By Tim Baffoe-

(CBS) — “I would just be fascinated to find out how someone of Italian descent ended up with the surname Baffoe.”

Kojo Baffoe, writer, poet, and editor of the South African magazine Destiny Man among other pursuits, was surprised that I share his surname but am not Black. I know the feeling.

Contrary to popular belief, I do not hate America. Actually, as someone who is largely apathetic toward soccer, that probably makes me very American.

I don’t dislike the sport. I don’t treat soccer fans like lepers among we American football, baseball, basketball, and hockey elitists. This isn’t the illusion of all that is good of pseudoamateurism like the Olympics does with its monorail sale every two years. I’m not going to dump on an actual sport you and a billion other people enjoy year-round.

It’s pretty difficult to escape the World Cup, though. I would have to abandon social media entirely otherwise, and TV sports news and talk programs will devote plenty of time to it because when something only happens once every four years it becomes all the more special or something. Add in the spontaneous patriotism, and the World Cup becomes the story of the summer.

And I have summers off from my socialist teaching job of ruining our nation’s children and so a little more down time. Okay, so maybe I do hate America.

I learned in 2010 that kind of having to sort of pay attention to soccer for a month was something I would have to do. But I couldn’t bring myself to just automatically fall in love with Team USA just because I’m an American. National pride and sports don’t really mix with me, especially when I’m otherwise indifferent to the sport at hand to begin with. For all the criticism fans give toward supposed bandwagoners—the Miami Heat fan stereotype, “real” Blackhawks fans that don’t want their team to make money, etc.—I’ve never been really comfortable joining the crowd periodically just because it’s America Is Awesome time.

That’s why, in order to have some rooting interest in the World Cup, four years ago I hitched my wagon to the Black Stars, or Team Ghana if you’re unfamiliar. This was not random, but rather it was a choice I made based on something more personal to me than my nationality.

“Baffoe” for most of my life has been an Italian American name. It means “mustache” back in the Old Country. My great grandparents emigrated from the town of Calabria a century ago, planted themselves in Chicago, never learned to speak much English (as far as I remember from great grandma’s mustachioed kisses when I was very young), and had a beautiful family.

But that family was the Baffo family, not Baffoe. As an adult my late grandfather, Michael Angelo Baffoe, added an “e” to the end of his last name for reasons that have never been made very specific to me but always have had a hint of something to do with his desire to avoid some Italian stereotypes that had unfortunately crept near to his world and that I should stop asking questions about it. I still have second cousins that spell the name without the “e.” A new restaurant in downtown Chicago that I get no royalties from bears the original name.

My grandfather and his six Baffoe sons. (Courtesy Tim Baffoe.)

My grandfather and his six Baffoe sons. (Courtesy Tim Baffoe.)

I also have a sort of extended internet borne family because of that “e.” See, unbeknownst to “Baff,” as my grandfather was known to friends and family, when he altered the family name, he bestowed on his wife, my dad, my dad’s four sisters and five brothers, and the next and future generations of Baffoes a name shared by many non-Italians across the globe.

Baffoe means dagger,” says Emmanuel Obour Kwaku Baffoe, an Accra resident and student studying Theater Arts at the University of Ghana. “Baffoe is a very common name here in Ghana. There is another, let me put it ‘corrupted,’ version of the name Baffoe, which I think is as a result in the difference in the various Akan languages, which is Baffour.”

Nana Otema Williams-Baffoe, born and raised in Ghana and now residing and attending school in the UK, is a cousin of one of the Black Stars greatest players ever, the German-born former Bundesliga star Tony Baffoe who was also the first expatriate to play for the Ghana national team.

“The Baffoe family are mainly from Capecoast and Elmina part of Ghana which is one of the main ports during the slave trade,” she said. “Been trying to trace my family history with my Uncle James for past 20 years and have traced some distant family members as far as Australia who are White, but their great grandfather was a Baffoe who married and migrated there. When pronounced it sounds like ‘barfoe,’ which when translated in one of the local Ghanaian dialects means ‘will cry’ or ‘you will cry’.”

Well over two decades passed in my life before I was aware of the Ghanaian connection. As a young kid I had heard a story in passing about my grandmother once having a prescription mixed up at the local pharmacy because another Margaret Baffoe—a Black woman—also had a prescription there. It was completely impossible in my limited White world that a Black person could have an Italian surname, and I scratched my red head (Black Italians = impossible, Ginger Italians = duh) and thought the situation was odd and then forgot about it.

I grew up in a middle class neighborhood that was two-thirdish White and a thirdish Black. Of the Whites, most were of some Irish descent, and Sullivans and O’Sullivans and Murphys and O’Briens and McThis and Fitzthat were all over. Two unrelated people with the same surname was normal.

But nobody to whom I was not related was named Baffoe in the Beverly/Morgan Park/Mt. Greenwood area. Nobody else anywhere in America that I’d ever heard of. White or Black.

Then social media came along and with it some online interactions with people like Emmanuel who had my last name who were not White. Conversations began popping up from new online friends in Africa, Germany, the UK, and elsewhere in the United States with the questions “Are we related?” and “Are you from Ghana?”

The onomastic mutual learning experience also made the jump to Twitter after a London kid of Ghanaian descent happened across a column of mine and had his mind blown not only by my mediocre writing but also the handsome yet unexpected face attached to it.

“I also have never heard of a White Baffoe,” says Kojo. “I just assume everyone is Ghanaian. To me it has always been a Ghanaian name, and the Baffoes I have come across on social media, we just assume that we are related in some fashion.”

