What's up with black names, anyway?

From Tayshaun to Rau'shee, Olympic athletes have been a reminder of distinctive African-American names. