28 Days of Black Joy: Nicknames That Cancel Out the Need for Government Names

Portrait of happy senior African American man looking at camera
Portrait of happy senior African American man looking at camera
Photo: Diego Cervo (Shutterstock)

They used to call me “Cheekie.” They still do.

It all started during the AOL chat room days and I was a huge fan of Mr. Cheeks’ “Lights, Camera, Action!” Since I had always been known for my pinchable cheeks (on my face most of my life and...um, the other ones blossomed during my pre-teen years), so I chose the screen name, MissCheeks84. Eventually developing a camaraderie with the regulars, one of them started shortening the screen name to a cutesy alternative: Cheekie. It stuck. So, I ran with it. Then, cut to around 2009 and the moniker gained yet another level of notoriety thanks to the unmatched community of Very Smart Brothas.

After starting my own personal blog and eventually gaining some attention in the VSB comment section, it became commonplace to meet my fellow VSB just-like-family members in person for the first time at an event and introduce myself with my screen name while adding my government (or “gubment”) name like an extra order of fries. Like many folks protecting their paycheck in the workplace, I had intentionally decided not to share my real name online and hid under the “Cheekie” persona. So, unless we developed a relationship offline, you didn’t know my name (or even my entire face for the very beginnings of my blog life). Seriously, my real name became a whole guessing game on social media, with Black Girls Are Magic founder CaShawn Thompson coming up with the funniest one (that’s still used today): Belinda. That said, despite introducing myself as “Tonja” at these in-person events, everyone was like, “Cool story, but nawl, yo’ name Cheekie.”

This phenomenon is not exclusive nor unique to online culture, though. Black folks love giving lifelong nicknames to each other, and the strength of those nicknames often supersede the name printed on one’s birth certificate or other official government identification paperwork. It is actual factual Black history. In fact, my fondest memory of this occurrence happened at a family function.

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I was a young and spry undergrad student celebrating winter break and I was at my older cousin Keesha’s, as she notoriously hosted family and friend hangouts at her house. She typically cooked a bunch of food (I seriously still don’t know how she washes and picks greens that often), the libations were abundant and we sat around playing Spades or Bid Whist while reminiscing and talking shit. The good life.

Well, there was one longtime family friend who was always around named “Boo.” He has always been Boo from the very moment I met him as a tot. He is forever Boo. Hell, he looks like a Boo. What the fuck does that look like? I don’t know, but he looks it. Well, on this particular day, while I was visiting the fam from college, either Keesha or my sister Tina started cracking up about some nigga named “William Nowling.” I swear they had an entire reminiscing conversation about him and his name, just bursting into tears with laughter. Finally, I asked them who they were talking about and they pointed at the familiar smiling uncle-like figure sitting in the corner with a drink in his hand and said, “Boo, girl! That’s his real name. But, you know damn well we don’t ever call him no damn William Nowling.”

I wish I remembered the exact date this happened because that moment was Black history. I was about 18 or 19 and that was the very first time I had learned that man’s government name. I’m pretty sure I broke the fourth wall in real life and looked at the audience in shock via freeze frame. It was like the Earth shifted on its axis and everything I ever knew was askew. Then, I burst out into a tearful giggle fit, too. That man had a whole first and last name and it had never occurred to me until that very moment. Wow. Shout out to William Nowling.

He still Boo, though.

Staff Writer, Entertainment at The Root. Sugar, spice & everything rice. Equipped with the uncanny ability to make a Disney reference and a double entendre in the same sentence.

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raineyb1013
Raineyb1013, Misfit Black Girl Island Denizen

I have multiple family members who I would have to really put some effort into thinking about it before I could come up with their government name and if someone did mention them by government name I’d pause a second and go “Oh that’s xyz”