Even as recently as this past Monday I received the following on Facebook:

baffoepaulinaDMThe Ghanaian Baffoes have all been nothing but kind and funny people in my conversations over the years. Sports, theology, food, relationships—all have been the topics of random and usually really-late-for-one-of-us-because-of-time-zones talks the past few years. I’ve been unsolicitedly mailed Ghanaian jewelry and a mango in a bottle and even have been invited to a wedding. (Question of etiquette, by the way—if this teacher/writer/pizza driver can’t afford a plane ticket to Ghana, do I still send a gift?)

A handwritten letter and a mango in a bottle. (Courtesy Tim Baffoe.)

A handwritten letter and a mango in a bottle. (Courtesy Tim Baffoe.)

And in some of those conversations over the years the topic of soccer has come up. The importance of the sport became especially evident from my Baffoe friends during the last World Cup. Lots of red, gold, green, and black pictures started scattering across my Facebook timeline. When asked about my interest in the upcoming tournament and Team USA in 2010, I explained my apathy. That was met with some defensiveness. “Oh, you have to watch.” “You’ll learn to love football.” (See, American soccer fans? They’re just like you!) Then I was posed the question of since I had no rooting interesting in Team USA, why not give the Ghana team a try?

Yeah, I thought. Why not?

Thus was born my initially half-assed allegiance to the Black Stars. As people were using an online tool to make their profile pictures into personalized American jerseys, mine became a “T. Baffoe #17” Ghana jersey. I talked uneducated smack. I cheered the Black Stars eliminating Team USA (without knowing the same happened between the two teams in 2006 or that the US has never beaten the Ghanaians in international play). It was playful and fun for me, especially antagonizing USMNT die-hards and the convenient jingoists.

And then the tournament ended. And then my temporary soccer interest ended.

In the meantime, though, I’ve learned that the game has a deeper meaning for Black Stars fans. And what has sculpted that meaning has taken me from a kitschy sort of fanship to one more appreciative of a culture connected to people that have taught me about another world yet also about part of myself.

Kojo was born in Germany to a White mother and native Ghanaian father but moved to Africa before the age of 1. He lived in Uganda and Lesotho as a child and now is based in South Africa, but says he considers Ghana one of his homes. “Connected to it through the Baffoe name. That’s where my people are from, my roots, my history.

“For me, (the Black Stars) carry within them the spirit of Ghana. Ghana was the first country on the continent to gain independence and the first President Kwame Nkrumah saw them as a symbol for the upliftment of the African spirit.”

Tony is now a man of many hats with FIFA and the African Football Confederation, including being a FIFA Ambassador for campaign against racism and one of the chief overseers of getting children involved in the game. Fitting, since he himself knows bigotry and soccer’s benefits to children worldwide all too well.

He is the son of a Ghana diplomat but lost all the privileges that brought when his father died when Tony was 15. His mother and her seven children were no longer afforded the perks they had enjoyed and struggled to make ends meet in a foreign country. Tony sold newspapers before school—a German school he had to attend when he could no longer attend the international school—to help support his family.

“My sister accompanied me on my first day in that school and a boy who was two classes ahead of me called me n—– and I slapped him,” he said. “I was outspoken and very confident. That was why I was made the school prefect, thereby becoming the only Black boy at the time to be given that post.”

He also went pro in soccer at 15 as a means to make money. And despite eventually being named captain of a predominantly White team, racism followed him.

“Anytime I scored a goal the fans called me Kunta. They threw bananas at me on the field and spat at me. When that happened, I got the bananas, ate them and threw the peels back at them.”

Throwing bananas at Black players has unfortunately been not uncommon in soccer. What has been really cool is so many Black and non-Black players rallying against the bigots, taking to social media to taunt the fools with pictures of themselves eating the fruit. And the irony of the former kid Baffoe who endured the ugliest side of soccer now being one of the most powerful officials in the game is certainly delicious.

Ghana faces off against USA in their first match, of course, again making my soccer worlds collide. Only this time the Black Stars may not fare as well as in the past. Nate Silver’s number crunchers give them only an 8.8% to win their group and a 67.1% chance of being eliminated. The Ghanaians I’m familiar with at least seem hopeful but realistic.

“If Ghana was to win the World Cup now that will be a miracle and be amazing but can only be achieved if they play as a team,” says Nana. “Most of my friends and family have got the clothing and memorabilia out, so it’s red, gold, green, and a hint of black everywhere, especially on play date. My niece is such a fierce supporter, and on play days we get five minutes play-by-play commentary from her, and she doesn’t even pick up any calls till final whistle goes.”

A friend of a friend. (Courtesy of Nana Otema Williams-Baffoe.)

A friend of a friend. (Courtesy of Nana Otema Williams-Baffoe.)

Even more ironic for Kojo is Germany being in the pool with Ghana.

“I also support the German team, also being of German descent. And the universe has conspired to have Ghana and Germany in the same group again. My only hope, as with last WC, is that they will both make it out of the group stages and meet again in the final. Then I would want Ghana to win. No African team has ever won it.”

I want Ghana to win, too. Especially after this deeper exploration into the accidental connection I have to so many people around the world from completely different backgrounds than me. An exploration that has turned my surname into a “mustache dagger that will make you cry.”

So cool has all this been that I even broke a personal rule and bought a jersey. A Black Stars jersey. And I’m going to watch soccer and do so with a lot less apathy than in the past.

I’ll be rooting for the Baffoes. Tony, Kojo, Nana, Emmanuel, Michael Angelo, my dad, Eugene, my nephews, Jack and Charlie. The name that means something more now and has led me to “the beautiful game.”

Go Black Stars.

Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe.

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