Recently I played host to my niece’s 5th-birthday party. It was a backyard paint-themed affair where all the babies were dressed like pint-size Picassos in smocks and berets and hyped up on confectioners’ sugar. It was somewhere between the dance-off and “Red light, green light” that I realized something. There were no Keishas here. There were also no variations of Keisha here. There also weren’t any DeShawns or Tyrasciuses.
There was a Braxton here, and also a Carter. There was a Kamryn, although not the conventional spelling; there was also a Riley and a Morgan.
The closest we came to what I would consider an African-American name with strong black roots was DJ, which was short for Darrell Jr., the oldest male offspring of my neighbor Lil’ Darrell. (Darrell is Lil’ not because he is the first boy born to a father named Darrell, another given in the black community; he’s Lil’ Darrell because he’s short.)
Maybe this happened years ago; maybe I wasn’t watching when the big paintbrush of white America whitewashed away creative black names, but I miss the originality that had Jaheim singing “Don’t hate on us, we’re fabulous.” It feels as if the push from black parents in the 1960s to move away from European-sounding names became a bridge too far around the 1980s.
“The ’60s were a time of massive black protest from which emerged an accentuated separatist strain in black thought, epitomized in the Black Power movement,” David Zax wrote in a piece for Salon, “What’s Up With Black Names, Anyway?” He continued:
Blacks became increasingly interested in Africa and eager to show pride in their roots. (Indeed, Roots—Alex Haley’s book as well as the TV miniseries based upon it—itself had a remarkable effect on naming practices. According to Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, the name Kizzy, which belonged to a “Roots” character, skyrocketed from oblivion to become the 17th most popular name for black girls in Illinois in 1977.)
By the 1970s and early, precrack ’80s, creative baby names were exploding, and you had an influx of hyphens and apostrophes in all their glory. That push toward a wave of creativity that once allowed for names like Shalondra, Shaday, Jenneta and Travounda—inventive names with creative spellings—has receded back to the homogeneous vanilla land of conservatism.
Basically, there has been a gentrification of black baby naming, and I want it gone. I want the fabulousness of our invented names back. I want to see a name on a page and wonder to myself how it’s pronounced, and then be forced to ask and work with the owner of said name to make sure I’m saying it correctly. I miss those names that stand out. But America has this thing where it doesn’t adjust to a growing movement toward individualism; it just makes those elements that don’t feel, appear or behave American (read: white American) feel ashamed, or embarrasses them back into a monolithic culture of Adams and Megans.
I understand that studies have shown that people with “black sounding” names are more likely to have their job applications rejected despite their qualifications, but if we allow racism to aid in the naming of our children, then doesn’t that say something about us as a whole?
In 2005, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, authors of Freakonomics, in a piece for Slate, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name,” found that it wasn’t the names as much as it was impoverished living conditions that were holding back uniquely named children:
The data show that, on average, a person with a distinctively black name—whether it is a woman named Imani or a man named DeShawn—does have a worse life outcome than a woman named Molly or a man named Jake. But it isn’t the fault of his or her name. If two black boys, Jake Williams and DeShawn Williams, are born in the same neighborhood and into the same familial and economic circumstances, they would likely have similar life outcomes. But the kind of parents who name their son Jake don’t tend to live in the same neighborhoods or share economic circumstances with the kind of parents who name their son DeShawn. And that’s why, on average, a boy named Jake will tend to earn more money and get more education than a boy named DeShawn. DeShawn’s name is an indicator—but not a cause—of his life path.
So let’s just change Oprah to Jane, and Beyoncé to Beth. But when we do that, we lose all of the gloriousness that comes with these stars being identifiable only by their first name. We lose all of the essence that went into making them who they became. Were they born with big names? Hell, yeah!
Can you imagine how hard it must have been for a second-grade Mahershala Ali to spell “Mahershala”? Maybe he could’ve changed it to Matt when he became an actor to make it easier on bookings—and see how fucked up that feels? The idea of giving a kid a big, creative name allows him or her the room to grow into it, to feel unique. Former NBA player Jalen Rose boasts often about the fact that he was the first Jalen ever. He tells the story of how his name was a combination of his two uncles’ names, James and Leonard. He’s proud to know that historically, there was no Jalen before him.
At some point we must stop bending toward the arc we don’t believe in. I’m not necessarily saying that there’s a national trend away from black-sounding names, but I’ve noticed that many black professional parents are leaning more toward conventional, European-sounding names. Hell, my name is Stephen, which my parents ripped straight out of the pages of the Bible. I have cousins named Michael, Kenneth, Charles, Brian, Kristen, Stacy, Lisa and Phillip, so it isn’t as if my family was really mixing it up with apostrophes and “La” prefixes; but I wonder if this is a push away from, and a taming of, our creative spirit.
In 2013, Jamelle Bouie wrote a piece for the Daily Beast, “Are Black Names ‘Weird,’ or Are You Just Racist?,” that addressed a Reddit thread about why black parents supposedly give their kids unusual names:
But black children aren’t the only ones with unusual names. It’s not hard to find white kids with names like Braelyn and Declyn. And while it’s tempting to chalk this up to poverty—in the Reddit thread, there was wide agreement that this was a phenomenon of poor blacks and poor whites—the wealthy are no strangers to unique names. The popular Netflix show Orange is the New Black, written by a Jenji Kohan (a white woman), was based on the experiences of a Piper Kerman (also a white woman). And in last year’s presidential election, nearly 61 million people voted for a Willard Mitt Romney, at the same time that the current head of the Republican National Committee was (and is) a Reince Priebus.
Bouie also noted the double standard placed on unique black names that isn’t afforded their white counterparts:
If we focus on “weird” African American names in jokes and conversation, it’s because blacks remain at the bottom of America’s racial caste system. “Hunter” is just as unusual as “Malik,” but it’s understood as “normal” because of its association with white men. It’s arbitrary, yes, but it reflects who holds power. Indeed, if the situation were reversed, odds are good there would be plenty of jokes about “dysfunctional” white people who name their children “Geoff.”
And as I type this, I know that America still isn’t ready for the gloriousness of black naming. Recently, Saturday Night Live thought it was funny to do a skit about pharmaceutical drugs that sound like black names, which promptly got bashed by my colleague Genetta Adams, The Root’s deputy editor, as being fucking stupid, because it was.
At some point you have to ask that the world embrace you exactly where you are, and if your name is Quintavious, then, damn it, be Quintavious in all its glory. Don’t shorten it. Rather, force Starbucks baristas to spell it properly; work with them on the correct pronunciation. Demand that they include all of the apostrophes and hyphens that your parents placed on your birth certificate, because you deserve a place in this world, and we need to open ourselves up to that.