Happy #FridayReads! This week we’re obviously reading Obviously by Akilah Hughes! This hilarious, insightful memoir from viral YouTuber and comedian Akilah Hughes is hitting shelves September 24th, scroll down to read the excerpt!
What’s in a Name
My name is Akilah Saidah Kamaria Hughes. Contrary to the belief popularized by doctors and substitute teachers, all of the letters in my name are not, in fact, silent. It isn’t a symbol like Prince. It’s twenty-five letters, eleven syllables, and rhymes up until the last name.
It’s pronounced UH-KEE-LUH SAH-EE-DUH KAH- MUH-REE-UH HUES. It is Swahili, Arabic, and Irish, respectively. Hughes is the Irish one, to be clear. Akilah means “intelligent one who reasons,” which I’d say is fitting save for my penchant for overreaction to any modicum of adversity. Let’s just say you don’t want to be working for Spectrum if it’s storming during the season finale of any- thing from Shondaland.
Kamaria is Arabic for “like the moon,” which is both romantic and mysterious—things that I’m mostly not. Back in my chubbier years, my siblings would tell me I was like the moon in that I was “round.” Saidah means “happy and fortunate,” which seems like a missed naming opportunity for Zoloft and Viagra, but I digress.
Before settling on my nomenclature, Mom had a short list of potential contenders from a book on African names she still has in the house. Folasade (FULL-UH-SHAH- DAY), the HD version of ageless singer Sade’s name, was my mom’s first pick. My mom lived for her music in the mid- ’80s, citing “Is It a Crime?” as her R & B jam of choice (I prefer “Smooth Operator”). She went with Akilah, though, because she liked the way it sounded when she said it aloud. It took her a record two weeks to name Malene, my sister, who is just a day short of a year older than me. The family just referred to her as “Abebe” (which is hilarious as it means nothing and is just a cool way to say “a baby”) until she fired up the old paperback and decided Malene was a decent fit.
Her lucky number is six—the number of letters in my sister’s full name, Malene, or Lanie for short; my brother’s name, Bomani, whom we call Bo; and my full first name. And she liked what Akilah meant. Do name meanings actually affect the way your kids turn out to be? Michael means “close to God,” so is that why Michael Jordan and Michael B. Jordan rule? How can that explain all the Michaels that kinda suck? Are names like astrology? Is astrology only mostly fake? These are all legitimate questions.
Like Sesame Street, my mother fervently believes in knowledge and education being the only paths to success, so of course she loved a name that basically means smarty- pants.
Common mispronunciations range from the condonable UH-KILL-UH (which would make such a dope DJ name) to the you-didn’t-even-try-at-all-comma-asshole pronunciation, ALKALINE. I also have vivid memories of watching The Sandlot and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure as a kid and thinking it was super unfair how my name rhymed with something called tequila, which would later be known as my best frenemy.
I’ve never hated my name though. To me, it almost sounded like the name of a princess in a Disney movie. It had a beautiful ring to it coming out of even the grossest of mouths. But I did come close to hating it once. And I still have a vendetta against Keke Palmer.
In the spring of 2006, while I was slacking through the second semester of sophomore year of undergrad, a movie called Akeelah and the Bee came out. It starred Keke Palmer as eleven-year-old Akeelah, a spelling-bee champion-in-waiting in an inner city. Filled with family fun and Laurence Fishburne’s encouragement, it made me completely sick. To begin, Akilah is spelled with one I, not fifty Es. Additionally, if a movie studio is going to blatantly steal my life story the very least they could do is change the main character’s name.
That’s right. I’m pretty sure that Akeelah and the Bee is based on my life. And not just because Akeelah stole my name—because I, too, was a spelling-bee queen.
In first grade I got a 100 percent on every spelling test Ms. Moore could throw at me. On, an, sack, bat, back, black, snack. My brain prioritized the spelling of snack the moment I found out which Dunk-a-Roos I liked best. The moment I saw a word in a book or heard a new word in conversation I committed its spelling to memory. I never had to study. I knew far too many words and their elementary spellings to be intimidated by a twenty-word quiz. I was promptly moved up to the third-grade spelling level, which, again, presented no challenge.
By fifth grade, word had spread that no one could out- spell Akilah in the upcoming school-wide spelling bee. It wasn’t much of a reputation, but it sure beat the hell out of being the kid everyone suspected of hoarding milk cartons in his backpack. Any cred is better than that.
