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What’s In a (Last) Name?

You may or may not have seen the story circulating the internet about actress Zoe Saldana’s husband Marco, making the decision to take on HER last name.
Of course, this sparks the debate about why women always have to change their names in the first place.
My initial reaction is that I think couples should do what’s right for them and for their family.

On one hand, the romantic and family oriented side of me loves the concept of signifying familial unity by sharing names. You have become a tribe. And the Saldanas have done just that, just in a more non-traditional way. Does Marco’s decision represent a shift in male/female power even within a relationship? Or does Marco’s decision reflect that his wife has established her name and made it famous off of her own hard work and merit and that he’s proud of her? Well, only Marco can answer that, but it is a bold move on his part. Even Zoe herself was hesitant and reminded him of the cultural implications and outside views on his manhood, to which he replied that he didn’t “give a sheet.”

On that same romantic and family oriented hand is the black consciousness side, that wants to preserve black families. I know the stats. 60% of black households are headed by black women, yet if a successful black woman marries a black man, especially one that is not the main breadwinner, in most cases, he would be staunchly against taking her name. I’ve even heard of black men being offended by the notion of hyphenation. But there’s all sorts of murky historical stuff that I could go into as to why black men may feel this way, but I can save that for another time and another post.

I had always said that I never wanted to be in a position where my children didn’t share the same last name with everyone else in the household. (I’m not knocking blended families or single parents who have different names this is my personal preference.) I just remember the confusion and embarrassment of a lot of kids at church and school who had a bunch of brothers and sisters but different last names. My dad was the superintendent of Sunday School and after being corrected several times for our annual Christmas program, he learned never EVER to assume siblings had the same last name, when he would introduce them prior to a speech or a song they’d present.

****TANGENT WARNING: While this is part of the reality in the black community that can’t be ignored, I hate the assumptions placed on black mothers that they are automatically single mothers. Black women– black people, for that matter never get the courtesy of being judged individually or on a case-by-case basis. Generalizations prevail unless we go out of our way in further discussion dropping tidbits like “when I got my masters degree” “or my HUSBAND said the other day,” and then there’s a shift in how we are received and how our narrative is processed. This disarming of employees in stores, or even at the doctor’s office or the bank, or with the realtor is necessary to possibly ensure better treatment. As soon as I say words like, “I’m from Long Island” or “I go to George Washington” something changes, people loosen up, they want to learn more about me, and become impressed with my accomplishments. Not sure what they assumed about me, but it was probably nothing like what I told them. And it’s frustrating, there are times I hate even having to stoop to that level as if my education or where I’m from should give me a pass from subpar treatment or service. I should have that right simply because of my humanity. But that’s not the case.

Sometimes when BOTH of my parents showed up to my parent teacher conferences, you could tell by the look on the teachers faces that this was indeed rare, and my parents were given rather condescending comments praising them for taking an active role in their child’s education after collecting themselves from the shock. That bothers me and I’m sure it pissed them off being talked to that way, as grown, responsible, tax-paying folks just like everyone else. I’ve heard stories from married black women who face those assumptions if they go to an obstetrican appointment or when they go to have their babies, people assume FIRST that they aren’t married and no man is in the picture. And all of that is very disheartening.

People automatically police and dissect the morality of single mothers, but sometimes automatically put those same labels on married black mothers too!


The feminist in me loves my name. I wouldn’t want to change it to something wack, and sometimes, it’s hard for me to wrap my head around arriving to this planet as one name and then leaving as another. The professional writer says whatever published work I produce should always have my name, regardless of my marital status. I’ve built my career off of that name and it will stay with me, professionally.

In some cases, people have chosen to hyphenate, in an effort to retain everyone’s name and give the children both names, and seemed to be a natural, logical choice for same-sex couples.
But change is the nature of life. We either evolve or we die.
As we evolve into a very new world, where does tradition still play a role? Is there room for tradition or can or should traditions evolve with the times? If they do, can they even be considered traditions?

There are all kinds of valid arguments for taking on your partner’s name, hyphenating or not making a name change at all… which goes back to my original view. Couple’s should make that decision for themselves… but most importantly they have to agree on what the world should call them.

What do you think?

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3 thoughts on “What’s In a (Last) Name?

  1. This was a challenge for us, because (due to some dysfunctional family stuffs) my surname was my own, chosen and legalized by me when I was 16. Because I had chosen (and paid for) my last name, I didn’t want to give it up when I got married. My husband didn’t want us to have different names, especially if we were going to have kids because he wanted all the family members to have the same name. Which I totally get. He also didn’t want to give up his name because he was from a rural area and he didn’t want to buck tradition. In the end, I told him I wasn’t giving up my name, so we’d have to work out a compromise. We ended up hyphenating, and all three of us share the same name.

    That’s not to say it hasn’t been challenging. The lady at the social security office could not comprehend why Jason needed to fill out a name change form and get a new card. Whenever we traveled internationally (pre- and post-911) we had to have extra documents like our marriage certificate to prove that both of us changed our names. And for the longest time my MIL wouldn’t recognize the hyphenated last name. Like, almost ten years. She’s come around though (seeing that, having just celebrated our 19th anniversary, I’m probably around for the long haul), so it’s okay. And Andrea isn’t the only child in school with a hyphenated name. I’m actually surprised by the number of kids in her class that also share that surname style. Probably more prevalent because we’re in an urban area than if we were in a rural community, but still. It makes us unique, but not THAT unique.

    I can’t speak to the cultural aspects as far as black/white issues. I don’t know if it was (relatively) easier because we weren’t POC, or if it wouldn’t have mattered because no matter who’s doing it, they’re going up against hundreds (thousands?) of years of traditional naming devices. I only share from the perspective of someone who, together with my spouse, made the conscious decision to hyphenate. Genuinely clueless on whether our race or culture made a difference in people’s ability to accept our decision.

    As you said, the times they are a-changing. I think it’s awesome that people are making their own decisions. You shouldn’t have to do what everyone else does just because.

    Sorry for the novel. This post just intrigued me.

    • I’m so glad you liked the post and took the time to share your experiences! That’s what I enjoy most about blogging… it’s not just me yelling out into the void. I think you’ve brought up a great point about also how whether your live in a rural or urban area can also impact your decision. If you’re from a small town, your last name can represent the history of your town and you can trace your heritage back to the original folks who lived there. In urban melting pots, you’ll see people be more flexible because there isn’t such an emphasis on family name and roots, because so many people are transplants. I’m from a small town, so you will literally have my parent say oh the Smith boy is marrying the Johnson girl, and everyone will know who you’re talking about, lol. I think hyphenation is totally growing in popularity in more modern times because of people individually building their lives and having a strong connection to their name prior to marriage. Your situation is a good example, you went through a lot of ups and downs and the name you chose for yourself holds A GREAT deal of symbolism for you. And I know people, males who were grateful they were given their mother’s last name because either they didn’t know their father, or had a terrible relationship and felt more connected to and loved by the maternal side of the family and wanted no parts of that name. So there are a lot of sticky situations. It all makes for a very interesting discussion, right? Thank you so much for sharing!!!!

      • What you were saying about people having a stronger connection to their name, I think the fact that a lot of us are waiting until we’re older impacts that as well. Especially for women. If you don’t get married until your 30s or 40s (as opposed to the teens and 20s of my parents/grandparents) you’ve had more time to build a reputation or name for yourself in your career. If you suddenly change your name to something totally different, how many of your colleagues will recognize it’s you? Or will you have to start from scratch?

        It is all very interesting. Thanks for a great conversation starter!

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