Singh: Reclaiming My Roots, And My Name

By Guest Columnist Apr 10, 2009

photo credit: Amy Touchette by Sonny Singh (Editor’s Note: We received this submission from Sonny, a RaceWire contributor, just in time for Vaisakhi, which is being celebrated this year on April 14.) My whole life Singh has been my middle name, often amounting to just a middle initial. The last name passed down by my father was always much more predominant and visible. About a year ago, I started making an intentional effort to always use Singh in my name, followed by my last name. And now I have decided to drop my given family name all together. A little history: On April 14, 1699, a day that’s today honored as one of the biggest Sikh holidays, Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Sikh guru), along with thousands of other Sikhs, created the Khalsa, a collective body of armed revolutionaries, warrior-saints, whose mission it was to overthrow tyranny in all its forms. In addition to giving the Khalsa a uniform, including unshorn hair and the turban, Guru Gobind Singh gave us new names: Singh and Kaur – Lion and Lionness. Because so many South Asian (and especially Hindu) last names indicate caste, Sikhs 400 years ago abandoned their last/caste names all together – deeply personalizing an ideological commitment to equality. I am proud to be a Sikh. Sikhism at its core is a revolutionary faith and way of life. Some 550 years ago Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, and his followers sought to end perhaps the most ancient form of oppression in South Asia – caste. Tearing down the caste system and other forms of tyranny is why free-thinkers like Guru Nanak Sahib and those around him (many of whom were lower caste Hindus) came together to forge something new. In short, it’s literally why Sikhism was born. The creation of the Khalsa and Sikh identity as we know it on Vaisakhi 1699 was the culmination of what Guru Nanak and his followers started. I’ve known this history for most of my life but never thought too much about why I, and so many other Sikhs around me, used Singh and Kaur as their middle names instead of their last names. And I certainly never suspected that my last name had anything to do with caste. But my bubble burst last year when I started organizing in the Sikh community in Queens and saw how caste is still so pervasive amongst Sikhs. For example, the gurdwaras in Richmond Hill, Queens, which has the largest concentration of Sikh in New York, are actually split up by caste. While caste boundaries are not strictly enforced in these in these spaces, caste ideology is one of the main forces that divides the leadership and leads to the creation of new gurdwaras. Similarly, when many Sikhs are looking to get married, whatever they may have learned about all people being equal goes out the window, as caste is often a major criteria in finding the “right” partner. This is all totally in direct contradiction of why we exist as Sikhs in the first place. I’ve been in a slow process of thinking about how this all relates to my own life, and yes, my own name. It turns out that the last name I have been using my whole life probably does have some caste roots, which I don’t care to hold onto. So I dropped my last name as a concrete way of getting rid of caste association at the personal level. This Vaisakhi 2009, I’m taking a small step to abandon my roots. But in doing so, I am choosing to embrace much more meaningful roots that make me proud to be a Sikh and proud to be a revolutionary. How do you know I’m for real? I’ve changed my name everywhere it counts: in my professional and public life, in my email addresses, even on Facebook. Sonny Singh is a community organizer at the Sikh Coalition. He last wrote for RaceWire in 2007 with his piece "The Day My Skin Came Off."