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Life What’s in a name? A lot if you’re black.

May. 22, 2020
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Just a few months ago, someone from Black Twitter quipped that the reigning women of Destiny’s Child had “some really black-ass names.” The joke reintroduced an old truth: Beyoncé, Tenitra (Michelle’s first name), and Kelendria sound as black as catfish and fried okra, or a beauty supply store referred to vaguely as “the beauty supply.”

As the tweet became a thread, other folks waxed nostalgic upon a yesteryear when such Afrocentric names dominated black entertainment, and one Destiny’s Child stan posted a two-decade-old group photo of the Texan girls smiling with vocalists LeToya and LaTavia Jackson, Kandi Burruss, Tamika and LaTocha Scott, and Tameka “Tiny” Harris. “These names >>>,” another user quoted in a response with 68,000 likes. “They don’t make ‘em like this anymore lmao.”

A consensus had clearly been reached: in all their prefixed, punctuated, and melodious glory, black-ass names were it. And though the conversation’s unabashed blackness gave me a much-needed serotonin boost, I also pondered when these given names had shed their “ghetto” label after years of what seemed like a bad rap.

One thing is clear: not unlike AAVE or black bodies themselves, distinctive black names have always occupied a unique space in American culture—an othered, oppressed territory subject to aggression. I’ve been aware of this since growing up as a brown schoolgirl bombarded with microaggressions only to be fully understood years later. In the fifth-or-so grade, in particular, I recall a close (not Afro-) Latina friend of mine hating on her middle name, Monique, because it “sounded black.” This conversation, along with copious other racist experiences throughout my youth, contributed to my internalization of a somber analogy: black-sounding names are as ghetto and undesirable as blackness.

For most of my childhood, that dejecting logic stuck to me like baby hairs beneath the wrath of edge control—especially so living in a predominately nonblack area, which revealed its racism in quiet and small, but nevertheless traumatizing, varieties. I felt like my own name—the ne plus ultra of Euro-American culture—was a boon. Sydney Nicole Sweeney camouflaged as one less targetable facet of my identity, which was already in crisis as peers deconstructed my existence: likening me to an Oreo, or seemingly being more interested in my pressed hair’s dubious science than their own homework. As I already knew there were consequences for and connotations with being black IRL, even my Sims 2 characters were named Callie or Madison, which I thought epitomized “classy, cool girl.” With age, it became clear that said connotations and consequences destroyed black opportunities and confidences far beyond the schoolyard.

In 2015, Raven-Symoné was lambasted by the black community for her stance on name-based discrimination. “I'm not about to hire you if your name is Watermelondrea—it’s just not going to happen,” the actress remarked on The View. Her commentary was anti-black in every respect. Numerous critics penned that her own given name is precisely of the assortment that shrinks under prejudice in society, and noted that her equating a “ghetto black name” to one rooted in cliché was an instance of preposterous, internalized racism. And of course, if some black Americans feel some type of way about so-called ghetto names, nonblack ones surely do. 

Indeed, an abundance of research demonstrates that employers favor job candidates with white-sounding names. In 2003, an experimental study concluded that from a resume pool of fictitious applicants, “very white names” received 50% more interview callbacks than those with “very African-American names.” A 2017 study later suggested there hasn’t been any change in the levels of discrimination against African Americans since 1989; this conclusion was, in part, based on a similar experiment featuring resumes with racial names.

But anti-black, name-based discrimination hardly halts at the labor market. Just five years ago, UCLA researchers found that people envision men with stereotypically black names as more threatening, and back in the classroom, studies have shown that teachers have low expectations for students with “more black-sounding” names. 

Such cases are merely a few examples of data that’s been gathered on this form of prejudice, and it’s important to note that the negative connotations associated with black names are, of course, a ramification of systemic anti-blackness. In the same vein, perceiving a given name such as “Shaniqua” or “Jamarcus” to be any less debonair or respectable than “Kathryn” or “Hunter” is a learned behavior similar to racial bias itself. Given names are only as invented as the rest of our language structure. Even the most individualistic ones are off-springs of another fanciful expression, and history reveals that black names were intended to be outwardly eccentric. 

