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My name is Joseph Bradley Lee. My friends and family call me Joey. Professional associates call me Joe. There was a time in 1972 that I hated the name Joseph. I wasn’t particularly bothered by Joseph because most people called me Joey. It was a different story, though, when school was in session.
In 1972 I was a second grader at Carter G. Woodson elementary school in the Cherry Hill section of Baltimore, MD. Cherry Hill was a mostly African-American community. In fact, if there were any non-black students at Carter G. Woodson, I never saw them. Cherry Hill was a tough neighborhood; a nurturing neighborhood; and to a degree an isolated neighborhood. And unlike any other place I have ever lived, the black folk in Cherry Hill frequently butchered the name Joseph.
“Mrs Richardson, Jozup cut in line”! “Mrs Richardson, Jozup pushed me”! Mrs Richardson, Jozup is chewing gum”! Jozup, Jozup, Jozup! The “seph” in Joseph seemed to allude the students at Carter G. Woodson. Occasionally, a teacher or two would duplicate the error in pronunciation. It was nonsensical to me. Joseph wasn’t a difficult name at all, yet no one managed to get it right.
I was so fed up with Jozup, that on one particular spring day after school I literally kicked a can up and down the street as I contemplated a name change. I sat curb side on Seabury Rd trying to figure out how to break the news to Mama Lee. I poked at a line of marching ants on their way to investigate a crumb of potato chip. A clear indication of transference of energy; my bad energy to the ants and the ants in search of something to attack.
After a few moments of pissing off the ants, a fellow classmate joined me curbside. His name was Philip. Philip wanted to talk about how Mrs Richardson swatted Byron Barnes with a yard stick because he was talking in class. Yes, the teachers, and I use that term loosely, were allowed to inflict physical punishment on us students at Carter G. Woodson elementary school. Byron was a nice kid, but trouble always seemed to find him. He also had a mouth full of the tiniest, blackest teeth you ever did see. We chuckled about that too.
After a while, Philip headed home and so did I. I was determined to have a chat with Mama Lee about the name situation so, once home, I helped myself to a bowl of cereal and turned the TV on to Leave It To Beaver and awaited mama’s arrival from work.
“I don’t like my name,” I got around to blurting out. Mama Lee wanted to know why. “I don’t like the way people say Jozup,” my reply. “Well tell them to call you Joey,” Mama Lee said with a “boy get out of my face with that silly shit” look. “I tried but they don’t listen,” my frustrated response. Then came the litany of predictable justifications, “It’s a biblical name”, “it’s your father’s name”, “it’s a strong name.” Her mouth moved plenty, but all that came out of it was Jozup, Jozup, Jozup. Then came a question that I surprisingly hadn’t anticipated, “What name do you want then?” she asked. Up to that point, I gave no consideration to a replacement moniker. So I uttered…Philip. Mama’s face was twisted and her response…incredulous. “Philip! Why Philip?” I had no response and, in fact, felt like a silly child. I soon dropped my short-lived campaign for a name change. School would soon be out for summer recess and I’d return to be Joey.
The name game followed me for a good portion of my life. Teachers called me Joseph. Friends called me Joey. And in between…a variety of nicknames.
In Cherry Hill, I was White Hiney. “Hey White Hiney,” they’d yell. Evidence that we were the lightest skinned kids in the hood.
As a teenager, Mama Lee called me Poo Bear. In front of my friends no less.
When we moved from Cherry Hill to the Wakefield area on Baltimore’s west side, variations on a wolf theme emerged. Wolfboy, Wolfie, and Wolfpire became a new attempt at adolescent cruelty. Inspired by a short-lived TV show called Lucan which ran from 1977-1978, a few neighborhood kids called me Wolfboy because of my long hair. Lucan chronicled the life of a young man who, as a boy, was raised by a pack of wolves. I was the neighborhood Lucan.
The two moles on my neck that mimicked a vampire’s bite suggested to them that I was part wolf and part vampire, hence the Wolfpire reference. This didn’t bother me. Secretly, I loved the Lucan TV show and often fantasized about being raised by wolves.
During the same period, yet another nickname surfaced. It was Ugly. No, literally the nickname was Ugly. It was given to me by my adopted godfather, Johnny Miles. Johnny Miles was a shit-talking hipster from Marion South Carolina that took a shine to my adopted godmother, Mignon Ackerman. They would later marry and become influential figures (good and bad) in my life.
“Hey Ugly, come here,” he’d say with his raspy voice. Johnny was a big guy. Over six-foot tall and thick of body. Peeled right out of a Zora Neale Hurston novel, Johnny was as country as they came. Johnny was loud. You’d never not know he was in a room; and to watch a Washington Redskins game with him was intolerable.
“Let me holla at you Ugly,” he’d bellow. “Stop calling that boy Ugly, Johnny!” Mignon jumped to my defense. “What do you want me to call him? Cutie?” I was not a kid with a confidence deficiency. I knew I was attractive and I didn’t need the likes of Johnny Miles to validate it. Johnny adored me, as did Mignon. In many ways, I was as much their child as I was Frances Lee’s. After two weeks of protesting the name, Mignon finally fell in line with her beaux and she too called me Ugly. It was and is, to this day, my favorite nickname.
It doesn’t matter what people call you as long as you know who you are. I’m a Joey. Joey defines me. More so than Joe. And more so than Joseph. Joe is my professional moniker. It started with my first broadcast assignment. I’m Joe all day long. I now live in a town where I am only known as Joe. So when I hear my wife Angela’s beautiful voice call ‘Joey”, I’m transported home, to Baltimore, to my roots. It’s sweet and peaceful and loving, her voice. It provides a sense of place and reconnects me to me, Joe to Joey.
Do you have a favorite nickname to share? Perhaps one that you hated? Let me know in the comments section.