Whit’s End: My double name is my story
Want to leave everyone around you in a perpetual state of confusion? I have a few ideas:
Insist on walking on all fours.
Speak exclusively in Pig Latin.
Adopt a double name.
OK, I have experience with only one of those. But I’ve also taken it a step further: Not only do I insist on an overlong name, I do it in a region where that’s anything but common.
For the first half of my life, I gladly answered to Carla. I didn’t love the name, exactly, but it was mine. It’s what my parents called me nearly from the day they learned I’d be a girl.
It’s the name a childhood friend bastardized into “Caca.” Yes, I know what that is, but I didn’t at age 2. It was close enough.
Mandarin High School’s yearbook included a byline with each story. By the time I joined the staff, I was approaching a decade as an aspiring journalist. Seeing my name in print was a thrill. (It still is.)
That’s when I chose my byline: I wouldn’t be Carla Whitley, but Carla Jean Whitley.
Nearly 20 years later, I can’t recall my motivation. I joke that it was for search engine optimization, but the truth is I wouldn’t learn that term for years.
No one called me Carla Jean even as I began writing my full name on everything—yearbook stories, homework assignments and any other document a teenager would pen. A friend picked up on it in college, but she was an anomaly. It wasn’t until I returned to the Deep South that I was confronted with a choice: What did I want to be called?
For years, I argued it didn’t matter. Everyone in my Florida hometown called me Carla, so that was OK. But Carla Jean Whitley trips off the tongue, and I am a native Alabamian, after all.
Carla Jean won out.
It’s not about SEO, although if you search “Carla Jean Whitley,” you will learn more about me than you could possibly need. It’s not because Carla can so neatly be replaced with Caca. My preference has something to do with the way it sounds, yes, but there’s a deeper reason: my namesake.
Carl Eugene Vann was a racecar driver, better known around central Alabama as Sorghum. The Alabama Auto Racing Pioneers Hall of Fame inducted him as part of its inaugural class. The hall is located within the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Alabama, and the collection features many photographs of Carl Eugene and his cars.
But that’s not why I carry a modified version of his name. Carl Eugene Vann — my Pepaw — quit racing when his first child, my mother, was born. My father describes Pepaw as one of the best men he ever knew. I thought highly of him, as well, and was surprised at how emotional I became during my last visit to that Talladega. His Southeastern Stock Car Racing Association membership card was on display, and seeing my late grandfather’s signature brought tears to my eyes.
I poke fun at myself when I correct people who call me Carla. “I’m from Alabama, one name isn’t enough,” I’ll say with a laugh. “You know us crazy Southerners!” And that’s true — Southerners are nothing if not quirky, and proudly so.
But the most important reason I opt for a double name is because it honors one of the best men there ever was.
Carla Jean Whitley will tolerate friends from Florida calling her by her first name, but she’d really prefer you use Carla Jean or CJ. The latter carries additional meaning; it’s the moniker her late sister used for nearly a decade. You can gently mock Whitley’s prissy Southern ways by emailing her at email@example.com.
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