George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Ahmaud Arbery, Rayshard Brooks … The #SayTheirNames movement wants all the names of victims of the hands of U.S. police to be known so we realize that systemic racism is more than a bare statistic. The fact that the whole world now knows the name of the black man from Minneapolis who died under the knee of a white policeman opens the door to his full life—the son, the brother, the father of five children, the friend. Dale Carnegie, author of the perennial bestseller How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), emphasizes the importance of pronouncing, remembering and using names correctly. “A person’s name is the sweetest and most important sound to him or her in any language,” he writes. Brain research shows that when we hear our own name, the part of our brain that is responsible for our sense of self lights up. We are our name.
“Call me, confirm my existence, / let my name be like a chain. / Call me, call me, speak to me, / oh, call me by my deepest name. / For whom I love, I want to be called.” –Neeltje Maria Min
I remember how difficult it was to choose names for our children. It was a great responsibility to give them their identity. How would it sound when others called them by their name? Would they still be happy with it? As the number of American victims of Covid-19 approached 100,000, the New York Times marked this tragic milestone with a front page listing only the names of those who died, with an ultra-short biography—unique in the paper’s history. Not even a thousand fit on it. But that one page made a deep impression. Unlike all graphs and tables, this list of names made us realize that it concerns complete human lives.
When the 21-year-old designer Maya Lin won the competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial with a proposal for a simple granite wall chiseled with the names of the fallen American soldiers, it initially met a lot of resistance. Many preferred to see a heroic statue of generic soldiers (which also came later). But now this “wall of names” is one of the most treasured places in Washington. Every day you will find visitors who use pencils to trace the names of their loved ones on tissue paper. That way they can make their memories tangible and take them home. The names of the victims of 9/11 are also written in the monument at Ground Zero in New York. And in the town of Montgomery, Alabama, at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, there is a memorial to the victims of lynching. Visitors walk between huge steel plates hanging from the ceiling, in which more than four thousand names are engraved. Holding the names of all these victims—even though their parents, children, and friends can no longer call them—keeps them in mind. And with it also the suffering and injustice they experienced. Their lives were taken from them, but not their stories nor their names.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S.