Photo by Simone Busatto on Unsplash

Author Changes her Name

Will the world stop spinning?

Cori, owner of the BLK+BRWN Bookstore, called me Miss Dawn when we met. It was the first time anyone had addressed me in that way. It felt right. I friggin’ loved it. Miss Dawn was both a surprise and an inexplicable expectation.

Yolanda, girlfriend of fifty years, reported when she was growing up, you never called an adult by their first name. Especially in the south, especially in black families.

I consulted my sister Michelle, since she and I grew up in the same black family. In Des Moines. Her tone grew hushed, sharing a secret pleasure. “Uh huh, I’ve been called Miss Michelle, and I love it.”

The woman who cleans our house — Kalia The OCD Diva — called me Miss Dawn when we first met. No prompting. My bones grew ancient and wise. That’s right. Miss Dawn.

Miss Dawn felt like a recognition that I had seen some stuff in my time. It was a way of saying thank you for your service.

I tried it out during a workshop with young black writers. I typed Miss Dawn into my Zoom box, then forgot about it. Halfway in, one of the writers called me Dawn, and another corrected her. “She prefers Miss Dawn. Let her claim her power.” I didn’t have to say a word. Turns out, my presence was my power.

My brother Bill went through a couple of name changes. He was Les (his middle name) when we were kids. Our stepmother changed Les to Junior, which he hated. We moved across country, and he changed himself to Bill (his first name). There were grumblings around our house. We sibs called him Les, our parents tortured him with Junior, but at school he was Bill — the person he chose to be.

Katherine had been Kate for the fifteen years we’d been friends. Katherine was her given name, which had been shortened to the nickname. She no longer felt small enough to fit into Kate. She had grown into Katherine. For a while, habit had me saying Kate, and I was annoyed with myself for not remembering. Now it’s smooth as silk, because my friend Katherine is as big as the universe.

Miss Dawn shivers my timbers.

What are the logistics for becoming this instead of that? What’s the cut-off age for using my new title? Forty? Fifty? How do I announce the rule? At the next writers conference, what will my badge read? “Hello, my name is Dawn if you’re over fifty, Miss Dawn if you’re under.” I haven’t worked out the details, but in the meantime, Zoom.

I signed into another workshop, and remembered to rename myself. One click changed Dawn Downey to Miss Dawn. I was nervous. I’d been Dawn for sixty years. (My first ten years I was Snookums.)

Our teacher, Nicole, appeared in their designated square. “Hey, Miss Dawn, how are you?” They said it as though it were normal. My emotions were all over the place: a sense of belonging in this writing space, belonging to this new name, being seen, being honored. Nichole led us through a round of tell us why you’re here tonight. I gave my spiel. One by one the others gave their why, and the third writer after me leaned in to her camera, “Well, like Miss Dawn said, …”

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Dawn Downey

Dawn Downey

Dawn Downey writes about love and pain. Her latest book is Blindsided: Essays from the Only Black Woman in the Room. DawnDowneyBlog.com.