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Coming-of-Age Identity

What’s in a Name?

I am Aniefre Essien, a man born and raised in the South L.A. neighborhood of Harbor City. Essien is somewhat known in sports circles after the rise of Ghanaian soccer superstar Michael Essien (which also happens to be my oldest brother’s name). The name Essien is found commonly among Nigerians from the southeast part of the country, and among Ghanaians from the north. People who are unfamiliar with the name or its African roots often wonder how to pronounce it. Some people guess it’s French and try add a French flair to it, spewing something that sounds similar to croissant. But Aniefre? People have no idea what to make of it.

Before anyone cares to try and understand where it’s from, or what it means, they simply want to know how to pronounce it. Ann-e-ef-ray? A-nee-free? A-ny-ef-ree? I distinctly remember going through grade school and, inevitably when a teacher took roll and had to read my name for the first time, it was an event, especially when we had a substitute teacher.

They’d roll through last names like Contreras and Dixon, and I knew they were getting close when they called out Escobar and Espinoza. Then…nothing. The long pause would signal they had hit my name. It would be evident in their facial expressions when they gave up on trying to pronounce Aniefre, and they would move on to try and pronounce Essien. But that wouldn’t be an easier task for their already perplexed minds. You’d see their eyes shift back and forth as they eloquently intoned, “uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….” Eventually, I’d see what I called the “fuck it moment” when the teacher would muster up the courage to just go for it, brutally butchering my first name. It always intrigued me that they would pick Aniefre to try and pronounce because I’ve always thought Essien was a much easier name to tackle.

Regardless, this is my name. And although it doesn’t really fit in with the environment I was born into, or the people who raised me, it’s still the best road map to discover how I came to be. My family, meaning my mother’s side, is from Arkansas and they moved to Harbor City in the mid-60s to make a better life, given the barbarism they faced back home. With this move, my mother, who was the oldest of her siblings, met my father who was from Nigeria. He was here studying God knows what, began dating my mother, and fathered three children with her over a 10 year period.

They’d roll through last names like Contreras and Dixon, and I knew they were getting close when they called out Escobar and Espinoza. Then…nothing. The long pause would signal they had hit my name.

Shortly before my birth, my mother stood proudly with two boys and a third on the way, and tried to figure out what to name me. As what I believe to be a token of goodwill to salvage her relationship with my father, my mother gave me his name: Aniefre. My two older brothers are Michael and Anthony, so it would be logical to assume I would have been named Chris or John or Robert. But no—Aniefre.

Since I was only raised by my mother, never so much as meeting my father or anyone related to him until this very day, Aniefre didn’t fit my life experience. My friends growing up in my neighborhood were Damu, Little JC, and Filiberto. As I moved into my teenage years I ran with Ryan, Ronnie, and Tony. When I got to high school, I rolled everywhere with my boys Charles, Anthony, and Jhamell. I grew up in awe of the gang culture of my neighborhood, until my mom and grandma parented it out of me with traditional Southern, Baptist values. The rest of my upbringing was marked by academics (my mom’s second religion) and youth sports. My name easily could have been Reggie Washington.

The only connection I had to Africa was that of the typical, educated African-American who stumbles upon the knowledge of African Studies authors like Cheikh Anta Diop and Chancellor Williams. The connection is historical and theoretical, but not an ostensibly consanguine tradition that’s reflected in the present-day culture of your people.

Then, as is still the case, I’d forget that half of my genes come non-stop from Africa. When I meet new people and I tell them my name is Aniefre, it never occurs to me that this name doesn’t superficially match my story, my world view, or my colloquial speech. It isn’t until someone asks me some variation of, “Sooooo… did I hear you say your brothers are named Michael and Anthony? How did you get the name Aniefre?!”

At that moment, I stop being just another kid from the hood that made it out. My story isn’t as simple as the youngest of three raised by a single mom. The almost forgotten, but definitely not repressed, story of betrayal surfaces. People become intrigued and sympathetic simultaneously. I not only become aware of how the story affects the listener, I’m also reminded of the fact that I’ve never met my father, or any of the many half-brothers and sisters I’m certain are out there. I’m reminded of how the name that’s supposed to represent my very being comes from a man I don’t know, and from a people I’ll never belong to. I’m the youngest of my mother’s children, all of which overcame poverty due to her unconditional love and dedication to our future. I’m the third-youngest grandchild of a hardworking, fiercely loyal black woman from Arkansas who endured horror to give those in her care a better life. I’m a man, mixed with the manners of the South and the L.A. streets that went on to become highly-educated.

That’s where my soul lives. But every time I’m asked about my name, I’m reminded that my narrative, even the superficial version, isn’t simple. It becomes even more complex when I have to explain my name. It reveals that half of my genetic makeup, which is absolutely required for me to be here, has also exacerbated, unnecessarily, every obstacle in my life.

But I’ve always focused on the journey. And like most great journeys, it’s not as simple as A to B.

By Aniefre Essien

Aniefre is a Los Angeles native with varied interests ranging from the Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira to an undying love of Lakers basketball, even in the lean years. He's an alum of both San Francisco State University (BS) and the University of Michigan (MBA), and is a firm believer in education as its own reward.