The air smelled fresher the morning of the bee. It was unseasonably warm for spring, and the dew made the grass sparkle like the Emerald City. Waltzing pompously into the library, I didn’t even wince at the ancient librarian with the toe thumb (google it), who was mumbling about returning books and permanent records or something.
I watched a girl who made fun of me back in my Boys & Girls Club days (for crying during the Halloween sleepover when they made six-year-old me watch Scream) misspell prey as she didn’t even think to ask to hear it used in a sentence. I rubbed my little paws together as sticky kids misspelled sanitary, cleanliness, and hygiene.
The final round came, and suddenly my nerves showed up. I had to win. What excuse would I have for not winning? I was the girl who knew how to spell. Before I would even have to face my mom, I’d have to face my class at recess. Who knew how much they’d drag me if the girl who beat them every week in spelling lost to anyone else.
Mom’s spaghetti. This mattered. When it got to be the last word, I took my mother’s advice. Take a deep breath. Slow down. My word was unnecessary. Two Ns, one C. Eat it, other kids! Akilah just won her way to the regional spelling bee.
I could hear excited screams from the other classrooms. I forgot this would be broadcast on our closed-circuit televisions. In that moment, I understood what it must feel like to be Harry Potter. Everyone had heard rumors about him and his damn lightning bolt scar, and they were probably incredulous or maybe even annoyed at how much buzz he had about him. But then, when put to the test, he saved the whole damn school and world. That was basically what I did, by spelling a word right on a sunny Wednesday in Kentucky.
The regional spelling bee was a big deal. We had to pile into the RAV4 and drive to Lexington, an hour away, early in the morning on a Saturday. The whole ride down was silent as I read through a tiny paperback book with the official spelling words for this round of the spelling bee. Page after page were words I knew already. If I didn’t, I’d stare intently for ten seconds and then close my eyes and spell it out loud. Then I’d reopen my eyes, look to the little book, and find that I had already memorized the spelling. Some of the longer words came with definitions, but mostly the words had no homonyms and were never meant to be understood, only remembered.
“Remember to go slow and take a deep breath before you start,” Mom reminded me.
Even if it had just worked a month prior, I hated this advice. I could fly through a twenty-word spelling quiz any day of the week, but now I had to stretch before I could flex?
“Yes ma’am,” I said, because that’s what you say when your mother tells you to do something. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting a seriously long “talking to” about how she didn’t get this far in life by being stupid and maybe I’d make it that far if I stopped being stupid and talking back.
The regional spelling bee was to be televised on KET, the statewide public access channel. I’m not sure which family members would tune in, but I assumed everyone from my aunts, uncles, and their kids to the little boy from social studies class who inexplicably handed out coupons instead of Valentines that year would be watching. This made me immeasurably nervous. See, spelling was easy, but looking pretty, confident, and spelling words perfectly at a natural volume in a timely manner was a lot of pressure, and based on my previous on-camera experience, I wasn’t entirely sure I was up to the challenge.
Just a couple years earlier a local TV channel had had auditions for a zoo correspondent. They were looking for charismatic, cute kids to share “news” from the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden in a weekly segment called “Kid’s-Eye View from the Zoo.” I’m not sure what news they were hoping for (this was many years before Harambe and Fiona the hippo), but I was convinced I should be the one to report it.
The line weaved through a room with live animals. Once it was your turn, you were seated with bright lights in your face and two cameras facing you and a strange adult white man who was holding a koala. I don’t know if it was just the whole “talking to an adult stranger about my favorite cartoons,” or the fact that when I went to pet the koala it was not even a little soft, or the pressure of having to be something special on camera for other people to see, but I froze. I couldn’t think of any good cartoons even though I spent almost all of my free time in front of or wishing I was in front of a TV.
Suffice it to say I never recorded a news segment at the zoo because I wasn’t offered the position. But I’m pretty sure the little blond boy they chose never wrote a book.
I pushed the thought away. I wasn’t about to close up like a clam again. My mom thought I was a little star, and I mostly wanted her to keep believing that. Also it would be cool to rub it in my crappy fifth-grade teacher’s face if I were to go to the state championships and *gasp* maybe even to the national spelling bee.
My hair looked good and my outfit was clean. Mom parked while I ran in to register.
