Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Du, Wah Diddy - What's In a Name?

This story probably “tells” better than it reads, but for the sake of posterity; and any sociological implications it may contain; here goes; I was working for Anthem Corporation, an excavating company based just outside of Baltimore, as an Estimator in 1988, which is when this story occurs.

It was early Monday morning and we had the usual crowd of applicants for the positions we had advertised for in the Sunday papers. At that time, before the widespread use of computers, that’s how people found work, in the Want Ads. Consequently, Monday mornings brought all kinds of applicants for the work, the first step being to fill out a simple job application.

Now, this was no “literacy test” type of thing at all; it was simply a form asking for your name, address, and contact information, along with your last 2 employers and an emergency contact. Naturally, the first question was the applicant’s name. We never got past the first question before the “trouble” began.

Now, when I say “trouble”, I may be overstating the case a bit. “What we had here”, as the warden says in the film Cool Hand Luke, “was a failure to communicate.” To begin, we need to take a look at the time in which this story takes place.

In the late 1980’s and early 90’s there emerged a “Malcolm X” craze, in which millions of dollars of clothing stamped with the logo X were marketed to young African-Americans, some of whom; make that most of whom; had no idea of what Malcolm X stood for, or were under the impression that Malcolm died believing in the complete separation of the races. If you have read the book, or seen the film, then you know that this is completely false. At any rate, millions were made marketing hats, shirts and jackets emblazoned with the logo X. No quotation marks, no explanation, just the symbol of an angry young black male. This was the figure which now stood before me; an angry young black man; seeking work from “whitey”, “Mr. Charlie”, or what have you. And I’m a Jew from Brooklyn!

I said “Good morning”, and handed him the application, which he could not fill out. At that time it was customary for the Estimator to assist applicants who could not read or write. We were really only interested in your work history and your name. if you could do the job, you got the job. Period. But first I needed your name. So, we started on a narrative which I love to tell, because it underscores the type of polarization which destroys both sides of any division; even when that division is only held by one side of the argument.

“What’s your name?” I asked, beginning to fill out the application for him. He was a tall, thin African-American man; sinewy and muscular; just right for the position of “rodman” which requires the employee to move quickly with a measuring pole for the surveyors to take elevations. Those figures, in turn, tell the bulldozer operator, or excavator operator, to “cut”, or “fill” in each area of the job site in order to achieve an even plane. I told you this story “tells” better than it reads….

“Wa Du” came the answer, initiating a bizarre, but funny exchange. This is the part which makes Ed laugh;

“Wa Du?”  I asked, with an arched eyebrow like Chester Conklin.

“Yeah, that be what my people call me”, he said with apparent pride.

“Okay”, I said, “but what’s your name?”

“I done tole you, Wa Du”, he said with a bit of defiance in his voice.

“No”, I said, “You told me a nickname. To put you to work I need your legal name.”

“You mean my slave name?”

“Look man”, I said, noticing the X ball cap for the first time, “what does your mother call you?”

“She call me Du, like everyone else.”

Now I was in a real quandary, and getting a bit annoyed. “I need your full name. What’s your last name, Du or Wah? And if its Du, Wah, then is your middle name Diddy?”

“I goes by Wah Du. That’s the name I use” he replied.

“No”, I said, firmly, “I need the name on your birth certificate, the name your mother gave you when you were born. Do you have a Social Security Card?”

This he produced, quietly and without looking me in the eye. So, what was the name on the card? Donald James. And, I was suddenly struck, as I looked at the two “first” names on his Social Security Card, with the thought “Does it really matter?”

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