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The giving of names is an attribute unique to humans. Eager soon-to-be parents ponder the dilemma of “which name will suit our unborn baby the best” even before they find out the gender of the fetus. Often, these names are chosen based on what qualities the parents want their child to have: Lily for a pure and beautiful girl, Justin for a fair and kind boy. In both Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison and Bamboozled directed by Spike Lee, The Invisible Man, members of the Brotherhood, the Mau Maus, Manray, Womack, and Delacroix all have their names somehow altered, though not by their parents. The altering of the names of these characters also alters their identities in profound ways.
The attachment of a common word or title to a name (such as Professor Dumbledore or Professor Stephen Hawking) serves to unite an assortment of people. In Invisible Man, members of the Brotherhood, a deceitful organization that claims to raise poor people up in society, are referred to as “Brother.” This title not only creates the illusion of equality within the Brotherhood, but also ties members into the mindset of the Brotherhood and attempts to suppress individual thought. After the Invisible Man organizes a impromptu funeral for Tod Clifton, an ex-Brotherhood member, he is interrogated by Brother Jack and Brother Tobitt. Brother Jack is sardonic as he repeatedly ridicules how the Invisible Man acted “on [his] personal re-spon-si-bility” (464). After all, by the time Clifton was peddling Sambo dolls in the streets, he was no longer aligned with the Brotherhood’s ideology, and therefore no longer useful to the Brotherhood. The Invisible Man took it upon himself to put together a funeral and give a eulogy expressing the injustice that Clifton faced. Brother Jack continues to emphasize the controlling nature of the Brotherhood by telling the Invisible Man that “the committee makes your decisions… What’s happened to your discipline?”(472). Discipline in this case is not the upholding of one’s own morals; it is the submission to the Brotherhood’s principles. By requiring members to call each other “Brother”, this organization rids people of individual thought, and therefore identity.
Although groups are sometimes seen as single entities and not as composed of individual people, the unification of a group under a common name given to individuals can help strengthen their identities. In Bamboozled, the rowdy members of the Mau Maus, an insurgent rap group, all include “Blak” in their names: Big Blak Afrika, Double Blak, Mo Blak, Smooth Blak, and One-Sixteenth Blak. Smooth Blak, the only female member, suggests while swigging Da Bomb Malt Liquor that they “from here on, henceforth and whatnot, should spell black: B-L-A-K, not B-L-A-C-K.” Using stage names that include “Blak” unifies the Mau Maus and also emphasizes their “blackness”: One-Sixteenth Blak, who is technically fifteen-sixteenths white, pleads at the end of the movie, “Why didn’t you kill me? I’m black!” The act of taking the ‘c’ out of the word ‘black’ is an act of rebellion, which Smooth Blak alludes to when she mentions that the Mau Maus “ain’t never conformed to any of the white man’s rules or regulations.” The Mau Maus and the Brotherhood both attempt to function as unified groups and disrupt society, and both believe that society will benefit from their actions. Though the natures of the two groups are very similar, the attitudes are very different. While the terms “Blak” and “Brother” both serve to unite a group of people, the word “Blak” itself promotes rebellion and gives the Mau Maus a clear, exaggerated identity, whereas the title “Brother” stifles mutiny and rids Brotherhood members of identity.
The assumption of a new name allows the user to be someone they are not, much like the way IM and Pierre Delacroix believe that their names will get them one step closer to gaining success by masking their true selves. Delacroix is the only black TV writer at the television network CNS, and his endeavour to appear as sophisticated as a white man is first seen in his ridiculously French sounding name. His given name is Peerless Dothan, which Delacroix must have found too uncultured to share with the world. Delacroix is also excessively proper and speaks too-proper-English, throwing around phrases like “you have a grand day.” He believes that success can only be achieved by correcting his black background with white-out. Delacroix sees Junebug, his father who works as a comedian, as a “broken man” simply because of the way he embraces black culture and doesn’t “say that stuff [Hollywood] wants [him] to say.” While Junebug refuses to comply with what white men want him to do, Delacroix refuses “to end up where [Junebug] was” and tries his best to assimilate into white society. IM’s desire to shed his background and blend into a whiter, more civilized society, is evident even before he starts working for the Brotherhood. When traveling to New York, the Invisible Man imagines his meeting with important white men in which he “would speak softly, in [his] most polished tones, smile agreeably and be most polite” (157) in an attempt to please them. After the Invisible Man’s initiation banquet at the Chthonian, he explicitly states, “I had a new name and new problems. I had best leave the old behind” (316). This statement is the signal of his transition into a new world and his acceptance into white society. Both the name ‘Pierre Delacroix’ and the name the Invisible Man is given by the Brotherhood serve as vehicles for their conformity to the white mindset. Both work at organizations where the majority is white, and both try to integrate themselves into white society. To them, this integration is a denotation of success, even if it achieved under a pseudo identity.
