When I was about 13, without any knowledge of my past beyond the fact that I was a black transracial adoptee, I decided to create an alter ego.
In my mind he was a jazz musician, sometimes a cultural diplomat from the West who had reconnected with his own roots in Ethiopia—or depending on the occasion, Ghana, Nigeria or Egypt—and was bringing this back into his own identity or creative portfolio. He was an ambassador to my unrecoverable roots. I couldn’t have expressed it in such language nor such an optimistic light back then. I kept this persona to myself for a while, and it seemed a simple if vague idea; when I brought it out to friends it became complex, debased, problematic.
Primarily I was spoofing myself, in a way that reflected my own blinkered reality, televised desensitization to minstrelsy, and awkward struggle to get past that. If there was sincerity in the gesture, it was a reach for my own identity. Something beyond the identity of a black person who had been raised as racialized but culturally zeroed and invisible—hence performing white—in an all-white community.
The name I came up with for myself was Mboobe (“mm-BOO-bay”), later Mbu’ube. The latter spelling was dodgy, Dune-inspired Orientalism, as I came to realize later, though narcissistically it created a symmetry within the word “me” using the letters of my adopted first name that I liked. An unconscious influence was the jazz/R&B musician James Mtume. I’d also seen the Indian name Mehboob in a newspaper, and eventually learned of the Arabic word mahboob—beloved.
(At the same time, I had started attending confirmation class in the United Church of Canada, where we were encouraged to develop our own personal symbols—as subsets of the obvious big ones, it almost went without saying. I kept the identity above to myself and went with a symbol I found interesting: CXI, the number 111 in Roman numerals. It made the shape of a fish—an early Christian password—or a WWII-era bomb, depending on one’s state of mind.)
During my adolescence and early adulthood, Mboob was my stage name as a musician; an imprint for my formative period as a creative artist, and the cassette albums and mixtapes that came out of it.
Six years ago, I wrote this about the name:
Perhaps there could have been a parallel to Black American jazz musicians of the 1960s converting to Islam and adopting African names, one I wasn’t so conscious of. Regardless of the ridicule such a name and such a bogus re-Africanization might have received—it was merely perhaps a more sophisticated or ironic type of minstrelsy that still made white folks laugh—it was self-acknowledgement. It was my first crack at identity.
The past is almost always ironic. Almost three years ago, I met and became close to someone who was the opposite side of the coin to me—me who had no claim to anything, no properly directed desire for nationhood beyond the lazy, whitewashed imagination of mainstream Canada. She was born in the same place as her family, her people, and was directly and actively connected to an ancient culture and bloodline. We fell in love—insert ellipsis—and later married. I converted to Islam for her, or as some might say, corrected.
During the first few months of our romance, she drafted a new “logo” for me as a gift, this time spelling mahboob in the original Arabic (see text image at top). I knew I wanted to post it, but waited for the right time; until it could also symbolize the strength and commitment in our relationship and be more than just a fetishism.
Behind every apparent urtext (i.e. my “original” alter-ego name), there is a forgotten origin, possibly a buried genetic memory. Now I have a new family, a new god (where there had been none for decades), a new sense of identity. In finding this new beginning, I may have been seeking out, as a dear elder recently put it, what may well have been my ancestral home. Perhaps Mahboob was synchronicity. Or perhaps this is all just probability. I try not to see destiny in things (not my role) nor place too much stock beyond the here and now but, Masha’Allah, I’m happy and thankful. And loved.