Naming The Future

I had a hard time accepting my name when I was younger because it felt so White and so old on my young, Black frame. Amongst my classmates—Brittney, Takeisha, Kimberly, Latoya, Michelle—I felt like an oddball. I’d only met old White women named Donna. The day I met a young Black Donna at an IHOP was the day I met with a major symphony orchestra timpanist to talk about an unfair situation that affected my career as a percussionist.

Written By

Donna Lee Davidson

My name has a few different meanings, depending on who it is that knows it. My mother told me I was named after her doctor, Donald Lee. I was the last baby Donald Lee delivered before retirement and it felt fitting to my mother. To him, my name might have meant the end of an era, or the beginning of one.

I had a hard time accepting my name when I was younger because it felt so White and so old on my young, Black frame. Amongst my classmates—Brittney, Takeisha, Kimberly, Latoya, Michelle—I felt like an oddball. I’d only met old White women named Donna. The day I met a young Black Donna at an IHOP was the day I met with a major symphony orchestra timpanist to talk about an unfair situation that affected my career as a percussionist. It was January 2020, and I wouldn’t be able to follow up the conversation with a former teacher until after the worst of the pandemic. I was stuck for two years in an unfinished-business limbo, two years evenly split.

A lot happened the day I met my first Black Donna. Facing for the first time a conversation that I had been needing to have for ten years—a conversation with an old, White man about how I felt he had derailed my music career, and why me being a woman and Black was at the center of it. Meeting Donna, my waitress at IHOP, meant that the name Donna existed in more ways than one.

To the musician, my name can mean music. It can mean Charlie Parker, or it can mean be-bop. It can mean a time in history that meant something to so many people. It could mean Miles Davis depending on one’s religious beliefs (I believe in the Bird). When I tried and failed to play “Donna Lee” for the first time in 4th grade on a set of bells, I began to think that my name meant something intricate, something people can’t do without practice, not even me.

Or it can mean a literal translation. The translation of Donna in Italian is “an Italian lady.” It is a nobility title, a reference to the lady’s class: Donna is in the aristocracy. If I were in Italy, I would be called Donna Donna Lee. In all honesty, I found refuge in that. It made me feel better when I was treated like an inferior, like I didn’t have enough class to be in the spaces classical music placed me.

After a classmate of mine told me that I am also a Donna (in spirit) in addition to being named Donna, that my name fits me, I was joyful. Not because of what is Italian in it, but because of what is Black in it.

My classmate is a Chiambeng. Chiambeng means “sound the bell,” he explained to me. A writer currently getting his MFA in fiction at Columbia University, Thomas Chiambeng explained to me the Cameroonian legacy of his name—how he is identified as it, by it.

“In the beginning, before the invasion of words, they studied music,” he began.


Families had their own identities specific to the music they played. They might be gifted in healing, or experts over roots and herbs. One family knows the plants, another family knows the animals—raising the animals, domesticating them. All these skills were passed down, and everyone knew what a family was good at. To generations growing up in a family, skills became natural. There weren’t schools to learn music so those ordained, in a sense, to pass it down—the composers—they played during village festivals over bonfires and other public events, passing down both the music and the natural ability to play and hear it. A child could find themself playing the harp or inventing an instrument from the back of a tree—a hollow log—and start playing. The patterns played and the emotion of one’s voice mixed with the tone of the music to pass their message, it changes accordingly.

Passing the message of someone’s death is different than passing the message of someone’s birth, similar to how we intone our voices. People intoned the music differently. And there is hierarchy in the music. Personality, status—a princess, for example, is born, and the sound of the music indicates a royal birth. A king’s message has its own tone, and a queen or prince just as well. There were bright, joyful rhythms and melodies for wedding announcements, grief-stricken music for funeral announcements. They communicated with swells of emotions massaged into a strum of a harp, a striking of tom-toms, or a rhythmic yet melodic wooden keyboard.

Houses weren’t compacted together, but spread across large expanses of farmlands, and by bushes, and by narrow paths. A gong is heard from the path to send a message in such a way that those on their farms and far away bushes knew exactly what it meant, even if they didn’t necessarily hear the inflections of the voice singing along with it. Through the rhythmic and melodic patterns, neighbors heard their voice.

The beauty of it is how people got to understand it. There are so many languages that divide Africans, meaning inter-kingdom communications depended on the compositions of Black composers in the past. Chiambengs are the family of the gongs, their name rooted in this music of the past. That hypersensitivity of the music meant that it was more than sound, more than who they were identified as (family of the bells), and by (playing the gong)—this hypersensitivity meant what instrument their family identified with (the name itself).

“They don’t do any of this anymore,” Chiambeng says, but he knows this was custom because he was taught the family history of it. Being taught has given my own name new meaning just as well. Imagine my elation when I came to understand that my name is the title of a Charlie Parker tune. After growing up listening to the jazz of my father, a saxophonist, and of my brother, a saxophonist, encompassing four decades of jazz. Even more, that the be-bop era is my father’s favorite. Add the complexity of then learning that I wasn’t named after that tune, but after my doctor who delivered me last as I was the last child of my mother, the youngest of 8—intentionally.

