Since becoming a father, I have thought a lot about what exactly we’re doing when we name something or someone after someone else. Three years ago, my wife and I, already the parents of a four-year-old girl, Marlow, were expecting a son. I began to contemplate masculine inheritance—of debts to the future and the past, the divides a name can help bridge and the ones that are too vast to straddle. I was thinking specifically of my very “white” name and of the “black” man who’d given it to me, and asking myself what, as a father who isn’t white, I could and would pass on to a boy who almost certainly would appear to be. All of which is to say I was trying hard to figure out just what I intended to honor.
That winter, I went to England, in part to get a better sense of my own name. It was only later that I understood the feeling that spurred my trip: a nagging sense of fraudulence that clung to me as stubbornly as my initials. I felt it while walking from my apartment in Paris through the damp into the chaos of the Gare du Nord, and then in the stillness of the train to London. The journey had begun with a message from the University of Bristol. A friendly professor named Madge Dresser had invited me to speak after stumbling across my writing while googling the proto-Romantic prodigy, original poète maudit, and great enigma of English literature Thomas Chatterton.
Her invitation was surprising, yet easy enough to accept. Some part of my sense of self has always been entwined with my eighteenth-century namesake, though I had never given him much thought. I’d read little of his poetry, the most famous of which he composed in a style that was antiquated even in his day. When I perused it as a teenager, the verse struck me as impossibly dusty, and I quickly returned to whatever Jay-Z or 2Pac album I had in rotation. Now I was making a pilgrimage, or even a homecoming of sorts, to Chatterton’s house (since renovated into a modest café) and to the Gothic expanse of St. Mary Redcliffe looming across the street, where members of his family had been sextons for generations.
Stopping first in London, I dropped my bags near the garret where Chatterton died alone in 1769 at just seventeen years old. I then went to the Tate museum, where Henry Wallis’s The Death of Chatterton hangs somewhat inconspicuously in a beautiful gilt frame at the bottom of a wall stacked high with canvases. I lost myself in the composition, the size of a midsize flat-screen, trying to feel what had captivated my father when he read about the boy. The image, which John Ruskin described as “faultless and wonderful,” operates along a simple horizontal axis, a Christlike figure draped across his narrow bed in a state of destitution so pure it achieves an allure. Chatterton’s fiery hair, cascading to the floor, exudes an incongruous vigor against a face drained of blood. Paper scraps and a vial of arsenic are visible beside his limp, outstretched hand. A polluted and indifferent city expands in every direction outside his window—the very picture of an innately gifted artist alienated from the cruel, modern world. Across the base of the frame runs a quote from Marlowe (my daughter’s name, it struck me, and I wondered if I’d noticed this before): cut is the branch that might have grown full straight . . .
Chatterton was born in 1752, in Bristol. His father, a schoolmaster, had died while his mother was still pregnant. That loss impoverished the family, and Thomas was swiftly booted from the school for being “a dull boy, and incapable of improvement.” Nonetheless, he learned to read on his own and blossomed into an insatiable autodidact, though he was also stuck in a soul-crushing apprenticeship to an attorney. By the age of eleven, he’d begun writing poetry, and between the ages of fourteen and sixteen his writing production exploded into elegies, odes, eclogues, and satires. He published under his own name as well as various noms de plume, but it’s a suite of “medieval” poems he concocted under the pseudonym Thomas Rowley, and pretended to have found at St. Mary Redcliffe (he went so far as to transcribe the verses onto old parchment), that secured his fame.
At first, his forgeries—carried out under the patronage of the city’s mayor—were accepted as real. But when they were revealed to be fake after expert inspection, no one believed their true author could have been so young. Chatterton was accused of plagiarism and soon lost his indenture. Eventually, he struck out for London with the intent of supporting himself by writing poetry and political journalism. Several months later he downed a fatal dose of arsenic—either to end his misery or, as some fans argue, to treat a case of syphilis. It was only posthumously that the Rowley poems were recognized as genuinely his.
Wallis’s painting canonized Chatterton as the apotheosis of neglected potential, enrapturing generations of poets since. “He became,” Dresser told me, “the Kurt Cobain of Romantic Bristol.” Wordsworth wrote of “Chatterton, the marvellous Boy, / The sleepless Soul that perished in his pride”; Coleridge, when he was himself a teenager, wrote a poem titled “Monody on the Death of Chatterton”; and Samuel Johnson remarked, “It is wonderful how the whelp has written such things.”
As a New Jersey boy tightrope-walking the strictures of black masculinity in the Eighties and Nineties, I’d always found something dangerously square about the bookish poet, but these testimonies, which I came across only in adulthood, infused a whiff of rebel cool. (I hadn’t even known the painting existed until a college friend came across it after looking up my name.) At the time of my visit to the Tate, my thoughts were consumed by the invisible link between the name a person happens to wear and the life he or she will ultimately live—how nomen so often amounts to something like omen, with what the German psychoanalyst Karl Abraham referred to as “the determining momentum of names.” The name one chooses has the power to reverberate for decades beyond the namer’s death; even if the child eventually changes his name, his identity will be shaped by that rejection.
