Barack Obama by any other name should smell just as sweet

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In 2000, when I initially moved back to the United States after living in Nigeria, everyone knew me as Bukola. During school registration I was given the option of choosing which name to go by, and I chose Bukola, my middle name, because it is the name I had been referred to by family and friends all my life. I was very proud of my name because Olubukola means “God has added to my wealth” in Yoruba. Bukola is as popular in Yoruba towns as Ashley or Emily is in the United States. Bukola, however, did not run smoothly off the tongues of my high school classmates. They called me everything from “Buquisha” to “Coca Cola.”

The naming process in the Yoruba culture is extensive. My deceased grandfather meditated on the name Olubukola for eight days before I was officially given my name at a huge naming ceremony. Because my name was so carefully chosen, I was upset that Olubukola had become subject to the insulting mispronounciation of my ignorant American friends. In college, I succumbed. I started going by Louisa, my first name, not because I felt insecure about my middle name, but because I wanted to protect the name Bukola.

It turns out that I’m not the only one who has run into problems with my name and identity. In a speech on November 9, 2006, Barack Obama spoke about the insecurities with his identity that he felt as a child. Because he came from such a humble background — his father was a goat farmer — he never thought that he would be able to become the household name that he is today.

“Who would have ever thought the son of a woman from Kansas and father from Kenya with a name like Barack Obama would become a United States Senator?” Obama said in his speech.

Obama is now exploring the possibility of competing for the Democratic candidacy for President. Unfortunately for Obama, his last name has been mistaken for and mispronounced as “Osama,” and his middle name is Hussein. These names conjure up obvious images of Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein. The question remains whether possible negative associations with Senator Obama’s name will dramatically affect his potential run for the Presidential office.

The idea that one’s name is directly linked to success is a myth. In the book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, Stephen D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner claim that the name of a child does not affect the future success of that child. The evidence in the book from California data showed that on average, a person with a distinctively black name like Imani or DeShawn does not have a worse life outcome that a woman named Molly or Jake. Instead, people’s economic circumstances or the education level of their parents are far better predictors of future success.

In Freakonomics, Levitt and Dubner tell the story of Robert Lane, a black father who named one of his sons Winner and the other Loser. Ironically, Loser went to prep school, graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and joined the New York Police Department where he eventually made sergeant. Winner Lane, on the other hand, has a criminal record with nearly three dozen arrests for burglary and domestic violence, among other charges. These anecdotes invalidate the myth that one’s name greatly influences that person’s chances for success.

According to the Social Security Administration, in 2005, the most popular baby girl name was Emily and the most popular boy name was Jacob. These babies should not expect to be more successful than individuals named Bernethea or Burritt. As for Barack Obama, I don’t think his name will be a huge issue during the 2008 elections. With issues like our failure in Iraq, the continued growth of terrorism, gay rights, and the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, I hope that United States citizens will be willing to look past something as trivial as a name and look more into the personality, leadership characteristics, and diplomacy skills of our next leader.