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Several years ago, I sat on my friend Sonya’s sofa as we chatted about our school and work and kids. As I unfolded to her my most recent classroom anecdote, I commented that a pet peeve of mine was being referred to by students as “Miss.” It wasn’t the honorific “Miss” that got under my skin but rather that using that honorific alone to get my attention indicated that students didn’t want to be bothered to remember or pronounce my last name. My response tended to be that I’d pretend not to hear students who tried to get my attention by calling out “Miss” until they at least attempted to pronounce my last name. Although I knew there could be myriad reasons that students didn’t try to say my name – learning differences, short-term memory loss, and language barriers to name a few – I reasoned that if I took the time and intention to learn each of my 60-100 students’ names as quickly as I could every school year, they could make the effort to remember the names of each of their 8 or 9 teachers, including mine.
With time and gentle insistence, nearly all my students would remember and use both my honorific and my name.
Decades before I was born, Mary Hamilton insisted on usage of her chosen honorific in a court of law. A young Black CORE activist, Hamilton found herself in a 1963 Alabama courtroom, facing charges after she was arrested for picketing. Having stood her ground regarding this same issue throughout numerous encounters with police and resulting arrests and detainments, Hamilton found that this day was no exception to her resolve.
When the judge failed to address her as “Miss Hamilton,” she simply refused to answer him. This refusal persisted even after the judge directed Hamilton’s attorney to get her to apologize. Hamilton was subsequently held in contempt of court for several days, after which time her attorneys appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled that a court could not address Black and white witnesses differently.
Although such insistence might seem petty and unnecessary to 21st century women who may prefer not to be addressed with such a formal term, it’s important to remember the historical context of Hamilton’s fight. With slavery having been outlawed 100 years earlier, many aspects of American society still functioned on the assumption that Black Americans were unworthy of equal status with white Americans. Such inequity was reflected in Jim Crow laws; in segregated schools, hotels, restaurants, and neighborhoods; and in the massive quantity of massacres that were carried out in areas of the country where Black American communities managed to flourish despite the aforementioned inequities.
And “Miss” isn’t the only title Black women have had to insist be utilized when referring to them. Just a few short months ago, Dr. Carrie Rosario gently corrected and then was placed in a position to repeatedly insist that she be addressed appropriately by the title she’s earned: Dr. Rosario. Although the haughty zoning commissioner who derided her in this Zoom meeting has since been relieved of his position, the point of her having to insist that she be addressed appropriately remains.
Whether or not the defiant commissioner in this scenario was aware of it, his repeated refusal to address Dr. Rosario appropriately is a holdover practice from the era of Jim Crow. Read: it’s racist af.
Personally, I struggled with my name as a child. Although I knew and accepted that mine was a family name – I’m the third Querida – I hated that it was hard for classmates and teachers to pronounce, that it was Spanish even though I’m not, and that its meaning – “dear,” my mama told me – was too close to Bambi and not close enough to what I thought of as normal. In fact, I have distinct memories of making new friends in kindergarten and earnestly wanting to change my name to Sarah or JoAnn, to match what I saw as the normalcy in my new friends’ names.
Whatever our names or honorifics are, those we are given and those we earn, they belong to each of us as individuals. People who wish to interact and engage with us and do not respect us enough to pay us the basic courtesy of referring to us directly using the terms we’ve told them we prefer, have not earned the right to have an audience with us.
When I sat on Sonya’s couch that day all those years ago, she initially thought that I bristled at being called “Miss” because I was married, so the proper honorific would be “Mrs.” She had a point, for sure, but that wasn’t my gripe. I insisted then – and still do – that my name be learned and used by the people in my life. Full stop.
- In the case of Miss Mary Hamilton, the Supreme Court’s ruling in her favor effectively upheld the practice of desegregation by declaring that Black and white witnesses could not be addressed differently in a court of law. How much less might courtrooms be respected if rather than employing honorifics for all people, courts instead interpreted the ruling to mean that no one would be referred to formally? In other words – what if instead of essentially saying everyone had to receive the respectful treatment that had only been extended to white witnesses, everyone instead had to be treated like they were Black?
- Can you imagine the height to which we might have progressed as a society if captured Africans weren’t forced to answer to names their enslavers chose for them? If, rather than forcing new, English-sounding names upon these enslaved individuals, folks had instead learned how to manipulate their mouths, teeth, and tongues to use the names these people already had?
- How important are honorifics to you? If you are not particularly bothered by the formality with which someone addresses you, do you respect others’ preference in this regard?
Deep breath in and out, y’all. We are in the home stretch of this journey toward constructing more peaceful homes and communities, one piece at a time.