Whomever said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” lied. Words can cut people to the core and individuals respond differently based on their perceptions and experiences. In “What’s Your Name Girl?,” Maya Angelou tells her story of being a young southern black girl working for a white woman, Mrs. Cullinan, when racism and segregation still persisted. Being young and black in the South during the 1930’s, Maya, then known as Margaret, equated her name with a sense of self and respect.
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Although Margaret was only ten years old when she went to work in Mrs. Viola Cullinan’s kitchen, she was already acutely aware of who she was and had remarkably clear views on racism. Initially, Margaret pitied Mrs. Cullinan because she was overweight, unattractive, sterile and unable to have children. Then on one evening while Margaret prepared to serve Mrs. Cullinan and her guests, everything changed. The sympathy Margaret felt for Mrs. Cullinan turned to anger as Mrs. Cullinan proceeded to allow one of her friends to persuade her to condense Margaret’s name to Mary. Margaret’s name had already been changed from Marguerite to Margaret due to mispronunciation. The changing of one’s name without their agreement is an apparent sign of disrespect. In Margaret’s case, it happened to be another indication of blatant racism by Mrs. Cullinan.
While Glory, Mrs. Cullinan’s maid and cook, had accepted being renamed (Glory’s given name was Hallelujah) by her boss, Margaret did not agree to the changing of her name at all. Glory states that she was around the same age as Margaret when Mrs. Cullinan had renamed her Glory. The difference between Glory and Margaret was that Glory claimed to have actually liked her “new name” better than the name her mother had given her at birth. Margaret was extremely angry that Mrs. Cullinan, a white woman, had changed her name all for the sake of convenience after one of her friends made the suggestion because the name Margaret was too long. Angelou stated that every person she had known had been tortured when they were called out of their name and that ” it was a dangerous practice to call a Negro anything that could be loosely construed as insulting.” When Mrs. Cullinan changed Margaret’s name to Mary, Margaret considered that an insult and a slap in the face. Mrs. Cullinan might as well have called or renamed Margaret Nigger, Jig, Dinge, Blackbird, Crow Boot or Spook because calling her Mary felt just the same to Margaret.
Since it is 1938 and in the deep south where blacks must still endure racism and segregation; Margaret, who is black, certainly cannot demand any respect from her white employer. So, Margaret comes up with the next best thing. Margaret devises a plan to get herself fired by Mrs. Cullinan. Margaret begins to slack on her household duties by improperly washing the dishes and shining the silverware. Margaret also starts coming into work late and leaving early. Although, Miss Glory was dismayed with Margaret’s work ethic, she did not inform Mrs. Cullinan of what was going on and Margaret’s plan to get fired was backfiring. With assistance from her brother Bailey, Margaret decides to strike Mrs. Cullinan where it hurts most, her beloved Virginia dishes. Once again, Mrs. Cullinan screams “Mary” and Margaret proceeds to drop some of Mrs. Cullinan’s favorite pieces, the casserole and two glass cups. After “Mary” intentionally drops the heirloom china on the floor, Mrs. Cullinan falls to the floor crying while picking up the shards of broken glass. Mrs. Cullinan drops all pretenses and insults Margaret with racial slurs when she begins calling her “a clumsy little black nigger”. When the friend who suggested that Viola start calling Margaret, Mary in the first place, asks if Mary had done the dastardly deed of breaking her mother’s china, Viola screamed “Her nameââ‚¬â„¢s Margaret, goddamn it, her nameââ‚¬â„¢s Margaret!ââ‚¬ Unfortunately, it took the breaking of precious china for Mrs. Cullinan to give Margaret the only thing she ever wanted in the first place, her name, thus RESPECT.
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William Shakespeare once wrote ” What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Some may beg to differ. One of the few things a person can claim as their own, is their name. Changing a person’s name without their consent can be painful and most of all disrespectful. While a person is not fully defined by their names, it is a distinctive and salient aspect of who they are. Although words cannot break bones, they undoubtedly still can be hurtful when used recklessly and without regard.
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