Reclaiming my identity: I am Auon’tai M. Anderson

As we close out the second week of school, I was taken back to my days in elementary school, and I remember vividly being in a classroom and my teacher made facial expressions of frustration because she could not pronounce the first name on the list. She struggled to get past the letter A, and she attempted numerous times to pronounce my name “Awon … then she stopped and said “Antwonay” the class laughed as she struggled, and eventually, I said, “last name Anderson, I’m here.” She laughed and said yes, how do you say your name? I responded with its Auon’tai. She stared at me and said, “Oh, I can’t pronounce that. Do you have a nickname?” I said, “No,” and she said, “Well, I will call you Tai. I am going to drop the first half of your name.” She moved on to the next student without allowing me to respond.

My classmates refused to say my full name because they agreed it was too hard for them to pronounce and said that the teacher called me Tai so that they would call me Tai. I began to embrace this new name from this moment, but it wasn’t by choice. As I continued through school and was assigned new teachers, the same problem arose, and every year it was the same story. I reached a point where I wouldn’t correct college-educated individuals on how to pronounce my name, and I felt embarrassed sharing my name with classmates as they would make fun of my name. In addition, I was often the only Black kid in my suburban Kansas classroom, so I didn’t have classmates that could empathize with my struggle.

When I was in middle school, I dropped the (i) in Tai and added a (y) because people would call me “Tai” and not pronounce it as “Tay.” I still battled with the same issues and eventually wouldn’t allow folks to try and pronounce my name and began every class with “last name Anderson, I’m here.” At this point, the only people I would allow to call me by my real name were those in my family.

This transition was hard for my mother; she would insist people call me Auon’tai and tell them they did not have to honor that request as I was trying to make it easier for them. Eventually, I moved to a new state, and although it was a new beginning, the problems with my name persisted, and I insisted on being called “Tay” in every setting possible. However, there is only one educator throughout my entire K-12 experience that I can recall that honored this request from my mother, and that was my high school guidance counselor Kendrick Friendly. He was the educator that would have no shame in calling me Auon’tai in the hallway, and my response would always be, “Why are you calling my government name out like that, bro!?” The most important date of my K-12 experience was graduation day, where I explicitly stated I did NOT want them to call me Auon’tai; I wanted to be called Tay as I feared the announcer would screw my name up on the most important day of my life, and looking back I regret that decision. I wish I could walk across the stage one more time to hear them call out Auon’tai M. Anderson.

As I entered public life, I ensured that Auon’tai would never emerge because I feared what the electorate would think. Who would elect a Black kid with the name Auon’tai? That is what I told my campaign team, and folks agreed we should make my name more palatable to the electorate. Tay Anderson was a name people could get behind and, in some cases, erased my Black heritage. I visited a senior home where an elderly white woman expected me to be another white woman named Taylor but used Tay for short. She said, “I didn’t expect you to be a young Black man; I assumed with a name like Tay Anderson, you’d be a white woman named Taylor.” At that moment, I could only smile and hope that I had earned her vote. There was a moment of panic during my first campaign, and that was when the city sent us our sample ballot. They put Auon’tai Anderson, our team panicked and immediately rushed to Denver Elections to ensure they changed my name, and nobody saw the name Auon’tai appear on their ballot. I eventually lost that first election and kept using Tay as my name in all settings; not thinking twice about it, I ran again for the Denver School Board and was elected as Tay Anderson, the youngest African American to serve in elected office in Colorado history!

I read an article about Dr. Dwinita Mosby-Tyler and why she began using her real name instead of a shorter version. At that time, I was so caught up with being TAY ANDERSON that I ignored what Dr. Tyler said because I feared what would happen if I transitioned to my real name at the peak of my career. I was leading protests, changing policy, and impacting state laws under this brand of Tay Anderson that I have built for myself. Still, it wasn’t until I saw a young white girl on the shoulders of a Black man at a protest against me after believing a lie of a white woman with a sign that said: “Castrate TAY!” for me to start realizing that I had created a new image that was being weaponized against me in the most unimaginable way possible.

I always wondered why my colleague Dr. Carrie A. Olson used her middle initial in her name. But, then, when Dr. Sharon R. Baliey transitioned to an ancestor, I learned from a Montbello Warrior, Ms. Leslie L. Juniel, the importance and power of using your middle initial in your name and how Dr. Baliey inspired them both. So, at that moment, because of what I learned from these two women and in honor of Dr. Bailey, I added my middle initial (M) to my name and began using Tay M. Anderson. This change appeared on my email signature, social media, and official Denver Public Schools name badge.

Recently, someone mispronounced my son Khalil’s name and asked for a nickname, and that is when all of this came back to me. For a moment, I felt that pain I knew my mother had carried for 24 years and would be crushed if Khalil decided to shorten his name for the comfort of others. So, as I end my first term on the Denver School Board, I want to be a role model for our students with unique names to embrace who they are and never to allow anyone to strip them of their identity. Our students shouldn’t have to appease whiteness in order to be their authentic self.

On August 30th, 2022, I instructed the Denver Public Schools to update my name on our website, nameplate, and all official records to reflect Auon’tai M. Anderson. Yesterday at our September work session, I looked at my name, smiled ear to ear, and sent a picture to my mom and loved ones showing them I am finally embracing who I am. I know this transition will be hard for some, but I stand ready to educate folks on the correct pronunciation of my name and will ask those who already know how to pronounce it to help educate others.

I am beginning this journey of loving myself, and that starts with reclaiming my identity.

I am Denver School Board Vice President Auon’tai M. Anderson.

The phonetic spelling of my name is:

long A — on — tay.

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The Honorable Auon’tai M. Anderson

The Honorable Auon'tai M. Anderson, is a former Denver School Board Member and CEO of the Center for Advancing Black Excellence in Education.