And yet despite these impactful meanings, the one that meant the most was meeting another Black Donna—both the timing of it and the shared identification of it. I wasn’t alone anymore.

But sometimes I learn names too late. It wasn’t until after leaving the conservatory I attended in New York City pursuing a B.M. in Classical Percussion Performance that I learned the name Julia Perry (1924-1979). I learned about both her and the percussion ensemble piece she wrote, and that the Manhattan School of Music percussion ensemble played and recorded it under the director Paul Price in 1965. I learned that at Spelman College, an HBCU in Atlanta, Georgia. Homunculus, C.F. for 10 percussionists (1960) is the piece, which means there were 10 highly trained percussionists most likely not of color performing repertoire by a Black woman. Duncan Patton, the recently retired principal timpanist of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and faculty member at Manhattan School of Music (MSM) for over 30 years says that of the small handful of Black percussion students who apply to MSM each year, three have enrolled in his 30 years of teaching.

Perry’s 5-minute Homonculus sneaks up on you, starting with what could be a percussion version of strings tuning on stage. Snare drum and woodblock softly tussle with one another, both trying to tune to an evasive A440. The piece grows—matures, matriculates—from scrapes on cymbals, a hide-and-go-seek marching of the timpani, and tom-toms to plucked strings on harp introducing the melodic: xylophone, vibraphone. Celeste and piano drive snare drum and woodblock to a determined end.

Yet while I was at MSM, I didn’t feel as though I belonged, hadn’t felt that way for over a decade. Not because I didn’t love it, wasn’t one of the best, didn’t live and breathe it every day for most of my life, but because oftentimes (not all the time), I stood to the side and watched close relationships amongst percussionists rather than having any, treated like an outsider, sometimes aggressively as inferior.

At Interlochen Arts Camp when George (let’s just call him George for now) put his mouth to my ear and whispered a chant while I played a Bach partita on marimba in the practice room.

“You suck. You’ll never be able to play this. You’ll never be any good,” his lips occasionally brushing the black skin of my earlobe in repetition. “You suck. You’ll never be able to play this. You’ll never be any good,”—the sharp sting on the ‘s’ of suck and ‘n’ of never.

I kept playing, remaining locked into the only two lines of the piece I could play without needing to stop just to drown him out. Up until then, I hadn’t yet learned how to play a fugue, layers unfolding what it means to feel free. What first seems like a melody trapped in repetition opens and opens like a surgeon cutting into a chest cavity. First skin, then tissues—fat tissues padding and protecting—then rib cage, heart, blood vessels. Each more complex than the next.

Classical music, and even more, Johann Sebastian Bach, wasn’t supposed to belong to me, but I had made it mine. I had forced it into my hands, those first two lines, the only two lines I could play and didn’t know I memorized until my mental practice room built a fortress all about me. George had invaded my only refuge. He tried to take it, colonize it, gentrify it: he came, he saw, he attempted to conquer, but failed. Failed because Black composers like Julia Perry existed and Black composers exist in the future.

George was competitive, as we were all trained to be, but George had something extra, something personal. Winning something ahead of him was like a personal offense to him. He could have lost to someone to whom he would bow gracefully and accept his defeat, but he lost to me instead, treating it as though I made his mother cry and maybe I did. Maybe his line of ancestry, maybe the mitochondria only traced through the line of mothers going genealogically back to wherever they came from were pained to see me taking what they had already taken from me.

Interlochen wasn’t just about enjoying our crafts. We were given a window to see and understand that there were people all over the world who were better than us, and who we were better than. Every week we competed for chairs in the orchestra, drilled to focus our craft on triumphing over someone else. But to win the international concerto competition was the goal, the ultimate prize, an uncontestable recognition of superior skill that George wasn’t being trained to accept. Instead, he wanted to train me to not feel deserving of my achievement.

George was jealous. We all were in one way or another. George was also filled with rage for not just that he was beat, but by whom he was beat—because he was beat, like everyone else, in a myriad of ways. Did he taunt everybody?


I didn’t know Julia Perry’s name for over a decade after this collision with superiority. Imagine what it meant to learn that Donna is an Italian lady, an aristocrat—of noble birth. Then imagine what it meant to learn Julia Perry’s name, that she composed for percussion, that my percussion ensemble, the one I played with for two years before transferring to Spelman College—imagine what it was like for me to learn that I am of noble birth as an African American rather than as a translation for an oppressive aristocrat in Italy.

I did, however, feel like I had been translated. Take the name Donna out of time, put the genealogical name on a new me, then translate my translated name and what you end up with is a Black composer in the future. It was through my instrument that I found new meaning in my name like my classmate Thomas from Cameroon described to me. Just like what my name might have meant to the doctor that birthed me, the end of an era or the beginning of a new one, learning Julia Perry’s through my instrument was the beginning of a new era for me.

I am be-bop. I am classical. I am the daughter of a mother who is trained in classical flute and a father on jazz saxophone. I am the sister of a bassist, a trumpeter, a saxophonist, and a guitarist. I am a family legacy—third time soloist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. I am a percussionist and as a writer, a Black composer in and of the future.