“What’s your name?”
I laughed at the woman in her best Wynonna Judd costume. She didn’t get it. Probably wasn’t a speller, just a volunteer.
Joining the other kids in the front of the auditorium, I looked back to find my mom dropping her purse into an empty seat next to her. I waved. She waved. My heart rate was somewhere near “just ran a mile uphill in the sun.” We had a half hour to talk to the other kids, but bump that. I wasn’t there to make friends. I worried that if I made even one friend and they beat me I’d have to address that level of betrayal. This was fifth grade. I wasn’t big enough yet to be the bigger person. No, I’d bite my tongue and try to remember the words from that damn pamphlet. Had I missed any pages?
“Will the first row of spellers please rise?” a voice boomed. I was in the second row so I did nothing but await further instruction.
“Form an orderly line. We will call you one at a time to the microphone. There we will give you a word. Please restate the word, then spell, and state the word again. If you spell the word correctly, go sit at the end of the second row of spellers. If you spell the word wrong . . .”
I stopped listening. She wasn’t talking to me.
The first round went quickly. Apparently, I wasn’t the only person with their heartbeat in their ears. Kid after kid dropped out. Maybe five of the first row of fifteen were still in the running. Soon enough I was called to the microphone.
I laughed, and the audience laughed. Good to know we were all on the same page.
“Panic: p-a-n-i-c. Panic.”
And all of the nerves fell away. Why did I think this was so tough? I smiled at the judges and went to the end of the second row. Round two would be upon us soon, but before that I had to look back and wave at my mom, again. She waved back.
Round two began like the other. I was eighth to go up. The kid ahead of me misspelled muumuu spectacularly. Halfway through he realized he had spelled it wrong and just started saying anything. I respected it. If you’re going to burn out, you might as well burn bright. But now it was my turn.
I approached the microphone. Confident, no, cocky.
Instead of worrying that I’d sound like a moron or say the wrong thing, I was already planning my outfits for the national spelling bee. The announcer said a word. So, instead of taking a deep breath or anything, I just spelled:
“Scandal: s-c-a-n-d-a-l. Scandal,” I said, walking to take my seat at the end of the row to prepare for round three.
Halfway through my march I heard, “I’m sorry, the correct spelling was s-c-o-u-n-d-r-e-l. Scoundrel.”
Disbelief, shock. I hardly even remembered where the disgraced bad spellers were supposed to go. I took one last look at the row of kids moving forward in the competition, but they wouldn’t even look at me. I hung my head and held back tears as I found my mom, already holding her bag, ready to pile back in the car for the drive home.
“I told you to take a deep breath and wait, but no. You just rushed it. If you ever listened to me you’d have won.” The speech I’ll never forget. Even now Marilynn gets pissed off when I bring up the spelling bee. “A waste of gas,” as it were.
At the close of freshman year at Berea College I had almost completely moved on from the mortifying spelling bee display. I’d gotten jobs, gotten into college, and could finally hear either s–c-word without the flush of latent shame. I had left behind my old identity, content to brag about my nail beds and other less academic gifts. I saw the trailer for Akeelah and the Bee during my afternoon ritual of watching Oprah and eating my microwave popcorn pre-dinner. Critics already loved it. Purposely earnest and heartwarming, it made me want to kick a wall.
From that point on, meeting people has been a painful experience.
“Like Akeelah and the Bee?” they all ask, proud of their clever word association.
“No,” I answer without explanation. The alternative of me recounting the incidents of identity theft, PTSD (Post- Traumatic Spelling Disorder), and appearance-based envy would be breaking every bit of small talk etiquette.
My blood-feud with Keke, aka Broadway’s Cinderella, extends to this very day. My nephew Mason had a hard time with “Kiwi” (my childhood nickname) as a baby and has taken up calling me “Kiki.” It’s really fucking adorable when he calls me “my Kiki,” so I never corrected him.
But if Keke and I ever meet, I want her to know that though none of my names mean it, I forgive her. If she had known that her ten-year-old acting chops and family nick- name were causing me such anguish, I’m sure she would have begged for the studio to scrap the film and suggested her own legal name change. Of course she would have—she’d have to be a downright narcissistic monster, so proud and absurd that she thinks her individual feelings far outweigh those of others only relevant due to absolute coincidence, to be picking this fight.
. . . Right?