By Robert Fikes, Jr., Librarian
San Diego State University
Two recent studies concerned with the probability of discrimination against African Americans based on their given names were conducted by researchers at Harvard, MIT, and the University of Chicago and have been widely reported in the media. The studies, focused on pre-employment interviewing and tracking career paths, caught the attention of the press because they appeared to have some bearing on the long-held suspicion that blacks are discriminated against sight unseen simply because their names sound stereotypically black.
Prior to the aforementioned studies, a number of academic papers had been published that oftentimes contradicted one another when assessing the motivation certain blacks have to be rather creative in naming their offspring and negative reactions this elicited from whites. A far less publicized study in 1994 by Marci B. Levine and Frank N. Willis in the Journal of Social Psychology, titled "Public Reaction to Unusual Names," found that, surprisingly, when black and white parents were asked why they picked an unusual name they generally admitted to the uncomplicated reason that they "just liked it" and had given little if any thought to the ramifications the name would have on the child's future. They further determined that the parent most responsible for naming the child was the mother (particularly the single mother) who was more likely to be African American, and that individuals which such names were probably more likely to be found in African American communities.
In the September 2004 issue of the magazine Parenting the author of "How Important Is a Name" recalled that, "a generation ago, ethnic, androgynous, and invented names, and those with rejigged spellings, were much less common," and that today cautions against unconventional first names are blithely ignored. As one would expect, first names routinely honor admired ancestors, relatives and acquaintances, historical and literary characters, and over the first half of the 20th century the names of heroic figures like Booker (as in Booker T. Washington), Abraham (as in Abraham Lincoln), and the biblical Elijah were commonplace as they reflected the esteem African Americans held for the leaders of their race, their nation, and their religion.
To say that the extent to which African Americans have over the past two decades embraced the practice of conjuring atypical, fabricated names and that this is widespread is an understatement. Emerging from the struggle of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and with new found pride in Africa's greatness, was the popular trend of African and Muslim/Arabic names like Jamal, Abdul, Kareem, Rashad, Kenya, Zulu, Shaquille, Ali, and Hakeem. But clearly by the early 1980s a noticeable disconnect with the past had begun as witnessed by the startling increase in names having little if any meaningful origin. Judging from our survey of first names of young African American adults, the tug of war amongst the Afrocentrists, the assimilationists, and the multiculturalists of the 1990s did not produce a clear winner and in today's society and the word on the street is that anything goes.
Daily we are reminded of examples of non-traditional names from the worlds of sports, government, and entertainment, like Savion Glover, LeVar (Levardis) Burton, Toriano (Tito) Jackson, J.C. (Julius Caesar) Watts, Condoleezza Rice, Deval Patrick, Vida Blue, Venus Williams, RuPaul, and the Los Angeles Laker's A.C. Green (the initials A.C. do not stand for anything). Hardly anyone raised an eyebrow when actor/filmmaker Forest Whitaker named his son Ocean and his daughters Sonnet and True Summer, or when these pop singers and actors christened named their newborns:
|Aretha Franklin||Kecalf (son)|
|James Brown||Yama Noloya and Venisha (daughters)|
|Will Smith & Jada Pinkett||Willow Camille Reign (daughter)|
|Toni Braxton||Denim (son)|
|Erykah Badu||Seven Oshay (son)|
|Damon Wayans||Fuddy (son)|
|Michael Jackson||Prince Michael I and Prince Michael II (sons)|
Moreover, some adults accept or rename themselves something considered hip, bold, or flamboyant in order to give themselves more visibility, e.g, Flip (Clerow) Wilson, BeBe and CeCe (Benjamin and Pricilla) Winans, Famous (Wallace) Amos, and World B. Free (Lloyd Free), Tiger (Eldrick) Woods, and O.J. (Orenthal James) Simpson.