The flux of African-American parents fashioning the kinds of idiosyncratic names labeled “black” today was a reflection of pride and empowerment stemming back to the civil rights era. Playing a large role in this cultural phenomenon were the Afrocentrism and Black Power movements of the 1960s and ‘70s. While the former spurred the popularity of black American parents giving their babies names of African origin—say, Ashanti or Nia—the latter also celebrated and encouraged an identity detached from Eurocentrism and assimilation.

Writing on the Black Power movement’s role in the inception of unique black names, critic Morgan Jerkins argued “African-American names became symbols of resistance… They resist uniformity and West European influence, and therefore the limiting cultural framework of how one should present his or herself.”

It was within this period that new black names were invented, and traditional ones appeared on birth certificates with new, embellished stylings. The D’Andres, Lakeishas, Symonés, and Shauntelles came to life, often paying homage to both African and French roots. La and De prefixes are said to have originated from African-American and Creole culture in New Orleans, and it’s been argued that seemingly gratuitous apostrophes in names like Mich’ele may have represented accents that weren’t yet available on American typewriters. And with the rise of the Nation of Islam’s black advocacy during the civil rights movement, both traditional Arabic names and their creatively spelled variants became increasingly popular—for instance, Shaquille is a common modification of Shakeel, which is of Arabic etymology.

So it’s unsurprising that Black Twitter en masse—in part consisting of African-American users with indefatigable black pride—places sentimental value in names seen as “ghetto” or “too black.” I contend that those who still correlate distinctive black names with negative traits or behaviors are either racists or black folks blinded by internalized racism. And in my own battle against Eurocentricity as a 23-year-old black woman, I’ve felt somewhat disconnected from my own given name. 

For clarification: Sydney Nicole is a fine name. It’s not inimitable or empowering, but it’s fine. My surname, Sweeney, is what it is—technically Scottish, but, as with the last names of most non-mixed-race African Americans, useless in any efforts to retrace my African roots. But Sydney is also a pretty white name, the kind that would make people assume that I, too, were white. And there the problem unearthed itself—in college, while I bloomed into my blackness, my given name increasingly felt like a wilted, whitish petal on an otherwise beautiful, mahogany blossom.

With an ever-expanding interest in intersectional feminism, a new circle of socially conscious friends and peers, and a modestly sized yet well-moisturized afro, I was all for fighting the power during my time at left-leaning liberal arts school. As a less gallant, more writerly version of Samantha White in Dear White People, I penned plenty of op-eds for my university’s newspaper that often derided Trump, doubted sentiments of a post-racial society, and dismissed the commodification of social justice discourse. Oh, and I memorized To Pimp a Butterfly like it was a study guide. By graduation, I knew my blackness was a sumptuous blessing rather than a burden. Still, my first name—that one pale petal—remained a constant buzzkill throughout my black-girl glow-up.

Who knows where I would be sans my white name—what opportunities would have escaped me, what trauma I’d be running from. In this sense, my dissatisfaction can read as self-indulgent or pompous, especially as many immigrant parents of color give their children white names as a means of cultural assimilation. On the contrary, my American parents decided on Sydney because, after much contemplation in 1996, they simply believed it fit.

But I’m not hesitant to acknowledge my “name privilege,” and even with such a prerogative, I’m doubtful that there’s any fault in daydreaming that, in another life, I was an Imani, Latrice, or Tanisha, all very black AF and beauteous names. And, as a 20-something, I’m naturally not too certain of my own whimsical convictions. How I feel about my given name today isn’t necessarily how I’ll feel about it as a real, grown woman 15 years from now—and I welcome that change happily.

Forever ago, I learned that English singer-songwriter Dev Hynes changed his first name from David Joseph Michael to Devonté. This decision was peculiar to me then, as it seemed rare for a black person to “ghettoize” their name, whereas “whitening” feels far more strategic. Perhaps Hynes’ name change was, truly, a plan of action—an effort to preserve his identity in white spaces like the UK and America. If so, then his choice was comparable to Cassius Clay becoming Muhammad Ali. But speculations aside, one thing is certain: the resilience of blackness. And similar to our community’s other traditions—from language to aesthetics—black names won’t go down without a fight.