• Susannah Colt

WHAT'S IN A NAME? How Ketanji got her name

Updated: Apr 21

What’s in a name? Is it just a way to identify you as an individual person; to distinguish yourself from others? Or is there a deeper meaning to your name?

In most cases parents give great thought to the naming of their children. There are books with plenty of suggestions. Inspiration comes from many sources – the name of a favorite band, musician, president, philosopher, adventurer, movie or tv character, book, flower, fauna, fruit, color, etc., etc.

Some parents will search back through their ancestors to find a name or call upon spirits to reveal the name. Some will wait for the baby to be born in the hopes of being inspired by something unique in the baby’s character which will cry out for a certain name.

The parents of our next Supreme Court justice gave great thought to the naming of their first-born. Wanting to honor their African heritage they asked their baby’s aunt, who was a

Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa, to send them a list of appropriate names. They chose Ketanji Onyika, which means “lovely one.” They must have been prescient and hopeful when they named her, despite having lived through Jim Crow segregation until there was a glimmer of hope with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. They overcame the historic barriers, graduated from historically black colleges and universities and, when their daughter was born in 1970, they were working as public-school teachers.

Ketanji (pronounced, KƏ-TAHN-jee) grew up watching her father and mother become a lawyer and high school principal, respectively, both committed to public service. She learned the importance of her name’s heritage, which came from a land where her ancestors were stolen and brought to work on land that was stolen from the Native Americans; where her ancestor’s names were erased, and they were given anglicized names so their owners and overseers could bear down upon them and keep them under control.

Being given an African name is the only way to hold onto one’s African heritage because tracing the genealogy of an enslaved person is next to impossible. That is why Ketanji’s parents gave their daughter her name, to inspire pride and hope in their daughter as she made her way in the world.

Sadly, in America’s short history since the end of the Civil War, having an African-sounding name had been a barrier to success. Putting an African name on a resume or loan application had typically meant immediate denial, a form of discrimination hard to prove. I would like to think that practice has subsided, and people are judged not by their name, but by the content of their resume or loan application.

I keep typing Ketanji, not out of disrespect to the first Black woman to be confirmed as an Association Justice on the Supreme Court, but because her name is worth repeating – over and over. It is a “lovely one” and flows off the tongue seamlessly and beautifully. By saying her name, we honor her, her achievements, her parents’ achievements, and all her ancestors until the beginning of time.

Pronouncing Ketanji’s name correctly is another way to honor her. Those who make fun of pronouncing her name, like Tucker Carlson of Fox, when he quipped that “even Joe Biden has trouble pronouncing it,” are being disrespectful.

We certainly don’t have any problem pronouncing all the other Supreme Court justices' names (John, Stephen, Clarence, Samuel, Sonia, Elena, Neil, Bret, and Amy), so we should make every effort to get Ketanji’s name right, just as we should get the first female Black/Asian-American vice president’s name right. Kamala even acknowledges that people get it wrong often, so in her 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold, she explains how to pronounce it: “First, my name is pronounced ‘comma-la,’ like the punctuation mark. It means ‘lotus flower,’ which is a symbol of significance in Indian culture. A lotus grows underwater, its flower rising above the surface while its roots are planted firmly in the river bottom.”

Once Ketanji is sworn in as the 116th Supreme Court Associate Justice, of course, you shall refer to her as Justice Brown Jackson or “Your Honor.” Anything less would be disrespectful.

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