There weren’t that many names that I considered giving my first-born. Even though I had amniocentesis, we didn’t find out the gender. My husband didn’t want to know and so I let him have his way. I really wanted a girl, but knew I’d be happy with whoever showed up.
Her last name would be the same as my husband’s, which is Virgin. It limits things. We’d agreed that a boy would carry on Cliff’s family name – he’s a III – which gave me the lead in choosing a girl’s name. I had always liked the name Esme. I liked Grace, I also liked Neema (which means Grace in Tanzania—at least that’s what was on the tag attached the African doll we had). None of those names sounded right with Virgin, though. I also wanted a name that meant something, had a connection to someone–a family member or a place or in the case of Baldwin, a favorite writer.
It was 1992 and the fad was last names for girls with Taylor, Tyler, Jordan leading the pack. I wanted something unique—like my name—but not hard to pronounce or too foreign, like my name. For the record, Benilde is French and the name of a medieval (male) saint.
One front-runner was the name Caledonia, after my husband’s great-great-great grandmother who had bought her freedom from slavery in Macon, Georgia with four bits of gold that she’d somehow managed to scrape together. I loved the story of her fortitude, but wasn’t certain about the name, although it would’ve been shortened to Caleigh.
And then there was Baldwin, after James Baldwin, one of my favorite writers. As a writer myself – I’m the author of four bestselling novels including Good Hair and most recently of the memoir Welcome to My Breakdown – Baldwin had special meaning for me. The way Baldwin put words together can take my breath away. I’m also in love with the way his mind worked and how he was able to articulate the situation, history, anguish and humanity of Black people. He also provided all Americans a gimlet-eyed view of our country and what we needed to do to repair it. He was openly gay, long before it was acceptable, especially in Black world. I love that he had the courage to leave the U.S., in order to shed the restrictions put on him by virulent racism; to want to be free and to go a completely unfamiliar land. He moved to Paris with something like two dollars in his pocket. I love that he found a way to live as a full human being in France, although he didn’t romanticize his beloved Paris, either.
“In overlooking, denying, evading [this] complexity–which is nothing more than the disquieting complexity of ourselves–we are diminished and we perish; only within this web of ambiguity, paradox, this hunger, danger, darkness, can we find at once ourselves and the power that will free us from ourselves…”
I wanted my child to understand that being Black in America is so much about being comfortable with complexity; that being human is a web of ambiguity, paradox, and all that James Baldwin so eloquently described.
“Do you think it’s too much?”
“It is a lot, but I say go for it,” he said.
I knew if the baby were a boy, he’d be named after Cliff—Clifford Anderson Virgin, IV. I wasn’t into the Roman numeral thing (or having three Cliffs running around) but he was adamantly against ending “the legacy.” We compromised and agreed to call him Ford.
If we had a girl, the final choices were Caleigh and Baldwin. I figured I’d decide on one when I met her. She was born via caesarean section on October 18th, after four hours of pushing and 18 hours of labor. When Dr. Johnson pulled the baby from my incision, she held her and said, “Ok, she’s here. What’s her name?”
I told her I was deciding between the two names and without missing a beat the doctor said, “Caleigh.”
The baby’s lips were outlined in a brown slightly deeper than the mauve on her perfect pout. Because of my difficult delivery I stayed in the hospital for six days. Every day, the person in charge of birth certificates would come into my room; by Day 3 she always said the same thing:
“You ain’t named that baby yet?”
I smiled and said: “I’m getting to know her.” She’d look at me as if I was bat-shit and sashay out of the room.
I was getting to know her, deciding which name best fit. She was strong; we knew that by the unrelentingly robust heartbeat during delivery. Usually a doctor will only let a woman push for two hours. Often the fear is of the baby is having difficulty moving down the birth canal. Sometimes, it’s fear of lawsuits. In my case, I begged Dr. Johnson to let me keep trying and she allowed me to because the baby was far down into the birth canal, she wasn’t in distress and her heart rate didn’t falter.
So, between the baby’s determined nursing, those lined lips, and her brave heart, I decided she could handle walking around with the name Baldwin.
Of course, she went through that early adolescent period of not liking much of anything, including her name. Once we were at a kids’ resort in the Caribbean, the kind where the kids are off at camp all day and the parents get to read and drink on the beach. The three of us were together at dinner one night and saw a few of her camp playmates. They each waved at her: “Hi Caleigh, hi, Caleigh.” We looked at Baldwin, she was all of 8 and she just hunched her shoulders.
At 10, when she was taking tennis lessons at a camp in our town, a teenage coach was calling out names from his roster. He yelled out Baldwin and she timidly raised her hand. He, in his tennis whites, broad shoulders and dirty blond hair, pointed at her and said: “Awesome name.” After that, she was sold. She began to love her name.
Just recently, while working at one of her summer jobs as a restaurant hostess, a repeat customer came in and started chatting. He’d been in a couple days earlier with his mother who was from Canada and was a native French speaker. The mother and Baldwin carried on a conversation. The customer asked Baldwin her name. When she told him, Baldwin Virgin, he said to her: “Wow, you have mean parents.” When she told me this later that night, I was pissed. Who says that? It’s so rude. Baldwin wasn’t fazed, “Mom, I could care less. People say stupid stuff all the time.”
Twenty-one years later, she carries herself as the strong, beautiful, complex woman I’d hoped she would become.
And after spending her junior year in Paris, she’s fallen in love with it and is making plans to move back there—just like her namesake.
Benilde Little is the author of the best-selling novels Good Hair, The Itch, Acting Out and Who Does She Think She Is? and a recent memoir, Welcome to My Breakdown, all published by Simon & Schuster. Her work has appeared in the New York Times and Essence and in the anthologies Honey Hush, About Face and Blue Light Corner. She lives in Montclair, New Jersey with her husband Cliff Virgin and teenage son, Ford. Their daughter Baldwin is a senior at Sarah Lawrence College.