“Then [Noah] sent out a raven, which kept going to and fro until the waters had dried up from the earth.”
As a child, I wanted to change my name. This desire was not particularly novel; children sometimes want to feel more unique, or less different. A new configuration of letters to form a name could make a world of difference. There is, of course, power in naming.
Stage names in particular appealed to me. They were self-selected, unlike one’s given name, which was assigned before anyone even got to know you. Stage names connotated performance. There was a part of you that you advertised and a part that you withheld. I never investigated the hidden part; everyone seemed to like my performance just fine. So it took a while before I realized I was performing more than just music.
I was thirteen when I was gifted my baby grand piano. It was my birthday present– several birthdays worth of presents. After years of clacking away on my keyboard and dragging my parents to the Piano Showcase to test out every new arrival, they relented. The men who put my piano together brought it in a huge box. I remember feeling puzzled; why had they not simply wheeled the piano I had played at the store over to our house? Eventually, the box came to symbolize a glorious pristine: I realized that I was the first person to ever coax music out of this instrument. From the realization, a bond formed and crystallized between me and that beautiful piano.
When the men had finished their job, I inspected the love of my thirteen-year-old life. My eyes ran over the shining black finish. I propped open the lip to gaze upon the gleaming interior maze of strings. My little brown fingers touched the gold lettering that spelled out the words, Pearl River, on the inside of the lid which covered the keys.
It was then the decision was made. If I was to be a concert pianist, I needed a name fit for a performer.
And so Rae Rivers was born.
By the end of middle school, Rae Rivers the stage name had become Rae Rivers the pen name. The transition to high school had been fraught. I had eagerly awaited my opportunity to audition for the Governor’s School of the Arts, a regional part-time, conservatory-like high school, for years. When I had managed to even make it on the waitlist for one of the two competitive classical piano spots, the call of my music made it hard to hear reason. I wanted to take my chances and wait it out for their final decision.
My parents, despite their encouragement and support of my love of music, worked to convince me that taking a more academic approach to high school would be better for me in the long run. There was no denying the facts: I had gotten into the newly founded International Baccalaureate program and my chances of getting into Governor’s School were slim. Many fights later, I tearfully accepted my place in the International Baccalaureate program, and tried to fill my life with art in other ways. I joined the drama club and played viola in the high school orchestra, continuing to daydream of performing on someone’s stage.
Around that time, I also began to write. It had always been one of my primary modes of expression, but for a while, it took a back seat to my sonatinas. There was a new urgency in my desire to write and a real urge for someone to read them. Emotions swirled around in my teenage body, and with less time to focus on pouring them out on the keys, I spread them out in notebooks I kept in my nightstand. I entertained my classmates with short stories starring us as X-Men that almost got me expelled; I crafted Harry Potter and Twilight fanfiction, but following my friends’ and my adventures as if we belonged to those worlds; I even wrote entire novels about what I imagined our futures would be like every November, like clockwork for National Novel Writing Month. (Notably, my friends were all very happy, yet I imagined my future self as divorced, lonely, and struggling to parent two children, James and Dove.)
With the urge to write and have others read came the question: to whom do these words belong? I had practiced my Rae Rivers signature with such frequency that it seemed a given. But I questioned what name would appear on the cover of my imagined books.
Whatever name it was, I wanted it to be all mine.
I had never been taken with the idea of having someone else’s name. I dreamily toyed with the idea of taking my crushes’ or boyfriends’ last names, drawing my potential initial through the soap on my leg in the bath, but always wiping it clean at the last minute and carefully drawing RKS with a smile.
The first time I consciously remember indignantly insisting I would never take my future partner’s last name was in college. I was telling a very cute underclassman exactly what type of woman I was– as if he didn’t already know. I never let him open doors for me, had a comeback for everything, and was quick to point out his “preferences” were thick with colorism and misogynoir. I challenged him, teased him, and frustrated him to no end.
I always smiled at the note of exasperation in his voice when he said my name. And though I berated him every time he struggled to describe me and fell to using words like, “bossy,” “aggressive,” and “difficult,” it seemed, in a twisted way, he could see me for who I really was: complicated. He couldn’t (or didn’t want to) find words that had a more positive connotation, but the essence of them was true. I was a leader, hard-working and goal-oriented. I was confident and assertive and clear about what I wanted. I wasn’t someone who neatly fit into preconceived notions about Blackness or femininity or both.
He wanted me to be something comprehensible. Legible. He wanted to be able to name me, as if it would help him make sense of me. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, giving name to the nameless so it can be thought. Instead, I defied it all. I was a force of nature. And we humans have a tendency to name hurricanes.
I never imagined what an important decision deciding what your professional name would be when I got to grad school. There were options: you could use your full name, first and last, first and middle initial, a pen name. If you got married, would you change your last name, hyphenate, move your maiden name to your middle name, use four names? The number of ways to stylize one’s own name for recognition was overwhelming.
Somewhere along the way, I realized I was the last Stringfield in my immediate family. I felt an intense desire to carry on the family name. And as I began to develop a digital footprint and folks began to know me as Ravynn Stringfield, the less I shied away from a pen name and the more I leaned into the name I was given before my parents even knew I would fly.
Flying terrified me. Going someplace new was exhilarating, but flying to get there? Not so much. It held a strange fascination with a side of irony: a Ravynn who had never flown. I never went too far, like the raven in Genesis.
Bible verses never stuck with me the way they did for my parents, yet once when I had endeavored to read the Bible from the beginning (spoiler: I never finished), I found that Noah had released a raven from the ark to find dry land. It kept returning to the ark, finding none. When Noah released the dove, for the second time, it never returned.
The image of these two birds returned to me often for ravens were meant to fly.
My mother named me. She’d seen the name in the newspaper but had wanted it to be spelled differently. She liked the idea that I would always stand out; I resented the fact that I couldn’t find a Florida keychain with my name on it on our 1999 family trip to Disney World.
It took time but I eventually embraced the fact that I was not just any old bird– I was a unique, Black, majestic force of nature that God designed to fly.
I spent years online, avoiding putting my name on anything. I was “Rae River,” or “Softballrae12,” or “Rae S.” Once I recognized that Twitter as a platform on which I could connect with distant colleagues in my fields and beyond during my first year of graduate school, I gave showing a little more of myself a try. I deliberately dubbed myself R A V Y N N, with a sunflower emoji for good measure.
Eventually, people began to populate my follower list, looking to read my blog posts or engage my last grad school musings. They were coming– and staying– for me. The popular, cool, detached persona I had developed as a teen was gone– and in its place was a girl finally starting to let the world see more of her with a little less fear.
It was not just the mystique that drew me to Rae Rivers. It was that she was a shield, protecting the pieces of myself that had not yet discovered the power in my name…in myself.
I wanted a name that belonged to me. My name and I were so powerful that we shared a name with creatures that defied the laws of gravity by the simple virtue of their existence.
And so I carefully resolved to be Ravynn K. Stringfield (so as to keep just a bit of my name’s power for myself). For, as you know, we humans tend to name hurricanes.
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