My Name is Birmingham: Learning to Love a Unique Name and City

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Our name can have a profound impact on our lives. Names often reveal details about us to people — often, before we even meet them. Studies show our names can affect how we do in school or our chances landing a job. So what if your name stands out in a way you’re not proud of? In her monthly blog post for WBHM, our guest blogger Javacia Harris Bowser writes about how learning to love her unique name helped her better appreciate herself and where she’s from.

Birmingham and I have a lot in common. When I look at my city I see myself.

Birmingham and I both had to work hard to love ourselves. It took years to learn to love our names.

Bombingham — that’s what they used to call my city, reducing everything and everyone she is to nothing but racism and violence.

Neither she nor I will ever forget the bomb that stole the lives of four little girls who just wanted to enjoy a peaceful Sunday morning at church. Neither she nor I will ever forget the men and women, boys and girls who were attacked by police officers and thrown into jail just because they wanted to march to make a change. Neither she nor I will ever forget that those fighting for equality weren’t even safe in their own homes.

But my city is not a bomb, a billy club, or a burning cross. She is not a high-powered water hose or the bite of a vicious dog. She is a phoenix that rose from the ashes and sparked a movement that changed the world.

So respect Birmingham. Do not call her Bombingham.

I once let people disrespect my name. I disrespected it too, calling it “ghetto.”

I was most uncomfortable with “Javacia” in college — my supposed rehearsal for the real world.

At orientation for my university’s honors program I tried to walk around with confidence. ‘You have a scholarship,’ I reminded myself. ‘Do not see that scholarship as a handout; see it as proof that you belong. The school is so impressed by you they’re paying you to be here.’

But then I’d meet new people and tell that them my name. They’d say, “Well, that’s different,” with a furrowed brow or a condescending laugh and a look that said I didn’t belong, a look that I would see again and again at this orientation and elsewhere.

I’d feel embarrassed when people’s tongues tripped over my name. They’d ask, “Do you have a nickname?” and I’d tell them that all my friends call me “J.”

Eventually, I decided to be proactive. After each introduction I’d say “I’m sorry. I know it’s weird,” apologizing as if I, my parents, and the syllables it takes to address me had somehow offended them. Then I’d quickly say, “You can call me ‘J.'”

I began to wonder if my name were a liability. My freshman year college roommate told me, “Anybody knows you’re black as soon as they see your name.”

I knew she was right and I wondered if, in the future, this would cause me to be passed over by certain employers.
But then I became a journalist. The first time I saw that “ghetto” name of mine on the pages of a newspaper I felt no embarrassment and no shame. I only felt pride. And I felt my name belonged there. Later I would see my name on the pages of The Seattle Times, The Chicago Sun, and even in national magazines.

So eventually I decided that unless you actually are my friend, no, you cannot call me ‘J.’

Today I am proud of my name and I am proud of my city.

I am proud that I grew up in Ensley and North Birmingham, neighborhoods some people are afraid to even drive their cars through. I didn’t grow up with much. Some winters were colder than others when Alabama Power or AlaGasCo bills couldn’t be paid. But I look at my Birmingham, I look at my city and she reminds me to be driven by my past, not defined by it.

When I was a girl my mom would drive the streets of downtown Birmingham reminiscing about how much fun she and her friends once had there. She’d point out abandoned, dilapidated buildings and tell me about the thriving businesses they once housed. I tried to imagine this bustling Birmingham of her younger years but I couldn’t.

Now I don’t have to. Now I can see it before my eyes as the restaurants, coffee shops, and bars of downtown have become my favorite places to frequent. Now I go for walks in downtown’s award-winning green space Railroad Park and attend events at Regions Field.

Now my Birmingham is getting some positive press with national publications and hailing her emerging downtown as a great place to live. My city is the comeback kid and all this has happened because Birmingham remembered the vibrant girl she used to be. And so I decided to do the same.

When I was a girl I was fearless and fierce, climbing trees and plotting plans to rule the world. And I was a writer in the truest sense of the word. I would sit in my room for hours writing speeches, short stories, songs, and poems. And I wrote in my journal every day treating it like the sacred ritual that it was.

I am becoming that girl again and that is making me a better writer and a better woman. And I will use every drop of my talent and tenacity to make my Birmingham a better city.

Javacia Harris Bowser is an educator and freelance writer in Birmingham. Javacia is the founder of See Jane Write, an organization for local women writers, and she blogs about her life as a “southern fried feminist” at The Writeous Babe Project.