(the writer first day of Kindergarten: julius-james dodd circa 1997)
Editor’s note: This column is part of a series called Name Tags, about issues related to names and naming. You can find the original Call for Submissions here.
All photos courtesy jayy dodd.
by jayy dodd
before i was born my family called out of my name. julius-james was jj in the womb. my government name is a lineage of men I could never grow up to be. my mother has always had other names for me. my father called me something i won’t repeat here.
a friend once said my name sounded like a cocktail he would have to order with a bowtie on. if my name was a cocktail, it would be equal parts Respectable, Black, and Familial, poured over Phonics from Rome and Greece, with Biblical iconography garnish, best served chilled in it Germanic goblets. I told him my name is not the cocktail but the bowtie, I wear it round my neck— Black satin noose. My name is a lineage of Black men trying to be easy to swallow. My name is dictator, and sharecropper, and deacon, and preacher. My name is king, and prophet, and saint and nigger. I’m named after niggas who were named after niggas who would never see me as human. but i’ve always been called out of my name.
(the writer in Washington DC for a wedding; j.j. dodd circa 2002)
as a child my mother had so many of my things embroidered with my initials. she taught me to mark things as my own. to name my things mine. JJD. julius was my fathers name. it didn’t suit me. even when i heard it around him i knew it wasn’t ever mine. being always called out of my name. julius was his father’s middle name. & i loved my grandfather for never using it. (i have his initials RJD tattooed on my shoulder, marking myself as his). but james is my mother’s grandfather. he the buffalo soldier, field tending genius, a mind for centuries. but i could not use my name as it was. so together, my mother & i, we decided to re-christen me anew. as a dancer in LA, i performed as jahari james. a rejection of my fathers name. the first bit a boy to go. jahari means “prized one” in Swahili. by day i was the son of his loins & by night i was my mother’s prized jewel. but she still had so many other beautiful names for me.
(the writer in Boston, freshman year of high school; jahari circa 2007)
at 14 i crossed the country fulfilling a childhood dream of boarding school in New England. for reasons i won’t go into here, i wanted to go be some better version of myself. across the country & ultimately across the universe, i chose jahari as the name to go by, much to my later regret. the only thing worse than being the tall, slim, swamp black, bombastic faggot is having a name mononymous of exotic delight. i am not calling myself Beyoncé or Rihanna but there is a reason their names are able to make them beyond human. jahari became synonymous with things i had no control over. (a running joke was that i was an imaginary friend because no one had ever met someone like me!?) still those closest to me almost instinctually began calling me out my name.
(the writer in Boston, New Year’s Eve, sophomore year of college; jay dodd)
real friends called me J/jay, so in college I decided to abandoned the appropriated moniker & essentialized my title. i wanted to remove a level of exoticism that, while it wasn’t inauthentic, was not a meaningful way to navigate my body. Jay Dodd. innocuous enough. professional enough. but not as momentous as julius-james or vaguely appropriative as jahari. jay almost worked until a white man online named jay dodd kept getting notified whenever people enjoyed my work. i was @jayydodd on twitter before i was in real life (whatever that means). i’ve been jayy for a few years now & it’s been the best possible option. it’s familial as it is odd. my family doesn’t read it as not who i am but the personal & political changes i’ve made to it have offered me a litmus test for who’s paying attention.
but i’ve always been called out my name. i allow the colonial frustration, identity foraging, & political subversion. i hate it. i wish it was a number or a symbol. still, i like my name’s flexibility as a trans-femme person. i like its comfort as common name in Black / Queer communities. i’ve been able to craft it in a way that holds me to all the possibility i can make of it.
jayy dodd is a blxk question mark from los angeles, california– now based on the internet. they are a professional writer & literary editor. their work has appeared / will appear in Broadly, The Establishment, Entropy, LitHub, BOAAT Press, Duende, & Nashville Review among others. they’re the author of [sugar in the tank] (Pizza Pi Press 2016) & Mannish Tongues (Platypus Press 2017). their collection The Black Condition ft. Narcissus is forthcoming on Siren Song / CCM Press. they are a Pushcart Prize nominee, co-editor of Bettering American Poetry & a 2017 Lambda Literary Fellow. their work has been featured in Teen Vogue & Entropy. find them talking trash online or taking a selfie. (photo by Bree Gant)