William Shakespeare once famously asked, “What’s in a name?” And for Black Lives Matter Co-founder Ayọ Tometi, that answer is simple — joy, fulfillment, and purpose. On October 1, Nigerian Independence Day, the co-founder of the world’s largest social movement announced that she would be changing her name from Opal to Ayọ, taking on a designation deeply connected to her Nigerian ancestry.
“It’s been really important for me to connect more deeply especially in light of last year’s uprisings, that not only took place here in the U.S., but in Nigeria and different parts of the Black world,” Tometi shares. “Finding the strength and wisdom within our cultures can be so healing.” The renowned freedom fighter expresses excitement over the opportunity to dive deeper into her history, including its traditions and modern cultural applications. Since sharing the news with close friends, she’s found a deeper connection to the language, calling it an “emotional and spiritual process” that has deeply affirmed her as a Black woman.
“The significance of my name transition is not only rooted in the desire to honor my heritage,” Tometi says. “But after reflection throughout this pandemic I wanted to remind myself that the pursuit of justice is ultimately to attain joy for all of us. With all the social upheaval, hardship, and heaviness, I wanted to begin to embody the deepest desire of my heart which is not mere survival, but thriving.”
Tometi believes that in order to thrive, one must be deeply seated in their joy. It’s fitting, then, that Ayọ, a derivative of her middle name, means joy in the Yoruba language. “It’s an expression of inner wholeness, pleasure, and happiness,” explains Tometi, “and an outward pursuit of fulfillment and purpose.”
These days Tometi finds fulfillment and joy through dancing, biking, Black art, and carving out quality time with her loved ones. “For many years I was in overwork mode, and while it was important because it was in the name of social justice and human rights I was neglecting the relationship with myself and my loved ones,” Tometi tells EBONY. To course correct, the award-winning human rights activist has done a 180 in order to prioritize her loved ones, and her health. “Flourishing from the inside out is where it’s at,” she says.
Though self-care has taken a front seat, she’s still continuing her work in advancing justice for all Black lives. The movement she helped create was born out of a desire to see better treatment for Black men and women across the nation. That message has gone international, as has Tometi’s desire to affect change. With her name change, the founder of Diaspora Rising, a new media and advocacy hub which helps mobilize people around the world to harness their voices for human rights globally, sees a new era for herself, one that coincides with a new era for Black people.
Earlier this year it was announced that the Black Lives Matter movement was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and later this week, nominees will find out who takes home the coveted title. Regardless of what happens, this moment is a decisive one for Black Lives Matter and Black people. And for Tometi, a new name signifies that shift. “In the current climate where Black people are doing more to celebrate their lives and assert dignity about themselves,” says Tometi, “a name change is about self-determination.”