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Well, it didn’t take long after returning to our airwaves for Larry Mendte to start sounding like a smug bastard again, did it? And what a note to begin on: a direct address to camera expressing his sincere regret that an African name is OMG SO HARD TO PRONOUNCE!

This weekend saw the premiere of the veteran broadcaster’s new talk show The Delaware Way on KJWP-TV, the local affiliate of the MeTV programming network. The episode featured a taped conversation with Delaware Senator Chris Coons that touched, among other things, upon Coons’ vote earlier this year against the confirmation of former NAACP lawyer Debo Adegbile to an assistant attorney general position at the Justice Department. Adegbile’s nomination, as you may recall, was shot down amid much political outrage that, as the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s litigation director, he’d filed an appeal on behalf of Mumia abu-Jamal, the Philadelphia murder convict whose supporters have insisted for three decades that he’s innocent.

At the show’s end, Mendte gave a solo address to viewers, apologizing for having mispronounced Adegbile’s name during the interview. He suggested, though, that he should hardly be faulted: “Now, in fairness, it’s a difficult name to say. The national talking heads have all tripped over it.” Mendte then cued a montage of a dozen Fox News pundits all mangling the simple, four-syllable, eight-letter Nigerian name — and he followed that by displaying a text screen that spelled out the correct phonetic pronunciation, as if “Adegbile” were an entry in the dictionary.

“So, Mr. Adegbile, I do apologize for getting your name wrong,” Mendte continued, “but I am not sorry your nomination was rejected by the U.S. Senate. You chose to be a passionate legal advocate for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a member of the Black Panthers who took the life of beloved Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner. Now, I understand that in the American justice system, everyone deserves a defense, even cop killers. But when you do that, you disqualify yourself from public office. That’s not just me saying that, but the majority of the American public.” Satisfied, apparently, that he’d now been unfailingly polite and proper, Mendte concluded with what appeared to be the hint of a smirk: “I’m sorry I mispronounced your name — but I don’t expect we’ll be hearing it again.”

Rather than dwell on the passive-aggressive tone with which Mendte finger-wagged how wrong it was for a national civil-rights attorney to, you know, responsibly carry out the duties of his job in relation to a hotly contested judicial verdict, let’s instead turn for context to a recent conversation with another Nigerian American: Orange is the New Black costar Uzo Aduba. The actress who plays “Crazy Eyes” on the hit Netflix show told Improper Bostonian magazine:

My family is from Nigeria, and my full name is Uzoamaka… In grade school, because my last name started with an A, I was the first in roll call, and nobody ever knew how to pronounce it. So I went home and asked my mother if I could be called Zoe. I remember she was cooking, and in her Nigerian accent she said, “Why?” I said, “Nobody can pronounce it.” Without missing a beat, she said, “If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka.” 

Funny how one sentence can throw all this foreign-name-phobia into sharp relief, huh? So, Mr. Mendte, as long as you’re expressing solidarity with your fellow talking heads, maybe you can tell us on behalf of them all, or even just for yourself: Why is it that long European names with plenty of consonants and vowels and syllables are no problem, but African ones are so gosh-darned confusing?

About The Author

Editor in chief

Stephen H. Segal is the editor in chief of the Philadelphia Weekly, PhillyNow.com and the Atlantic City Weekly. He writes about culture, geekery and the future, and is the Hugo Award-winning former editorial & creative director of Weird Tales magazine.

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