Maya Angelou’s Stuttering Brother

Maya Angelou passed away yesterday. The Stuttering Foundation brought up an interesting fact about her and her brother regarding how she got her name.

Working as a Calypso dancer at the San Francisco club The Purple Onion, Angelou, performing as Marguerite Johnson or Rita at the time, was told she needed a more theatrical stage name. By combining “Maya,” the name her stuttering brother Bailey had given her when they were children, and a variation of her ex-husband’s last name, she became “Maya Angelou.”

The Foundation then posed the question on their Facebook page about changing our own names. Is this something you would do?

For me? I wouldn’t change my name. But maybe the way it’s pronounced …

My name is Rehan. Growing up in the States, I pronounced it as the ‘re’ in ‘return’ and the ‘han’ as in ‘con.’ As someone who stutters, my name definitely gives me the hardest time. I’ll probably fill a week’s worth of posts on it, but the short version is that it only comes out with enormous effort. Any kind of introduction — in person or on the phone — is the worst.

When I came to Saudi 3.5 years ago for work, I actually changed the way I pronounced my name because the way that I’ve been pronouncing it is not the way a native Arabic speaker pronounces it.

The word Rehan is actually an Arabic word meaning something like a scent or odor. (A good one).

For a native Arabic speaker, the first syllable sounds more like “ray” than “ree.” But it’s not really “ray,” because you’re softly bouncing your tongue off the roof of your mouth. It’s a sound that’s not in the English language. The second syllable also comes more from the throat. Anyway, it’s a totally different pronunciation, and basically a totally different word to me. More importantly it’s a different word to my brain as well. My brain seems hell-bent on stuttering on the usual pronunciation of my name, but in the first year or two of coming to Saudi, it didn’t get as hung up on the new pronunciation.

Things in years 3 and 4 are sort of leveling out, but saying the “Arabic” pronunciation isn’t too rough for whatever reason. Even on the phone. The funny thing is that I use a different pronunciation based on the listener — if they’re a native English speaker, I’ll use the version I’ve grown up with. And stutter. I do this because they are used to those sounds and pronunciation. If it’s someone from Saudi/India/Pakistan, I’ll use the more Arabic pronunciation. Make sense?

Did I change my name to try to hide my stutter? Maybe so. But I’m saying it to some people the way they would say it anyway. And it’s easier for me! And just getting through my name right off the bat builds a huge amount of confidence.

So what is the deal with saying our own names — and why is it so difficult? Here’s on take from an old posting on the Stuttering Forum:

Basically, we can’t substitute our names.

And of course when we do stutter on our names — don’t you know your own name?! — a Reddit thread.

Lastly, I found some very inspirational quotes from Maya Angelou as well:

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

Well, my stuttering is a long untold story. So now it’s slowly coming out. And it does feel great.

“Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud.”

I’d say that this nicely summarizes the long term mission of this site.

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