If you doubt the impact that changing a name can have on a life, consider Barack Obama. Yes, it’s true that his given name at birth was Barack. So how, you may ask, did he change his name?
When he was a child everyone referred to him as Barry, the same derivative of Barack that his father chose. The story goes that his father chose a nickname just as a lot of people from other countries do when trying to fit into this culture. It seemed only natural then, that Barack who was given the same name as his father, would use the same nickname.
It appears that Barack took comfort in the name Barry. A black boy growing up in Hawaii with a white mother and grandparents would want to fit in somehow. A Newsweek article on Barack’s name shows that when questioned about the nickname, he described, how “he didn’t want to have to explain his name. ‘Barry’ was just a way of simplifying things—a small compromise to smooth the way in society.”
He continued to go by Barry until his early twenties. In college his struggle transformed from trying to fit in to trying to find himself. Friends encouraged him to claim his heritage and go by Barack. I can imagine how that must have resonated with him. How better to stake a claim for new territory than putting up a flag that labels who owns the property. A name is like the flag testifying who lives here; who owns this life!
You may still think that changing a name from a nickname to a birthname is not technically a name change. But I would argue that it requires the same steps. It requires courage to ask people to call you something different. It’s why there can be comfort in being around new people where you can call yourself what you want. It’s when you’re around people who have known you for years that it’s difficult. People don’t like change. They don’t like it for themselves and they don’t like it for those they love.
Asking people begin to call him Barack wasn’t always easy. Some members of his family insisted on calling him Barry. Through the years he must have won this battle. I think he is a better person for figuring out who he is and how he would be named. Larry Ackerman describes one problem with politics: the expectation to try to be someone you’re not. Maybe having gone through this this process of figuring out who he really is can help him be an authentic leader. I also think the name Barack suits him much better. We all would be better served for this opportunity. To be self reflective. To consider our identity. To choose how we will be named.