These creative new generation names are not rooted in historical precedent, heroic sentiment or the appreciation of literature. The main reasons for concocting them is simply that they sound pleasing to the ear of the parents, are spelled in some unique fashion, give the impression of being unique, or all of the foregoing. Among other things, a strong affinity for French-sounding names is quite obvious with the articles L', Le, and La used in abundance. Also very popular are the prefixes Sha, She, Shi, Ja, Je, Ka, Da, and De; and the suffixes isha, esha, ika, ius, ante, and ita. We also note the prediliction for mid-word capitalization (examples: LaQunda, LucQuente, D'Livero, AuTashea, DeLisha, NeClea) and the rising trend toward hyphenation (Fa-Trenna, K-Rob, R-Kal). In our survey by far the most common name for males was Marcus and for females Latoya topped the list. Other common female names with variant spellings were Tawanda, Keisha, Lakeisha, Sheniqua, Chante, Ebony, and Tamisha; and for males Marquis, Lamont, Jamal, Tremaine, Jermaine, Daryl, Tyrone, Dwayne, Shawn, Darius, Devon, and Antoine. The stereotypical Leroy is no longer in vogue.
When the parents of basketball star Kobe Bryant visited a restaurant and saw a Japanese dish on the menu called Kobe steak they were absolutely enchanted by the name. Kobe possessed a rare athletic talent that would make him rich and famous, just as Condoleezza Rice's intelligence and ambition that made her a powerful leader, but the disturbing thing about giving an ill-conceived name to a person of average abilities is the risk of exposing him to a lifetime of ridicule, shame, and self-hatred. It is difficult to understand why some shortsighted parents saddle their offspring with the name of a commercial product, geographic location, corporation, inanimate object, or some flashy adjective, more so now since one recent study suggests career opportunities might be negatively affected. In our survey of African America names we came upon these given names:
One complaint is that too often ill-conceived, contrived names are impossible to pronounce (examples form our survey: Asjha, Dekekisha, Tnonealyer, Juaqula, Markeithisia, Schmoca, Branduinn, Tjrimel, SeSe) or just too exotic or over-the-top (A'quonesia, InFini, Tyquesta, Cotrondra, Tonitura, Malasta, Chakowby, Shockmain, Tebucky, Earthwind, Cilk, Dontarrious, Shawnboda, Poonie, Domahco). And a few names have become so renowned for their absurdity that they deserve a place in the urban legend hall of fame (e.g., the alleged twin brothers Lemonjello and Orangejello, Chitiesha, and the incomparable Jacuzze Poole and Chappreal Shewayne Shequise).
On the other hand, and odd as it may seem to critics, it must be acknowledged that by and large these names were intended to lend status, respect, and individuality to the recipient in addition to reaffirming the affection of the parents who dreamed up the names. There is the undeniable element of competition to come up with the most sublime, bizarre, or esoteric name distinct from all others. Another important point to remember is that these names can be viewed as a reaction to Anglo dominated culture and is evidence, at least to some extent, of a attempt to put distance between that which is perceived as bland, ordinary, conformist, oppressive, and white.
As widely reported in the press, several months ago, comedian Bill Cosby let loose a volley of complaints about black folks' bad behavior, including their failure to master standard English. He wondered aloud what has possessed black people to give themselves names like "Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all of that crap." Prof. Michael Eric Dyson retorted that the enormously successful Cosby exhibited "classist, elitist viewpoints that are rooted in generational warfare" and that there is nothing wrong with these names so long as people know how to spell them. Regardless, the admonition of one black observer is sobering: "Take time to really name your child and investigate. Every time you call their name, its meaning will be in their subconscious."
To better illustrate the pervasiveness of the types of names we have discussed here we surveyed groups of young African American adults and prepared the list below after scanning thousands of names matched with photos on the Internet sites of more than 200 hundreds professional and college athletic teams, several black fraternities and sororities with numerous Internet chapter links, and with particular attention to students at the historically and predominantly black colleges and universities.
Copyright ©2004 by Robert Fikes, Jr.