Only the truly curious even ask.

And when a Harvard University student recently inquired about my name, she was clear that she wanted to know about my surname. She repeated it three times out loud and then began probing for something deeper.

She didn't have to say it, but I knew she was trying to better understand my heritage and ethnic background. My surname, Bowean, is puzzling. And for some, it doesn't match my physical presence.

When I'm in the Boston region, people ask me if it's French and I think they are trying to determine if my heritage is Haitian. Others will ask if it's Celtic, a question that would connect me to the Irish.

The truth is, my last name was probably supposed to be Bowen, but somewhere in the past someone misspelled it and the lives of my family clan were forever changed.

I went on to tell this young, curious student that the Bowean surname came to my people through marriage.

Before we were Boweans, we were Norwoods and Wakefields rooted in a small town in western North Carolina — near the mountains. 

"Those are my people," I told her.

"I know some Norwoods and some Wakefields from western North Carolina," she piped up, almost with an instant giddy excitement. It seemed that for a moment she thought we had found common ground. I'm sure she thought that maybe we knew some of the same people.

The next sentence she almost whispered: "But they're white."

As we both stood in the silence, we didn't speak about the legacy of American slavery.

Yet this is the moment when race and what it means to be African-American comes creeping into the most fleeting of encounters. It's these unexpected confrontations with history that trigger what writer and social commentator James Baldwin called the "constant state of rage."

I didn't tell the student that during slavery, African-Americans were assigned names by their owners, and many times didn't even have a surname, records show. I didn't talk about how those residents were at times given the last name of their owner so that they could be identified as that white family's property.

These are the names that so many black Americans still wear.

It is in these innocent moments that the troubling history of this country becomes real and the residue reveals itself as still present. I've never been ashamed that I am a descendant of people who were enslaved. Yet it is in subtle, seemingly innocent moments that the trauma strikes me.

I began to feel weighted as I stood staring at the college-age woman with a classic, sophisticated Latin name that means purity. I felt the weariness of being pushed into an emotional space and frustrated from having to contemplate whether to delve deeper into a topic I didn't expect during idle small talk.

"There's probably a relationship between the two families," the African-American one and the white one, I remember telling the student. "But I don't know exactly, specifically, what it is."

And then to be polite, we left the rest unspoken and parted ways.

Lolly Bowean is a Chicago Tribune reporter.


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