By Jessie Daniels
I changed my name after I discovered a book, and a family secret, on my great aunt’s bookshelf.
“Why do you have this book, Aunt Marie?” I held up a copy of Thomas Dixon’s The Clansman, and waited for her response.
To her, I was Suzanne. My last name, Harper, was the same as hers until she married, and the same as her brother, my grandfather. I read the inscription, “Geo. F. Harper,” and recognized his handwriting. I was 14 when he died. Ten years later, I was still glad to be rid of him and his nighttime visits to my bedroom. But here he was again, reanimated by this book.
“Well, he probably had a copy of that book because he was a member of that group,” Aunt Marie said.
Visits to Aunt Marie’s house with the wrap-around porch and the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves had been a magical place for me as a child, but since she lived in Missouri and we were in Texas, we didn’t see her as often as I wished we could. At 91, she was still in good health but this trip had all the heightened awareness of an ending, to her life and my own racial innocence.
“A member of what group?” I asked.
“The Klan, honey. Your Granddad was a member of the KKK back then.”
I tried to make sense of what she was saying. The Klan was not unfamiliar to me. I was in the middle of a PhD dissertation in sociology on the KKK and white supremacy. These groups followed the same script as Dixon’s novel. I’d come to regard it as the central mythology of race in America: a rapacious black man, a virginal white woman, and the terror unleashed to defend the myth. Even so, I wasn’t prepared to find this artifact of pop culture white supremacy on my Aunt Marie’s bookshelf. It’s not like I had grown up around white hoods and robes.
“Did you know this?” I asked my father, J.T., a dark-haired, oil and gas man from Houston. He signed his name with a flourish, one long line to the form the “J” and then three straight lines across the long, looping tail to mark “T” and “H” for “J.T. Harper.” He even had his distinctive signature stitched into the cuffs of his dress shirts.
In contrast to my grandfather’s sour demeanor, my father was genial and charming. He would always kiss the hand of my girlhood friends upon to greet them, eliciting a giggle from each one. He identified as Native American, an idea confirmed for him by the somatic proof of his high cheekbones, skin that easily turned a deep brown in the sun, and his lack of chest hair. The emotional proof for him: it just felt true. His refrain, “what’s this we, white man?” was the punchline of a bad joke about the Lone Ranger and Tonto, and it provided him a way to identify with Tonto, not the white man. My father was the one who told me about the Trail of Tears as if it were our ancestors who had been dispossessed of their land and sent on a death march. I believed him. In fact, until I started graduate school, I had thought I was part Native American. It was there I read Vine Deloria’s Custer Died for Your Sins, and learned that the story of a “Cherokee grandmother” was about as common among white people as moving to all-white neighborhoods.
“Sure, it was no big deal, just sort of a club he joined. They were trying to help people,” my father continued. “Like if some woman’s husband was giving her a hard time,” he meant beating her, “they would go by and convince him to stop.” I shuddered at the violence his answer implied.
In his defense of my grandfather’s stint with the Klan, my father sounded exactly like the historical accounts from the 1920s I’d read in which white people tried to minimize the terror that they caused. But to hear these words coming from my father felt like a betrayal. I don’t know what I expected. Shame, maybe. A hint of chagrin, at least. I did not expect his blithe dismissal.
But perhaps I should have, since he’d never hesitated to express his own racist views. Regarding Black people, he would say, “I don’t have anything against Black people, I think everyone should own one.” He could not utter the name of the city where I now live without calling it “Jew York City.” He moved our family to an all-white school district to avoid a judge’s school desegregation order that would have bussed me to another school. My father’s embrace of a Native American identity never slowed his casual embrace of anti-Black and anti-Jewish ideas. In my family, our fictive Native American lineage was tied up with a deep and abiding white supremacy, a Gordian knot I am still trying to unravel. Part of that knot is my own naïveté about the depth of my father’s racism.
Still, I couldn’t understand how my father, who knew about my research, had failed to mention this to me. Perhaps he really didn’t see how the two were related. Knowing that my grandfather had been in the Klan, I felt personally implicated in that violent history. My father might not have felt any shame, but I did.
“Oh, that’s just what people did then,” Aunt Marie gave half a grin, as if to shrug off their hatred of Black people, of Jews, of Catholics like her and queers like me.
I was a presentist, judging those of an earlier historical era by the standards of the current one. I understood well the argument for leaving the past behind. I knew that the sins of the father, in this case the grandfather, were not the sins of the granddaughter. While I had begun to doubt our family’s Native American allegory, until I slid The Clansman off the shelf, I had never once heard a whisper of this truer but harder to hear version of us. And I could not shake my desire to step outside that history.
After my visit to Aunt Marie’s in the early 1990s, I went back to Austin to finish my PhD, and my father went back to Houston. I tried to sit with the discovery from her bookshelf and not let it bother me, but it did. My last name became a constant, clanging noise in my head, always distracting me, reminding me of my grandfather. He had been an incubus when I was a little girl, a menacing presence I had to avoid. Was there no escaping him after all? I thought my grandfather’s affiliation made me a hypocrite, or at least, an unreliable critic.
