Why is this one name so much harder for people to remember than others?
Somebody unexpected misstated (misnamed, misremembered, ill-articulated) the name Milford Graves.
Now, understand that when I say the name was misstated I am saying the name was uttered incorrectly but this error is different than misspelling or mispronouncing a name, or the less charitable act of refusing to commit its pronunciation or spelling to memory. It is the greater crime, in my opinion, to refuse to honor the pronunciation and spelling of a person’s name, than to fully say the wrong thing.
I heard hackneyed jokes around Asian names through the 90s and 00s, so I really get the nuanced difference between belligerent teasing and uncultured ignorance. And my saying I only heard it through the 2000s isn’t to say that the stupidity ended short of the 21st century, but that I stopped putting myself in situations where anyone would find it appropriate to say “I’m probably going to fuck up your name” for any reason.
The misremembered name is a different problem than cultural ignorance. Though I haven’t read the book yet, I imagine the phenomenon I’m describing is akin to the doppelganger effect Naomi Klein expounds upon in her latest book, where the author is unfairly confused with Naomi Wolff. To a much less deleterious effect, for example, I have confused the names John and Lance—my neighbors who do not look like, nor do they share any aspect of personal demeanor, though they are indelibly partnered. I hope I’m not making excuses for myself, but…because I can describe each of them with fondness and fidelity, and because I can pronounce and spell their names correctly, I want to believe my flipping their names entirely is just something we in the non-sciences call, a brain fart.
But Milford Graves is something else.
I hear Milton instead of Milford, a lot. This last time, the erroneous name uttered was Grimes in lieu of Graves. On occasion, when a name is misstated I wonder if I am the one who misremembered the name. Other times I am positive I’m right and almost reflexively interject with the correct name. I once muttered “Milford” after a colleague said “Milton” but they were so oblivious to what they’d just said that they they paused their thought to explain who Milford Graves was, as if I’d just uttered an imaginary smartphone prompt to google who he was, and not performed a mid-sentence auto correct. “You said Milton,” I responded defensively, I’m perfectly aware of who Milford Graves was, thank you very much, but I think you meant Milford.
I dated someone once whose old white mom called Tom’s of Maine toothpaste “Uncle Tom’s toothpaste” which we thought was the funniest brain fart ever. But it’s always a little less funny when there’s racism implied. That’s my conflict with the Milford Graves problem. I don’t know why exactly “Milford” or “Graves” is so hard for people to remember. I try to acknowledge a dark poetry of these errors because I’m getting old, my friends are old, and most of the people getting the names wrong are people who themselves have names marked by a non-whiteness, an otherness.
I once fully misattributed an essay to a Black author, to her face, congratulating her on something another Black woman wrote; something the woman I was facing, had nothing to do with. I drowned in shame repeatedly over the course of the ensuing week. So indeed. I make the same mistakes as my friends who say Milton. I, too, mistake the conversational corrections of friends for cues to further explain the wrong thing.
I often panic when I encounter an acquaintance who says my name. I understand “Anne” to be my cue to utter their name to reciprocate the courtesy and god help me if I say the wrong one. I try to pay other observations to make sure they know that I know exactly who they are, that I care about them. And when I fall in love, hearing you say my name will be the most fulfilling sound in the universe. I feel your name on my tongue as I prepare to utter yours, giving it an erotic charge. At least it may grant a sense of connection. Surely that would be enough for two people. But one of these days I am going to call you by another name. One of these days I’m going to congratulate you on the achievements of someone else in the room. One of these days I’m going to say Milton where I mean Milford. So instead, I shall name a scent, I shall recall another time between us, I will try as much as possible to remember the sounds of what we call each other when there is only silence, a fantasy of being recalled over and over, of being memorized, of being remembered, of becoming a permanent part of your thoughts.