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The day my mom told me her real name.

I don't go a single day without knowing the exact price of the privilege she afforded me.

An image of Brena Jean as a toddler before learning her mom's namestanding in front of three women pictured from the waist down reaching out to her from behind.

My momma was so Southern that when I was a child, she made me speak for her any time we entered a building. I later went to high school in the Fruitvale area of Oakland where a lot of my classmates were Latinx. I learned that a lot of Latinx kids spoke for their parents too. People asked me if she could read or if she spoke English, and I would say, “of course!” My mother thought my English was prettier than hers. She also didn’t like speaking to white people in suits, uniforms, or offices. My mom was older than my friend’s parents. She was born in the 40s and raised by her grandmother. Her proximity to slavery profoundly affected how she experienced the world. She passed away of Cancer in 2006 three days after her 61st birthday.

She stared off into the swirls of smoke her cigarette made in the middle of our living room. Her words, like the smoke, lingered in the air, unfinished.

“Ms. Lorraine”

I was an adult when I learned my mom’s real name. “Lorraine” is how most folks referred to her and still do. I was about six years old when I learned that all of us, including me, were saying her name wrong. “L-o-u-r-e-e-n” is how my mother spelled her name. That’s the name I would tell the people we encountered in places where I spoke for her. A combination of the sounds “Lou” and “Reen,” making Loureen.

An illustration of a portrait of Brena Jean's mother.

She never looked at me when she told me her real name. She stared off into the swirls of smoke her cigarette made in the middle of our living room. Her words, like the smoke, lingered in the air, unfinished. “That’s not what I was named when I was born.” She took a drag from her cigarette as if she would leave that sentence right there, with no explanation to follow. If I didn’t ask for the rest of the story, she would not volunteer it. I wrestled to accept that the mother I had known my whole life had just told me that I didn’t even know her name.

 

A good name for a black girl

“So, what is it? What’s your real name, momma?” She took a drag from her cigarette and said, “My name is Loureena Jean.” I sat straight up, spelled the name back to her, “L-O-U-R-E-E-N-A?” She closed her eyes and nodded her head. Confused, I asked, “Why don’t people call you that? Why don’t you tell people your real name?” She put her cigarette out in the ashtray and sat back on the couch, still not making eye contact with me.

 

“When I was in elementary school, a white teacher told me that my name was inappropriate for a black girl. She shortened my name to Loureen.” Silence hung between us in the air with the smoke and her words. I wanted to ask how a teacher could rename someone else’s child. How could every single adult, including my grandmother, fall in line and obey some teacher? I didn’t have to ask though. I already knew how that could happen. We sat on the couch in silence and watched the smoke disappear with her words and the mention of her birth name.

 

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Momma-cousins

After my mom passed away, I came back to my home city to get support from my estranged family. My cousins, three sisters my mom helped raise, kept me afloat until I could figure my life out. I lost everything after my mother died. They didn’t have much more than me, but they gave plenty. They supported me after I returned to school, and pawned jewelry to help me get car insurance when I got a car.  I moved into my uncle’s studio apartment, and my cousin gave me a mattress to soften the floor. It was awkward returning home, back into their arms after my mother pulled us apart when I was young. Drugs were a reality of living in Oakland during the 80s and it tore families apart one way or another.

 

An image of Brena Jean as a toddler standing in front of three women pictured from the waist down reaching out to her from behind.

 

Years had gone by without us talking and we didn’t even know each other anymore. There was pain and resentment alongside the love and support they poured into me. I never realized how pivotal and influential my mother was to them. They sound like my mom more than I do, which was one of the most healing parts of the salve their care had been. She was the auntie that they could go to with anything, and she left them. She chose to better my life over staying in theirs. Despite the hurt that caused, they nursed me through mourning for the woman that had abandoned them anyway.

When I tell people my name, their initial reaction is recovery. Its as if my name ran by them too fast and startled them.

Black girl names

My momma named me Debrena. My daddy said it would take my whole life to learn to spell my name. My mom told me that she named me after a woman she wanted to be my Godmother. That woman died before she had a chance to ask her. When I tell people my name, their initial reaction is recovery. It’s as if my name ran by them too fast and startled them. I’m accustomed to saying my name twice when I introduce myself. I spell it out for people. I keep an accessible version of it in my back pocket for people who can’t make their mouths do “Duh-Bree-Nuh.”

I got a job in a salon owned by a woman I met in a Buddist group that I joined. Her name is Sheila. When we met, she said, “Your name is on my altar.” Maybe that’s why she hadn’t needed recovery from hearing my name when I told it to her. Her sister was named Debrena. Sheila hired me to be the receptionist at her salon. It was my first desk job, and the first job I ever had fun doing. Sheila and I grew so close. She became another part of the black women army of support that mothered me after losing my mom to Cancer.

 

Legacy names

Sheila would cut and style hair while telling the most amazing stories. I learned that Debrena had been a fierce woman through Sheila’s salon stories. After a year of working there, Sheila’s mom revealed that she suspected some connection between my mom and her daughter. We realized that my mother had known Sheila’s sister. They worked together at the post office and that it was Sheila’s sister that was supposed to be my God Mother. We sat in the back of Head Designs salon in tears at the realization. I was right where my mother intended for me to be; both me and my name, safe.

 

Mothering while black

I can’t honor my momma’s ferocity and disregard her trauma and the triggered states she experienced more than she deserved. I won’t paint her as a sweet Southern bell without mentioning her shattered heart and her loneliness. I refuse to show you the slick and savage ways my momma got me access to opportunities that black girls from Deep East Oakland weren’t supposed to get without telling you that she was raised by a woman who was raised by a slave. I’d have to tell you how she was born in a shack and delivered by a midwife who would deliver black babies. I’d have to tell you how she had so little autonomy over her life and body that even her birth name was taken from her. I won’t celebrate that she survived it all without mourning what she lost in the battle.

 

Her life was a miracle and an unnecessary nightmare that I will hold space to acknowledge. I don’t go a single day without considering the price of the privilege she afforded me.

Art by Brandon Ryan

Comments
  • This Is a great tribute to your Mother you and your namesake thank you 💓you’re a very colorful and descriptive story teller I hope you keep writing

    May 12, 2020
  • Erica

    This is absolutely BEAUTIFUL! Your words painted such a vivid picture that I felt like I was there! I look forward to reading more!

    July 12, 2020
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