Here’s the deal: I don’t have a middle name. Of my seven brothers and sisters, I’m one of two who didn’t get one. All the other middle names were chosen with great care and consideration, laden with nostalgia, nuance, a bit of poetry. Me, I got zilch. Such, perhaps, is the nature of the middle child, a happy addition to a burgeoning family but spared, or bereft of— depending on one’s perspective—the intense focus on nomenclature that comes in the birth order with firsts and lasts.

Growing up, I’d been of two minds about the absence, wondering whether I’d gotten shortchanged or anointed. I coveted a middle name, but not having one somehow made me slightly edgy, outré. When I’d ask my parents why, Rodney and Miriam were coy, uncharacteristically dismissive. I’d get a sympathetic shrug and shake of the head from my father and a bemused look from my mother that said, “You kids. As if being conceived weren’t good enough.” So, I came to accept the naming as a quirky fact, not realizing until much, much later (miraculously, in the process of writing this essay) the linguistic brilliance of it.

Names, after all, are semantic qualifiers. Even before birth, a child inherits a surname, which automatically positions that child within a particular tribe. A given name is a unique iteration of the tribe. Who an individual may want to become—that innate striving for autonomy and identity—is thus partially predetermined in utero. Toss in a middle name, and there’s an additional signifier the child must eventually negotiate in the process of becoming. It is both a burden and a blessing, an exercise in how no freedom is absolute, not even self-determination, or necessarily desirable, if it means being born into the terrifying prospect of an existential vacuum.

Therein lies the beauty of NMN—“no middle name”—but which I prefer to call the gap. That space between my first and last name is an opening, a microscopic fissure into which I may venture to create something out of nothing, or to leave well enough alone. There are many such gaps in a lifetime, those with increasing import and possibility, risk and reward. History, too, is rife with change agents who opted not to leave well enough alone. For them, freedom didn’t entail minding the gap; it meant stepping into it.

Doing so is often brazen, fraught with danger, perhaps suicidal, and quintessentially American. For the intrepid European settlers, the New World itself was a gap, a yawing chasm of possibility, exploitation, and reinvention. It was also an illusion. The continent was not a tabula rasa awaiting the imprint of Western Europeans; it had already been inscribed by millions of Native Americans. Still, the settlers came, blinded by a quest to make it new, blindsided when running headlong into those who had beaten them to it. In the early going, there was room for everybody, and ample geography to go around. Temperance Flowerdew, one of the first female settlers in Jamestown, left behind the security and comforts of a genteel English life and flourished in colonial Virginia as a woman with uncommon power, land, and means. Another woman Temperance most likely knew, a Powhatan chief’s daughter, also reinvented herself, becoming the darling of seventeenth-century London society. Her given name was Matoaka, though we know her today as Pocahontas. Both of these remarkable figures were minor players in the American experiment, and yet, they played, against odds no bookie would touch. Young, female, and, in Matoaka’s case, Native American, they could not be faulted had they succumbed to a preordained fate. Their lives were neither fully realized nor without pain and suffering. They both died young. But they found the cracks in the veneer and remade themselves in their own image.

Others followed, seizing the unsurveilled gap as salvation. George Washington and his men sought the icy expanse of a river in the dead of night to ambush the hired help of a tyrannical superpower. Frederick Douglass understood escape from slavery not as something to do but be. Isabella Baumgartner changed her name to Sojourner Truth and became a symbol of both. Harriet Jacobs’ freedom bus was a nine-by-seven-by-three garret, a self-imposed prison in which she hid from her master for nearly seven years, and found herself. Earhart and Lindbergh, Glenn and Ochoa catapulted into the great beyond, knowing as Toni Morrison wrote, “If you surrendered to air, you could ride it.”

Curmudgeons, mavericks, and misanthropes, all see the gap as a clarion call, a last gasp effort at the purest form of selfhood. They take heed to the likes of Emerson: “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.” These serial resisters are confounding, mystifying, even infuriating. In the midst of a global pandemic, for instance, they are the unmasked, essentially asserting their right not to mind the gap—to leave off from a world circumscribed even at the level of one’s own breath.

Perhaps in not conferring a middle name upon me, my mother and father also took a breath, from the demands of naming multiple children, from the responsibility of assigning meaning or from the exhausting dictates of convention. I can hear my mother say simply, “Rodney. They all don’t have to have middle names.” And my father would answer, “Okay, Mama.” I like this third scenario best because instead of a lapse in parenting, it suggests my mother and father had had a moment. They would have simultaneously entered one gap and created another, within which their fifth child could discover the liberating power of language and thereby christen herself.

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