I’ve been called Nigger, Blackie, and other pejorative names. The people issuing those insults were ignorant; their words have no power. Besides, I know what my parents wrote on my birth certificate. I own and love my name. No one can change it without my consent.
A few hours after I gave birth to my only child, a hospital attendant gave me the birth certificate application. I was exhausted. My husband filled out the form, starting with our daughter’s first name: Juliette. Growing up in Haiti and studying French for years persuaded me to add the diacritical circumflex, modifying the spelling to Juliêtte.
As soon as Juliêtte could hold a pen, I taught to write her name. By the time she started pre-school, she was an expert. When she entered kindergarten, her teacher told her to stop putting “the little hat” on her name.
“When I put the accent on my name, Mrs. F. makes me miss recess.”
I contacted Mrs. F. at once. Surely, there was a misunderstanding. What teacher would forbid a student to spell her given name correctly? Once the birth certificate was issued, only a judge could approve a legal name change.
“Your daughter is very bright,” Mrs. F. began. “Unfortunately, she likes to doodle. We do not allow children to doodle.”
“The circumflex is part of my daughter’s name,” I assured the teacher. “Juliêtte is not doodling.”
“In that case, I’ll need an official document to substantiate that claim. When you bring proof, she can put that hat on her name.”
I was shocked and angry, but tried to remain calm. “Juliêtte’s been in this school since she was two years old. Writing the circumflex was never a problem.”
“I can’t speak for other teachers.” Mrs. F. said curtly. “Bring proof, and then I’ll allow it.”
My daughter loved the school and her classmates. Until she went to Mrs. F.’s class, everything was fantastic. I was not sure what I would do, but I would not permit the teacher to change my daughter’s name for reasons known only to her.
I went to the Bureau of Vital Records and asked for a copy of Juliêtte’s birth certificate. When I looked at the name, I noticed the circumflex was not there. “Where is the accent?” I asked the clerk.
I wrote Juliêtte on a piece of paper, and pointed to the circumflex.
The clerk rubbed his chin. “Our computers can’t make those.”
Hot blood rushed to my head. “Where is that form I wrote my child’s name on after I gave birth?”
“The official birth certificate application. My child’s teacher won’t let her write her name properly, unless I bring proof.”
“You need to contact the hospital for that,” he said.
The hospital faxed the form to the Bureau of Vital Records. A supervisor’s supervisor wrote the circumflex in by hand and initialed next to the correction.”
I marched into the principal’s office the following morning, and expressed my annoyance with the teacher’s treatment of my child and how she spoke to me.
“I think you’re overreacting,” the principal stated. “Mrs. F. told me your daughter likes to doodle. And we do not allow that. By the way, what exactly does the circumflex do?”
I gave him a free lesson on French vowel sounds, before realizing he was quizzing me. He bobbed his head, letting me know I had passed the test.
“Your reaction is not in concert with Mrs. F.’s intentions,” the principal added. “I am sure it was all very innocent.”
I disagreed and still do. To this day Juliêtte remembers the incident, and is sure to spell her name as it appears on her birth certificate. As long as Juliêtte remembers the name my husband and I gave her, the Mrs. Fs of the world and other miscreants’ insults will have no power.
Katia D. Ulysse is a fiction writer and author of the short story collection, Drifting (Akashic), one of Teaching Tolerance’s staff pick for 2015. Born in Haiti, she was raised in Petion-Ville and New York. Her work has appeared in numerous issues of The Caribbean Writer; Macomère, Calabash, Peregrine, Phoebe, Smartish Pace. Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism, among others; anthologized in Mozayik: an anthology in Haitian Creole; Brassage: a collection of poetry by Haitian Women; The Butterfly’s Way: Voices of Haitians in the Dyaspora and Haiti Noir, both edited by Edwidge Danticat. Her poem “Etiquette” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She holds a BA in English and a Master’s degree in TESOL from Notre Dame of Maryland University. Ulysse has taught in Baltimore City for twelve years. The sequel to her first bi-lingual book for Children, Fabiola Konn Konte / Fabiola Can Count (OneMooreBook) will be published in October, 2016.