Until I began to identify more with my vocation than with any ethnic or national affiliation, “Chatterton” always felt like something foreign that had been grafted onto me, something to be concealed instead of highlighted. Thomas, the ninth most popular boy’s name in the United States over the past century, and Williams, the third most common surname in America, make such a banal combination that a decade ago I found that there were several other men named Thomas Williams in my Brooklyn zip code alone. But as I began to publish, the unusual middle name that had been a liability in my New Jersey suburb was now a mnemonic asset—the sole part of my byline that would stand out. Sometime in adulthood, through the self-invention of work, it came to seem the most authentic part of me.
To name something is to glorify it. So a professor of mine once explained in a mostly impenetrable class on psychoanalysis that veered into meditations on the Holy Trinity. A consequence of his premise that has stayed with me—and that struck me as deeply counterintuitive when I was a teenager—is that the namer is greater than the one who is named, since it is the former who bestows glory on the latter. And yet it is the named who will bear the questions and recriminations if that glory dims. What then is naming if not a kind of secular prayer, a small act of offering up hope for a new and better world against the judgment of a future we cannot fathom?
As I awaited the birth of my son, I asked my father for the first time how he had chosen my name. He answered that it was both an epiphany and the culmination of years of thinking. He was struck by the simple fact that Chatterton, at the age of twelve, “was a youngster who had worked to exhibit some brilliance using customs and language that were not widespread or in use even by scholars at the time. He ends up in London unable to get published and was living in considerable poverty.” What had gripped my father’s imagination was not Chatterton’s louche glamour or even his artistry but the sheer familiarity of his experience—the restrictions placed on this boy’s being and flourishing by an indifferent world. This was all too relatable for a fatherless black boy from the segregated South, clawing himself up from the station that the fluke of his birth had assigned him.
In other words, my father saw in Chatterton—a child born in a thriving slave port who had the moral vision in his African Eclogues to castigate “the pale children of the feeble sun” who, “in search of gold, through every climate run”—what might poetically be called a black life. Here was someone with all the talent and ambition in the world but no “network capital” to help put it to use. My father spoke of the constellation of moods and feelings that overcame him when he pondered the harshness of fate exemplified by Chatterton’s life.
He did not have to explain to me that in the black American community that is descended from slaves—or, to be precise, a mixture of masters and slaves—naming has often been a transparently aspirational act of self-affirmation in the face of monstrous dehumanization. I already understood how a people stripped of their linguistic, tribal, and religious mooring in the old world had to use their oppressor’s language to conjure a modicum of dignity. This yielded a tradition of appropriating notable white identities wholesale (George Washington Carver, Ralph Waldo Ellison, Martin Luther King Jr.), as well as the inevitable backlash to that kind of respectability-seeking (El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, Muhammad Ali, Shaquille O’Neal). It was only recently that I realized that my father had not done either so much as opted for a third way, staying within the conventions while subverting them by lifting the name of a white figure who had failed to achieve greatness. When I asked him why he had done this, he explained that before I was born he’d intended to name me Elliot Leopold, of all things. At the last moment, he wavered. That name and others he had imagined “were the names of rulers,” he said. In the hospital, staring at the new life, “My feeling became not to honor rulers and elites but those who were locked out by them.”
After my visit to Bristol, we named our son Saul Swann Williams. Saul—a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy with a good dose of Africa in him—would wear the name of an electrifying black-skinned slam poet, but also of a biblical unifier of tribes, and perhaps history’s most famous convert. We had not intended to name our boy for a famous poet, contemporary or otherwise, and though my wife and I had both loved the monosyllabic strength of Saul before we ever met, and had become friendly from afar with the original Saul Williams while he lived in Paris, it seemed like an option we could never pursue. We had wanted to give our child a blank slate, and yet we both kept circling back to that combination for reasons we couldn’t explain, and still can’t.
There has been much debate lately about the men and women we choose to commemorate and the buildings and institutions to which we attach their names. We have seen a steady stream of controversies, from those surrounding residential colleges named after Woodrow Wilson at Princeton and John C. Calhoun at Yale, to the aborted push by the San Francisco board of education to rename dozens of schools with the stated aim of eradicating ties to racism, sexism, and slavery. In the latter case, a committee of educators and students—but notably no historians—identified institutions whose namesakes were judged irredeemable. By the committee’s logic, George Washington’s slaveholding and Abraham Lincoln’s involvement in the capital punishment of Native Americans disqualify them. (Notably, Malcolm X’s pimping does not.) In some instances, namesakes have been condemned for flaws or crimes uncovered through research rather than engraved in collective memory. Whatever power names have to link us to the past, we often seem to lose not only the reverence we were supposed to feel for those they honor but also all knowledge of their deeds.
As I attempt to make sense of the panic and fury that attend the debate over renaming buildings and schools, my father’s words rush back to me. And it is from his surprising decision that I have come to understand the unpredictable burden a name can impose. From one perspective, to bestow any existing name at all is to saddle its bearer with the impossible—however unfairly, he or she will inevitably be tainted by any faults that are later discovered. We might do better to adopt a more forgiving attitude. What we need is not to wantonly efface but to perceive and establish new connections—while sometimes, yes, reevaluating our criteria for honor and repudiating the mistakes of previous eras. To make space for all, we will need to learn to see ourselves more intricately, and to find points of commonality that we may have overlooked at first glance.