A Becky by Any Other Name
By Becky Tsadik
Beyoncé ruined my name. Or rather her “Becky with the good hair” line in 2016’s “Sorry” added insult to the injury of Plies’ degrading 2010 song “Becky.” The infamous “Oh. My. God. Becky.” intro from Sir Mix a Lot’s 1992 anthem “Baby Got Back” has been giggly lilted at me ad naseum since grade school—each person believes themselves the first clever one to have done so. Through college, I was teased for being a black girl with a “white” name, but I stuck with Becky because my birth name Rebekah never quite fit.
“There are good Beckys and Rebeccas: the Rebecca (also Rebekah) of the Bible was a good, resourceful brave woman, who nevertheless gave troubled birth to Esau and Jacob, whose conflicts went on to shape the conflicts between nations and races. Oops.” (Thanks, Beyonce: Being a ‘Becky’ Just Got So Much Harder.” Tim Teeman, The Daily Beast).
In Hebrew, Rebekah means knotted cord or bind—one who unites; less positively, it can also mean noose or ensnare. Rebekah, or Rebeca as it is frequently spelled in Ethiopia, is pronounced “Ribka” in Amharic. What does the name mean in Ethiopia? Choose your own adventure.
Like prophecies, names hold weight here. I have met people whose names translate to first blossom, patience, golden rain, and perfect. Traditionally, children take on their father’s first name as their surname, and my birth certificate includes the names of my father and his: Rebekah Abebe Gebre Tsadik. (Tsadik means righteous person—no pressure).
But my Ethiopian name and facial features more often serve as a source of confusion than unity, as locals pass judgment over my failure to speak Amharic. How often have I had to brace myself for a shaming lecture that my family should have taught me Amharic (even though I was born in the U.S. and had never been to Ethiopia)?
When I lived in the States, I purchased Amharic books, CDs, and sought out private language lessons to little avail. I worked in an Ethiopian restaurant. I started an Ethiopian dinner club with my sister Kedist. I read Marcus Samuelsson’s memoir, and even chased the opportunity to meet him. My mom is not Ethiopian; my parents divorced when I was a toddler.
I only reconnected with my dad in adulthood and have begun to get to know the Ethiopian side of my family within the past decade. I have met fourth cousins and seen photos of my grandparents for the first time since arriving in Ethiopia. “You should really try to learn some Amharic,” strangers insist—as if it’s easy! “Tinish tinish,” I reply shyly, signaling that I’m learning a little bit. I am happy to have found skilled private tutors, but progress is slow.
I sometimes lack the energy to defend my existence. On a difficult trek up Mount Zuqualla, a former volcano, a fellow hiker told me: “You don’t look habesha.” “Ok.” I said, and walked away. I have been asked if I’m Brazilian or Puerto Rican, and with a name like Becky, I could slip in and out of my Ethiopian identity, if I chose. But before I arrived in Ethiopia, I decided to embrace the name that I had once avoided. So, I continue to introduce myself as Ribka—to connect.