By Charles Aaron Simon
There I was browsing the digital universe and along came a signifying digital interloper causing cognitive dissonance.
The surprise was the name of one Benedict Cumberbatch; an actor, English, of theatre, television and film, most famous for playing the title role in the Sherlock Holmes television series.
The moment I saw the Cumberbatch name I sat up and paid attention, I asked myself, because of what the name signified and was a signifier of, for me,“is he of Caribbean heritage?”
Or, to be charitable and politically correct to the other nations and peoples of Caribbean Civilization, since the English-speaking ex-colonies of England are but part of a greater cultural political economic and linguistically diverse region, “ Does Benedict Cumberbatch play cricket, eat callaloo and salt fish, bake breadfruit, eat guava, cassava, plaintain, edoe and / or yam? Is he a fan of the Mighty Sparrow? Is he a descendant of cane cutters?”
Through Internet searching, I was both surprised and not surprised to discover he is both of Caribbean Civilizational heritage and not of Caribbean Civilizational heritage. So how can he be and not be at the same time? Is he is or is he ain’t?
But then when I read more entries about him, my suspicions were confirmed; this Cumberbatch was that historically peculiar variant of the Cumberbatch family, an English-English Cumberbatch in contrast to the Caribbean-African origin Cumberbatchs descended from sugar cane cutting enslaved Africans in the Caribbean and Americas. His name was an imperial interloper into the drama of this history.
The Caribbean-African descended Cumberbatchs lived in ex-English colonial dominions like Barbados, Guyana, Dominica, Jamaica, Antigua, St. Kitts and St. Lucia.
Their name was one of the many English names my ancestors claimed as their own, either because they worked on a plantation owned by their namesake, once worked with an overseer with such a name, found the name associated with a person of local distinction, heard of it from the Bible and liked it, or were commanded by force of law. This naming practice was repeated throughout the Caribbean and Americas by enslaved Africans, be they in Spanish-, Portuguese-, or Dutch-speaking dominions.
This latter feature of Caribbean colonial history explains the variety of names among the African-descended players from the Caribbean and Americas in the 2014 World Cup of soccer in Brazil. You had Valencia from Ecuador, J. Campbell of Costa Rica, Juan Zuniga of Colombia, Nigel de Jong of the Netherlands, and Jozy Altidore (Haiti) of America.
Of course there are many others but this sample was chosen to make a point: there is more to a name than the name itself.
A name is history, culture, economics, gender and politics. It is time, place, identity and purpose. It is change, stability, violence and revolution. It is us when faced with ourselves and us when we run from ourselves. It is, lastly, a digital entry for the state in its bureaucratic management of society.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s name belongs to him; it also belongs to the history of Britain and the many nations and peoples its imperial past gave birth to. And Benedict whilst not of Caribbean African heritage is, by virtue of his ancestral ties, part and parcel of that heritage as are those who claimed that surname as their right, marching forward into the future unknown part of the ancestral heritage of his England.
Regardless of what the English might think and / or feel, his name says so.