Like slaves who are renamed by their masters, the Invisible Man, Manray, and Womack are all given different names by the people who attempt to control them. As soon as the Invisible Man begins his work for the Brotherhood, the first order of business was to assign him a new name. The Brotherhood asserts its ownership over IM by requiring him to assume a new name and new identity, which is evident when Brother Jack tells the Invisible Man, “You are to answer to no other, understand?” (309). This way, the Invisible Man plays into the Brotherhood’s plan; the new name and identity allow the Invisible Man to become the perfect spokesperson for the Brotherhood. Manray and Womack, street performers who scrounged around for a living, are no longer Manray and Womack in “Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show” — they are Mantan and Sleep-n’-eat (which are not coincidentally the stage names of two famous blackface performers during the ‘90s). Delacroix needs Mantan and Sleep-n’-eat, not Manray and Womack, in order to achieve his goal of broadcasting the most offensive show possible. Manray readily accepts the role that Pierre Delacroix constructs for him. However, Womack’s “are you kidding” attitude is apparent as Delacroix introduces him to Dunwitty as Sleep-n’-eat — his smile disappears, his eyebrows raise, and his forehead creases with concerned wrinkles.
The reason for these renamings is that both the Brotherhood and Delacroix wanted to make their puppets conform to a certain image, a certain view that the public wanted to see. Eventually, the Invisible Man, Manray, and Womack can no longer stand to put on performances. Working under these identities while holding on to their true individualities presents conflicts. A job that is “a hell of a lot better than tap dancing in the street for pennies,” according to Delacroix, requires Manray and Womack to become characters that are racially offensive. Mantan and Womack begin to detest the black makeup that they must put on and the even blacker characters they must play. When Womack confronts Manray about quitting the show, he puts on one last performance. Womack crosses his eyes and says with a deep, unintelligent voice, “What you want me to do, massa? Anything for you, massa… Anything to make you laugh, massa.” When the Invisible Man discovers the corrupt motives of the Brotherhood, he plots to overthrow it, to “overcome them with yeses, undermine them with grins… agree them to death and destruction” (508). Strangely, the “optimistic chorus of yassuh, yassuh, yassuh!” (509) that the Invisible Man imagines after hearing of the sacrifice of Harlem from Brother Hambro is evocative of Womack’s last performance. Because these characters experienced inner conflicts of identities and their subsequent goals, none were able to truly accomplish what they wanted, and “this waste of double aims, this seeking to satisfy two unreconciled ideals, has wrought sad havoc, has sent them often wooing false gods and invoking false means of salvation, and at times has even seemed about to make them ashamed of themselves,” as is said in The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois.
In Invisible Man and Bamboozled, the reasons behind characters’ sobriquets reveal much about both their true identities and the ones that they wish to adopt. The Mau Maus and the Brotherhood both require members to include a certain word in their names that promotes unity, though the meaning and purpose behind these words are very different. The Invisible Man, Manray, and Womack are all given different names by their superiors, and these names serve to conceal their identities and squeeze them into a mold of sorts, an image that people want to see. The Invisible Man and Delacroix both assume different names in order to conform to white society. Without names, people become lost, because names mark a concrete state of being, written on birth certificates. With alternate names, people also become lost, confused between who they really are and who they seem to be under these pseudonyms. Just as how identity can suggest a name, the name can give rise to the identity.
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