In late June 2019, a 46-year-old African-American woman graduated from Cardinal Stritch University Wisconsin, earning a doctorate in higher education leadership. Her doctoral dissertation, titled “Black Names in White Classrooms: Teacher Behaviors and Student Perceptions,” analyzed the impact of nontraditional names on academic achievement. However, neither of these things was what caught the attention of the media — rather it was her incredibly unusual and memorable name: Marijuana Pepsi Vandyck (née Jackson).
I know what you are thinking — why in the world would parents name their daughter after a mind-altering plant and a carbonated sugary soda? In her hometown of Beloit, Wisconsin several rumors arose to explain the incredible moniker. One rumor was that her parents were smoking pot and drinking Pepsi when she was conceived. Given the time period, the post-Woodstock/Summer of Love era, that scenario was very plausible. Nevertheless, it was her mother, Maggie Jackson, who came up with the name, even though her father, Aaron Jackson, objected. Vandyck explains: “She said that she knew when I was born that you could take this name and go around the world with it. At the time as a child, I’m thinking ‘yeah, right — you named my older sister Kimberly. You named my younger sister Robin.'” Vandyck’s aunt, Mayetta Jackson, remembers when Maggie picked the unusual name back in 1972 during the hippie era, when smoking a joint was as common as… well, drinking a Pepsi. Mayetta added, “[After smoking weed, Aaron and Maggie] would cool off with a Pepsi. I thought it was crazy, but they were fun-loving people that it suited them.” Interestingly, it was in late 1971, that Coke introduced one of the most memorable commercials featuring one of the most famous jingles of all time: young people gathering on the top of a hill singing “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Perhaps it was a good thing that the Jacksons were not influenced by this, otherwise their daughter would have been named Marijuana Coke, which sounds more like two psychotropic drugs rather than a drug and a soft drink.
As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy for a little girl growing up with an unusual name like that. She recall relentless teasing during her school-age years. During her junior high school days, Vandyck dreaded roll call: “Every single class, the teacher is taking attendance out loud, and as they slowly get down through the J’s, I’m just like here it comes. ‘Marianna? Marijuana?’ And all the students turn to see who it is.” By the time she reached high school, her peers’ attitude about her name shifted — they thought it was cool. Vandyck explains: “They were like, ‘Oh yeah. Man, I wish I had your name. I love that. I’m going to name my kid after you.’ I hear that so much and I go, Lord, please don’t do that to that child.”
But despite the obstacles that her name presented, insisted on being called by her birth name: Marijuana, eschewing more common variations like Mary or Mary Jane. One of her high school teachers told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel: “They could make a movie about her. I could almost write a book on Marijuana myself in terms of a young student who’s been so resilient and taken even her name and made it into a positive… She’s exactly what any kid in America needs to know about someone who can truly make it if they put their mind to it.” And that’s exactly what she did with her career: she wanted to share her own life struggles and eventual success in order to inspire students. Her doctoral dissertation, in fact, analyzes how black students with unique names are treated by educators in predominantly white settings and how this treatment impacts their academic performance. Specifically, Vandyck found that students “with distinctly black names” were subject to stereotypes, disrespect, and low academic expectations. This in turn led lower self-esteem, career choices, and ultimately fewer educational and career opportunities for students of color.
In an interview with NPR, Vandyck shares her optimistic perspective on life: “”It’s what you do after you recognize that you have this feeling about [having a nontraditional name]. And it’s what you act on from that point on. That’s the most important part…. We can’t always go through life-changing things to make other people happy … and I had to learn that early on.”
Ironically, Marijuana Pepsi has never smoked marijuana and her choice of beverage is orange soda.
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