Episode 3 of American Butterfly: So Much In a Name
My brother, JT, was named after a great-great grandfather on my Mom’s side, John Thomas Trenton. The Trentons did not believe in using the same name successively. There were no juniors or III’s or IV’s. The family names were never allowed to wander too far away, however. They all had a deeper meaning that tied each one of us to our ancestors, to their stories, and to the places they came from.
Things were a little different in parts of Dad’s family. You had to be careful in reunions. If you said the name “Stewart” too loudly, a whole room of men would turn their heads. There would come an important moment in life when an adult cousin would correct you, “No, I don’t go by Stew anymore. Stew is my son. I go by ‘Stewart,’ same as Dad now.” It could get confusing.
It took me a while to learn my Mom and Dad’s given names. They were “Mom” and “Dad” for years, simple titles but extremely powerful. Only ever replaced by a “Ma’am” or “Sir” delivered respectfully. Understanding my father as a person did not begin until I started reading the names on our mail. It was shocking to learn that there were so many different men receiving letters in our home. I became sincerely frightened that something was extremely wrong.
My Dad’s first and middle names were “James” and “Earle.” The birth certificate did not matter much, though, because his family never called him anything other than “Johnny” or “John.” Those were the names I came to know him by. The name, Johnny, however, didn’t link directly to any ancestor I ever remember meeting or hearing about.
I was eventually told that on the day he was born in 1939, a grandfather declared that he would be called Johnny, no matter what. Recently I connected the dots. The name “Johnny” was used to describe the common soldier of the Confederacy. Since the Civil War, the name is found in books, songs, games, and what today we call cultural memes.
A memorable incarnation is the 30-inch “Johnny Reb” toy cannon of 1961. Remco capitalized on the 100-year anniversary of the Civil War. It packaged a working cannon with a rebel battle flag and four solid balls. Properly fired, a shot could travel up to 35 feet.
On April 5th, 1968, less than two weeks after I was born in Memphis, Tennessee, my father’s birth name was in the news. Mom received a rare call from her mother-in-law.
Grandma immediately asked in a quiet, breathy voice, “Is Johnny around?”
Grandma had heard a radio announcement that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated by a White man in downtown Memphis, our home town. The FBI had released only the first and middle names of the shooter: James Earl.
Mom responded, “Well, yes. I think he’s in the backyard.”
Grandma asked for further clarification: “Has he been around all day?”
Grandma knew she had a loving and dutiful son raised in a Christian home. Yet she was terrified by the news of MLK’s killing in Memphis. Her son, my father, was quick to anger. He bore a deep resentment for what he saw as injustices being thrust upon his home by the US court system and the federal Presidency. He was also a good shot after years in the army. Grandma, a deeply loving and Christian woman, feared that her son with the electric smile might have done the unthinkable.
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The above is a modified excerpt from the novel, American Butterfly. The story is told through the eyes of a man raised in the South, living in the North, and struggling to understand love and life in the modern world.
It directly engages recent decades. It embraces the events that have shaped today’s world. And it draws upon the past to help us understand the many sides fighting America’s Culture War.
All through the arc of a family story — different and similar to yours and to mine.