“When they came to Bethlehem, the whole town stirred because of them; and the women said, ‘Is this Naomi?” She said to them, ‘Call me no longer Naomi, call me Mara, for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me. I went away full but the Lord has brought me back empty; why call me Naomi when the Lord has dealt harshly with me and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me?'”
Ruth 1.19-21, NRSV
This is the middle of the story of Naomi; she has changed her name because of a painful experience for which she had no control and no hand in. She could not have stopped death and so in the span of about ten years, it has taken her husband and her only children: two sons. Perhaps, she knows this when she says to the women, “The Lord has done this. This is God’s fault.”
Due to the famine, Naomi left Bethlehem and moved to Moab. She had not expected to return to Bethlehem after yet another famine, this time a relational one. It seems that she is being driven here and there by loss. There is a loss of food and now a loss of family. With these losses, she must also bury expectations, hopes and dreams that come with any relationship. And she must do it times three.
She had attended their weddings and was hoping to become a grandmother soon. Naomi was looking forward to a future with her family. She was planning to retire and spend more time with her husband, maybe even take up a new hobby. But, then the deaths began: first, her husband and then, her two sons.
All that she has to remember them by are their two wives. No grandchildren. She has nothing for which to remember their faces, save her own. This is not how things were supposed to go. This was not supposed to happen to her.
Without a means of financial support, she, along with Ruth, went back to Bethlehem. Her other daughter- in- law, Orphah, decided to return to her own family. She had left full– full of life, full of energy, full of plans, full of joy. She now returned empty, bereft of all that meant something to her. She had lost her husbands and sons but she changed her name. And the name that she gave herself was in response to her experience with death, grief and loss: “Don’t call me Naomi anymore; call me Mara because I am bitter.”
This story makes me think of our own experiences of trauma and loss as it relates to race. What of the many names that race calls us have we taken on as our own, replacing our true identity? What situation made us bitter and caused us to now live based on a past experience and not our present reality or future hope? What was your name before you were introduced to race? What was your name before you experienced racism and/or prejudice?
Like Naomi, we must remember that there are some things that we are not in control of, namely, the way that people think and feel about us. But, we do have a say in how we are treated by these persons and how we treat ourselves as a result of ill treatment. We don’t have to mistreat ourselves or call ourselves names because others have done it.
No matter how the American society has conspired against “us” or “them,” utilizing the lie of race for its capitalistic benefit, we must not allow the socially constructed and agreed upon racial identity and our experiences with racism and prejudice, to change our names. My name is Starlette because I am a brilliant performer. What’s yours?