"Why do you lowercase your name" is a question I get asked frequently at work, followed closely by "and how come you get to?"
My go-to answer to the first, which is true, is "a misspent youth that included reading all the e e cummings I could get my hands on". There is another answer, also true, that I give almost never.
That answer involves bell hooks.
I started reading hooks (black and a woman) years after I first encountered cummings (white and a man), which is so often the way of these things. Just as I found Wilde before I found Baldwin, and Olds before Clifton. Such is the nature of a classical, post-colonial education; privilege and disconnection go hand in hand.
I started reading hooks because in 2016 she published a review of Beyoncé's Lemonade album that included the line: "much of the album stays within a conventional stereotypical framework, where the black woman is always a victim." It was not the first time hooks would publicly lambast Beyoncé, and it would not be the last.
Suffice to say that neither time went down well with the BeyHive; suffice to say that by the second time I resolved to encounter hooks in her own words and on her own terms, a respect I'd willingly accorded to Beyoncé - a masterful image-maker in her own right.
So I started reading hooks, and essays about her, and essays that cited her and had an experience similar to Min Jin Lee's, who wrote that reading hooks' Ain't I a Woman "was as if someone had opened the door, the windows, and raised the roof in my mind."
hooks maintained that her adopted name (both as pseudonym and as stylistic affect) was in service of having folks focus on her work. But of course, "over her decades at the forefront of Black feminist writing, the punctuation choice became a constant curiosity." (The URL of that WaPo article is both a testament to SEO savvy and such a tell. Who gets to say what one's "real" name is, indeed.)
cummings died at 67, in 1962. The New York Times headlined his obit thus: "E.E. Cummings Dies of Stroke; Poet Stood for Stylistic Liberty". And further: "Unusual Punctuation Marked Experimenter's Work / He Was Also a Painter"
hooks died at 69, in 2021. The New York Times headlined her obit (in the print edition) thus: "bell hooks, 69, Feminist Who Stood Up for the Marginalized, Dies".
People will fixate on any deviations from the status quo, because even when difference is not remarkable it will be remarked upon. But the question is not, I would argue, how come some of us "get" to demonstrate difference; the question is why so few of us choose to.
RIP bell hooks.
I will not have my life narrowed down. I will not bow down to somebody else's whim or to someone else's ignorance. When I finish lecturing, I find that the whole audience, black and white, is a little bit changed, because I will have recited Sonya Sanchez, Anne Marie Evans, and probably Eugene Redmond, and Amiri Baraka, and Shakespeare and Emerson, and maybe talk about Norman Mailer a little bit, because he writes English, and Joan Didion, who writes this language. People see something. I don't know how long the change maintains, but if you have changed at all, you've changed all, at least for a little while.
from bell hook's interview with Maya Angelou in the Shambhala Sun, January 1998