It happened without fail on the first day of school, always with such a predictable regularity that it became comical. In the first few minutes of a new class, a teacher would fastidiously take roll call, easily cruising through all the last names until they got to the “Ls”. That’s when the knot in my stomach would begin to grow, and by the time the teacher got to the last L, I’d hear a pause, that unmistakable, devastatingly long pause that let me know it was my time.
Teacher: Lyle…(devastatingly long pause)
Me: (rolls eyes, silent sighs)
Me: (disappointed) Here!
Teachers rarely called my name with any measure of certainty, it was always announced as a question- this subtle indicator of otherness was planted as an innocent seed, but in our formative years, these interactions play an important role in shaping our identity. The kids who knew me and were hip to the game would invariably laugh, knowing what would come next. If the teacher had dreams of stand up comedy, they would start in with Colony jokes about pilgrims, ant colonies and the like; for years nicknames like “13 Original” and “The Pilgrim” stuck to me like glue. But if the teacher had any shred of empathy they’d quickly put me out of my misery and move on with their business, but by and large, my name would prompt the one question that continues to plague me to this day: “How did you get the name COLONY?”
As a black woman named Colony, enduring years of these inquiries eventually taught me to build up the defenses required to handle the temporary judgment, but now I flip the script. When I meet people, my introduction becomes an important litmus test for them, because, in that split moment, their reaction to my name tells me a lot about a person.
I have long since embraced the uniqueness of my name, often to the point of laboring under the delusion that I am one of those cool mononymous people like Cher, Sade, or Sting who are simply known by their first name. The only time I ever envied an ordinary first name was when I’d hopelessly scour nametag souvenirs at amusement parks. I also distinctly remember watching Romper Room anxiously waiting for the host to call my name while she held that dumb magic mirror. That was an exercise in futility that those of us in the “secret society of unique names” share. All kidding aside, those experiences make a kid feel invisible, and visibility plays such an important role in how we shape our identity.
But during those early classroom roll calls, in that singular moment, I felt an awkward hyper-visibility when my name was called. It became a subtle reminder of my “otherness” in an environment that’s designed to teach us to blend in, reminding me that our struggles with embracing differences are cultivated at an early age through small exchanges like this. Our silence around topics of religion, race, gender, and sexual orientation has led to a culture of invisibility that perpetuates the idea that a societal utopia is a melting pot made of people who “don’t see race”.
As usual, an artist prompted this sociological analysis of my trip down memory lane. Deborah Roberts’ “Fragile but Fixable” in Los Angeles addresses the formative years of adolescence through the lens of young black girls.
I’ve written about Roberts’ work before; it is easy to get lost in the layers of complexity found among the images she fused together in her collages, but what I love most about her portraits is that they conjure the power of hyper-visibility, counteracting the social forces that attempt to render young black girls as invisible. Her art cobbles together symbols of power: a red boxing glove, a flexed muscle, a crown, and eyes that gaze squarely at the viewer. Her “sheroes” carry an unapologetic stance that demand you take notice of them.
But the piece that got me thinking about my name and how people react to it was a triptych of serigraphs that stuck out among the collaged portraits.
On each of the paper panels, Roberts lists the names of women, all of which are undisputedly black: Sharkesha, Tonisha, Ronisha, Shonique…each one is underscored by a squiggly red line reminiscent of the MS Word spell check “error” pointing out that’s something is wrong with the word written on the page.
This roll call of names is a sobering metaphor for the misguided perceptions and assumptions of others, and how we analyze and interpret those perceptions. The red lines remind us of what others deem as acceptable, and they also illuminate how we internalize these messages of acceptability. But Roberts does some script flipping herself. As I continued to walk by her portraits, the titles of her work reframe those messages of acceptability: The girls in “An Act of Power”, “A Golden Smile”, and a “Girl in Charge” don’t accept the labels that others attempt to place on them. In their portraits, we see a strength and power that comes from our ability to embrace our differences and uniqueness.
It’s a power that reminds me of a strong little girl who learned to ignore the pit in her stomach and sat up tall during that devastatingly long pause. She didn’t wait for the teacher to look confused, or ask questions, or say her last name. She took matters into her own hands and simply said,