When I returned to Aunt Marie’s for her funeral, the year of my post-doc, I took that copy of The Clansman with me. As I worked on my own writing, that novel now sat on my bookshelf, humming with the awareness of my grandfather’s legacy and mine. The more time I logged researching white supremacist publications, the more I began to see how their words resonated with those of mainstream politicians and popular culture. In fact, they sounded a lot like my own family. I spent more than a year reshaping the dissertation into a book, got a contract with a reputable academic press, an offer of a tenure-track job in New York, and kept the more personal connection I had to this work quiet.
As the book’s publication and the move to New York drew nearer, I stewed and felt ashamed about my family’s Klan connection. After years reading extremist newsletters, my dreams morphed into nightmares of hooded men on horseback holding torches aloft while I hid in marshy ditches to evade them. My waking nightmare was that someone would see me as one of those Night Riders, rather than their adversary. I felt I was carrying one of those torches by bearing my grandfather’s last name.
During this time, I kept a printed copy of an essay by Carol Ascher about her process of making a name for herself as a feminist, as a Jewish woman, and as a writer. I read her essay over and over. Although I was familiar with the feminist critique of patriarchal naming conventions, and the history of Jewish-sounding last names being washed out by assimilation, until I read her, I had never thought about how choosing a name might give me the power to write. As she described it: “One thing I felt sure of: with my own name, I would give more energy and courage to my writing…” This is what I wanted, to give more energy and courage to my writing. I began to see my name as a millstone.
It wasn’t only my (his) last name that bothered me. My given name meant ‘lily,’ the symbol of ‘white womanhood’ in the south, the mythological foundation for lynching. The more I thought about both my names – Suzanne, white womanhood, and Harper, the KKK grandfather and my father’s racism and lies about being Native American – the more I wanted to peel those names off of me, like a layer of burned skin.
I wanted a new name, but I didn’t want to compound my trouble by lifting one, whole cloth, from a different culture. If I’d taken an African name (as Nkechi Amare Diallo née Rachel Dolezal did) or a Jewish one (as Carol Ascher did), it would have meant trading one kind of lie for another. So I started compiling names I could find of white women who had resisted racism. It was a very short list. There were abolitionists like Anna and Angelina Grimke, Lucretia Mott. During the civil rights movement there were a handful, such as Anne Braden, Viola Liuzzo and Lillian Smith. And, there were contemporaries, Mab Segrest, Minnie Bruce Pratt, and Dorothy Allison, dykes like me who understood the destructiveness of inherited white power. Surely there were more, but these were all I found. Nine righteous white women in four hundred years of U.S. history, and none of those names suited me.
Then, I remembered the white woman from Texas who had organized against lynching: Jessie Daniel Ames. She founded the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, and was an exemplar of the kind of white woman I wanted to be. I settled on Jessie Daniels (I’d never had a middle name and didn’t see the need for one), and thought it fit me, or my idea of who I wanted to be.
Moving to New York in 1995 offered a series of fresh beginnings that made it easier to change my name. I told my new employer, called the book publisher, filed a notice with a local paper, got a court date to make it official and began introducing myself as Jessie. I mailed notes to a few friends and colleagues in other places. Some of my white friends were puzzled or angry. Most of my Black and Jewish friends, who came from traditions where name changes were tied to politics, were more blasé.
What I had never considered was what changing my name might cost me. One of the notes I mailed was to my father. I sent it to him along with some pages of the book that was going to publication. I had decided that the best way to avoid future humiliation about my grandfather was to tell those family secrets, so I wrote that he was in the KKK and that he had molested me in the preface. For me, both of these spoke to the kind of entitlement at the heart of white supremacy, and what had prompted me to change my name. But I badly misjudged what my father’s response might be, which was to find a judge in Texas who would issue a court order to have me locked up in a psych ward on a 72-hour hold. To him, changing my name meant I must be insane.
I got out of there and made it, finally, to New York and began a life under a name I chose for myself.
Changing my name was an act of civil disobedience against my family and an unwanted birthright. Becoming Jessie Daniels made me feel that my writing and my purpose in the world lined up with what I called myself. It helped me see beyond the limitations of my ancestors, the world they created, and the one they imagined for me.
 In New York City, publishing a classified advertisement in a local paper is part of the requirements for a legal name change.
Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series called Name Tags, about issues related to names and naming. You can find the original Call for Submissions here. Art by Kristen Stone.
Jessie Daniels has spent the last 25 years calling attention to white supremacy. She is the author or editor of five books, among them White Lies and Cyber Racism, which offer a look at white supremacy before and after the Internet. She is currently working on a book, Tweetstorm: The Rise of the “Alt-Right” and the Mainstreaming of White Nationalism. Since 2007, she has maintained a scholarly blog, Racism Review (with Joe Feagin). She is also at work on a memoir about her relationship with her father, race, and ancestry. She is a Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and The Graduate Center, CUNY. You can find her on Twitter as @JessieNYC.