Ellis Island Brown – What Ache Is In a Name?

What ache is in a name, what hidden loss, what forgotten history?

In the US, you just never know unless you ask. Sometimes you don’t know even after you ask. The vast majority here came from somewhere else in the generations past, and unless we have the story from our elders we don’t even know where that “elsewhere” is.

During my postdoctoral research fellowship I lost some mail. It was sent to Dr. J.Brown and wound up on another scientist’s desk at the hospital in the Bronx. When I arrived to claim it from him, that J.Brown said he was an “Ellis Island Brown”. I asked him, what, people actually live on Ellis Island? No, he told me, but if they couldn’t pronounce the name, and it started with a “B” you were a Brown. Aha, so unlikely we were related, right?

When I asked my father about our family name, where the Brown’s came from, I was in for a surprise. He told me that during immigration at Ellis Island, the US staff there could not pronounce the family name of his father and sister, Bent and Marie, who were Bronander’s from Denmark. A different time, he told me that as Bronander, his father couldn’t get work at the docks on the ships – due to blatant racism against certain Nordic immigrant groups.

I’m not sure of the spelling of the family name, because I’ve never seen it written anywhere on any of our family things. I wonder how different my introductions, my image, my life would have been as “Yanjifer Bronander”, as he used to say it–instead of Jennifer Brown. What else was left behind? What Gods did they worship? What lives did they live? I’ll never know.

I just love Vivek Shraya’s song and video, “ACHE IN MY NAME” and included it here embeded from vimeo. He points out that some of our names are names of the Gods. Beautiful. And it’s filmed in Elephanta caves in India, a place I love and visited alone, looking for a different kind of heritage of mine.

If you haven’t seen it, have a look and listen to Vivek’s inspirational piece:

ACHE IN MY NAME (short film) from Vivek Shraya on Vimeo.

So who am I related to anyway?

Everyone I guess, if we look back far enough.

Do you have a “name” family story to share? Please leave a comment, I’ll look forward to hearing from you.

You may also be interested in:

DEATH AND THE DREAM, short stories from J.J.Brown available at  https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/79628 as an ebook edition distributed by Smashwords. The paperback edition is coming soon.

14 thoughts on “Ellis Island Brown – What Ache Is In a Name?

  1. What a beautiful name – Vivek – (from Monier Williams Online) – so many beautiful meanings 🙂

    विवेक
    m. discrimination , distinction

    consideration , discussion , investigation

    true knowledge , discretion , right judgement , the faculty of distinguishing and classifying things according to their real properties

    (in वेदा*न्त) the power of separating the invisible Spirit from the visible world (or spirit from matter , truth from untruth , reality from mere semblance or illusion)

    1. “Vivek” is so beautiful, and to know the meaning so important too. I named my daughters after so much contemplation, it matters. I love Vivek’s expression of what is in a name. Thank you for sharing this thoughtful expansion here.

  2. Hi Jennifer. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I always remember a saying I read from an immigrant at Ellis Island: I though the streets were paved with gold, then found out they weren’t paved, then was told I had to pave them.

    I think all that we tie to a name. Couldn’t Norma Jeane Baker have risen to stardom instead of Marilyn Monroe? Archibald Alexander Leach was to the world Cary Grant. How new immigrants to Hollywood royalty have seen their identities change.

    1. Catherine, it is so true that the treasures were within, not on the streets when we got here. Name changes for theatrical performance, pen names, these changes must reflect some inner turmoil about the question “who am I?” I think.

  3. My married name has a similar story. My heritage is from Germany. and due to WWII, names were changes. One story is that the name was changed to the Italian name of the folks who took ove the land. Another story is that the name was shortened, so it wouldn’t denote the german heritage. Both of these stories related that these changes were forced, since otherwise they would be punished.

    1. Nancy thank you for sharing this story here. I wonder how it affects the generation that makes the change. Like my father knew his father changed the name, and my father had many friends from his country – but I lost that connection and didn’t know our name. Protecting the family and especially the young ones, must be a very strong driver for parents under political pressure, to be willing to give up shared heritage. I’m sorry I missed out on mine, for sure.

  4. This was so interesting. I don’t have a name story such as yours, so I’ll just tell you my grandmother’s maiden name because it’s odd and makes people giggle: Waghorn. Her full name was Gertrude Waghorn. Veddy veddy British.

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