Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What's In A Name?

I don't read Essence very often and so I am a little late to the following story, but it still needs to be discussed.  In March, Essence published a satirical piece by Siebra Muhammad in March that declared that a judge had decided to make it illegal for Black women to name their children because of the propensity of supposedly ridiculous names. The following is a small snippet of the piece in question.
In a decision that’s expected to send shockwaves through the African-American community—and yet, give much relief to teachers everywhere—a federal judge ruled today that black women no longer have independent naming rights for their children. Too many black children—and many adults—bear names that border on not even being words, he said.

“I am simply tired of these ridiculous names black women are giving their children,” said U.S. Federal Judge Ryan Cabrera before rendering his decision. “Someone had to put a stop to it.”

The rule applies to all black women, but Cabrera singled out impoverished mothers.

“They are the worst perpetrators,” he said. “They put in apostrophes where none are needed. They think a ‘Q’ is a must. There was a time when Shaniqua and Tawanda were names you dreaded. Now, if you’re a black girl, you hope you get a name as sensible as one of those.”

Few stepped forward to defend black women—and black women themselves seemed relieved.

“It’s so hard to keep coming up with something unique,” said Uneeqqi Jenkins, 22, an African-American mother of seven who survives on public assistance. Her children are named Daryl, Q’Antity, Uhlleejsha, Cray-Ig, Fellisittee, Tay’Sh’awn and Day’Shawndra.

Beginning in one week, at least three white people must agree with the name before a black mother can name her child.

“Hopefully we can see a lot more black children with sensible names like Jake and Connor,” Cabrera said.  (continue reading)
What constitutes a sensible name?  Though this article is satire and no legal judgement has been declared, Black names have come under criticism in the mainstream. Black names are an attempt to reclaim what has been lost.  The children of the diaspora have the names of our slave owners and anglicized first names, and this is a direct result of a complete and utter loss of our culture.  To then turn around and demonize attempts to create names that reflect this loss is racist, and in the case of ridicule by other Blacks represents internalized racism.


To be honest, I have not always felt that way about these names. I thought about them as ghetto names that were far beneath me.  I even used to call Black women whom I deemed to be of low class  Shenequas, that is until one day I said this and the White people around me nodded their head in approval.  I wanted a separation between this Black woman and myself because I looked upon her as making it harder for me to make it through my day, rather than targeting the real problem - Whiteness.  These names are an attempt to reclaim what was taken from us and it is specifically because they spring from Blacks that they are ridiculed.

Each name has a cultural background and yet we do not have a problem with names like Connor, Dimitri, Alannah, Antonio, Robert, though they mark culture just as surely as Kwame and LaShawn. By encouraging us to hate and ridicule these names, Whiteness is attempting to discipline and shame Blacks, though this is not a phenomenon unique to us.  During the heyday of Ellis Island, people would often emerge to find their names changed by agents who were not patient with immigrants.  They were poor, and in many cases certainly not understood to be White, though they would be deemed so today.  If we look at the history of many people in the public eye the one trend that we can easily see is that if their names are deemed to ethnic they are changed.  Just as Frederic Austerlitz Jr.  was deemed better than Fred Astaire, even a name is bland as George Michael, is understood to be better than Georgios Kyriacos Panayiotou.  Whiteness today is still conditional upon no obvious displays of culture, though some cultures are understood be better than others. 

There is a cost beyond ridicule to having a Black name.  It has been proven repeatedly that given the choice between an anglicized name on a resume and an ethnic name, that employers will choose to interview the person with the anglicized name, even in cases where the resumes have similar education and employment history. There is also a stigma of poverty attached to the name.  The more that a person of colour is able to conform to Whiteness, the greater chance they have of financial success.  A Black name is considered by many to be an albatross. Instead on focusing on these names, we should be turning our attention to why these names bring about such ire.  The urge discipline and shame someone into conforming never comes from a place of helpfulness, rather it arises from a desire to ensure that there is someone lower on the pyramid of hierarchy than you.