Innis, Philip had no last name but was simply known as Philip, the son of Dwah because children were identified as members of the community through their fathers.
Were Jospeh Innis, a black man and descendant of settlers from the United States to trace his roots pre slavery, he’d be linked back to Africa and his name would have been African. But because 'Innis' is a variation of Innes a Scottish Gaelic surname, it’s likely that Joseph Innis’ African ancestors were bought and owned by a Scottish family with this name hence the transference of the name to black people that made its way to Africa. For its distance from anything African in addition to the way settlers treated natives, I had an uncle, now deceased who never answered to Innis. I also have a cousin who though is an Innis on paper, uses Dwah, as her last name on social media as a way to keep the family name alive. Overall, the advent of thoughts of a name change has allowed me to process holding on to Innis as an act of solidarity with Africans who were brought against their will to the Americas and lost their identity. As one whose brand seeks to connect black people, particularly the descendants of slavery back to Africa, my name acts as a bridge that allows those, whose ancestors were forcefully ripped from the continent and thus lost their indigenous African identity to know that they are very much still African. Though not officially through record change simply due to the tedious nature of the task, I've started incorporating my partner’s family name with a hyphen to my signature. From the Igbo tribe, a mighty people of Biafra, (Now eastern Nigeria) his family name, 'Muotolu' (pronounced Maw-to-lou) means “ The Spirit hails me.” Who wouldn’t want to walk around with a name that means a Divine being enthusiastically acclaims them? I know I want to. His name helps me create gives me access to other aspects of African culture and history.
So, instead of having to choose a name, I choose to go by all my names. Some days, you might see or hear 'Janjay Kamah Innis,' which are my first, middle and maiden name upon a verbal or written introduction. Other times, it might be hyphenated with my partner's name as 'Janjay K. Innis -Muotolu' and as seen on social media, I display 'Janjay Kamah' , my first and middle indigenous given names which mean gift and leading lady in the Bassa and Via languages of Liberia respectively.And when I am feeling like a superstar, you might see my first name 'Janjay' stand alone as an artsy moniker because it’s just that fabulous. Our names tell deep meaningful stories about who we are, where we are from, what we have endured. Our names are the first things we own when we come into the world and we have the right to keep, expand, or change it as we please. What’s the story of your name?
Phillip(Son of Dwah) Innis