What’s In A Name? For This ‘Black Panther’ Star, It Was A Long-Sought-After Acceptance.

A proud "Zimerican."

You may know her as Danai Gurira, but she hasn't always been comfortable going by that name — it's been a journey to get to that place. The Black Panther actress wrote an essay for Glamour about embracing her traditional Zimbabwean name and, by doing so, she began to also embrace her heritage.


Turns out Gurira — who was born to two Zimbabwean academic parents in Grinnell, Iowa — didn't know even know about her real name until she was 5 years old. She had gone by the nickname of Dede and held onto that moniker even after the revelation from her mom that Danai meant "to be in love" or "to love one another" in Shona — their native language. That was quite the appropriate name, she points out, given the fact that her birthday is Valentine's Day.

"As a typical little girl with cool cred to uphold, I wasn't too into this other name. It sounded weird the way my mom pronounced it, her African cadences freely flowing, her tongue pulled to the back roof of her mouth as she said the first syllable like a d, but not really, her mouth wide as she pronounced the a and i at the end of this strange new designation," the Walking Dead star penned. "Everyone called me Dede. My teachers, my friends, my siblings, me. What was I to do with this new knowledge she imposed on me? I chose to do nothing. I retained Dede; it sounded close enough to a Western name and made me feel like I fit in, to some extent at least."

Having grown up as one of only two Black families in town and with parents with distinct accents, Gurira decided that having a strong African name was "too much." That is, until the whole family moved to Zimbabwe less than a year later. Though she still went by Dede after relocating, Gurira soon realized that her nickname was now weirder than her given name.

"I can't say exactly when it happened, but thank God that it did: I saw that rejecting my own culture, down to the name my parents had given me, was unacceptable. All of a sudden I needed to lay claim to what folks had fought and died for me to have — the freedom to speak my own language, my own name," she added. "Why did I hold on so hard to this vestige of my connection to America? I was born there; why did I feel I had to prove further connection?"

Credit: Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

It was during this realization that she noticed that those of the same generation of her parents had English names thanks to missionaries telling their parents it was necessary for their children to be christened. Free from that in America, Gurira's parents gave their children Shona names. Gurira's middle name, Jekesai, means "to illuminate" in Shona. She was given this name having been born during the war for independence in Zimbabwe. Her parents were praying for a "light at the end of a dark tunnel" so that they could be able to return someday.

"I started to connect the dots around why I was rejecting my people's culture markers and he dominating effects of Eurocentric culture," Gurira wrote. "I questioned why I didn't speak my parents' native language and began to test how much Shona I knew, embracing the sounds, the tonalities, of this original tongue of my foremothers."

This realization showed Gurira that her heritage "was to be celebrated, not denied," and she didn't want to give up this heritage to be more Western or more acceptable to the mainstream. This, too, was a chance to "bring light to those who should be seen more, heard more: people of marginalized cultures." Choosing to go by Danai has "affected every choice" in her life from then on out — from the stories she has told and the characters she has played.

"Both Zimbabwe and America resonate in me in equally significant parts and can't be extricated from each other," Gurira concluded. "Right now both countries sit at defining moments: America faces political division and a crisis of leadership, and Zimbabwe is finding its footing in a transition of power after decades under one man's rule. I've never felt the weight of my biculturalism more intensely. All I know to do is remember who I am and be ready to participate, as my full self: Danai Jekesai Gurira — a Zimerican."


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