The Oscars, Quvenzhané & The C-Word
By Tracy Clayton
I watched every piece of the Oscars Sunday night, from pre-shows to the very end, which means that I was in front of my television for roughly 23 hours. My viewing experience began in anger and fury, and it ended the very same way. And thanks to some despicable behavior from the internet, that anger and fury is persisting hours after the show has ended.
It began when I heard Ryan Seacrest say that “they” (meaning, I assume, he and his E! red carpet cohorts) had decided to call Quvenzhané Wallis, the 9-year-old dynamo nominated for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild, “Little Q” instead of her actual name. Here’s a quick breakdown of the problems with this:
1. That isn’t her name.
2. To my knowledge, neither Quvenzhané nor her family OK’d this nickname.
3. That nickname wasn’t given to her out of love or adoration; it was given out of discomfort and a need to control what they deemed as “other” in society.
Naming and names are important because they are entwined in our identities and the ownership of us and our bodies. We name things that belong to us. We name our children. We name our pets. We name our cars and our plants and our stuffed animals and even our hair. The act of naming and/or re-naming something is absolutely about power and control, and this is something that slave owners knew very well–a standard practice in “seasoning” and “breaking” a slave was assigning them Anglo-Saxon names. This established that those men and women were, without a doubt, property of their purchasers, and completely severed them from the identities they knew. Further, the names that were assigned to enslaved black men and women were often diminutive versions of common names–Billy instead of William; Donnie instead of Donald. These were verbal reminders that you were not a whole man or a whole woman, that you were not fully human. And when that wasn’t enough, they were stripped of those names and called “boy” or “gal,” because acknowledging a person’s self-approved name is to acknowledge the humanity in someone.
This is still the function of naming, and precisely why the insistence on not learning how to prounounce Quvenzhané’s name is so problematic and outright offensive.
The erasure of Quvenzhané’s name is an attempt, consciously or unconsciously, to step around and contain her blackness. Yes, sometimes black people have names that are difficult to pronounce. There aren’t many people of European descent named Shaniqua or Jamal. Names are as big a cultural marker as brown skin and kinky hair, and there has long been routine backlash against both of those things (see: perms, skin bleaching creams, etc.). This insistence on not using Quvenzhané’s name is an extension of that “why aren’t you white?” backlash.
Calling Quvenzhané “Little Q” is a lazy way to keep from having to deal with the discomfort that race causes. It is easier to be colorblind, to simply turn a blind eye to the differences that have torn this nation apart for centuries than it is to wade through those choppy waters. And Quvenzhané’s very existence is enough to make the societal majority uncomfortable. She is talented, successful, beautiful, happy, loved, and adored–all things that many people don’t figure that little black girls with “black” names could, or should, be. Their answer? Let’s make her more palatable. If she insists on not fitting the mold of the ghetto hoodrat associated with women with “urban” names, let’s take her own urban name away from her.
Refusing to learn how to pronounce Quvenzhané’s name says, pointedly, you are not worth the effort. The problem is not that she has an unpronounceable name, because she doesn’t. The problem is that white Hollywood, from Ryan Seacrest to the AP reporter who decided to call her “Annie” rather than her real name, doesn’t deem her as important as, say, Renee Zellwegger, or Zach Galifinakis, or Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom have names that are difficult to pronounce–but they manage. The message sent is this: you, young, black, female child, are not worth the time and energy it will take me to learn to spell and pronounce your name. You will be who and what I want you to be; you be be who and what makes me more comfortable. I will allow you to exist and acknowledge that existence, but only on my terms.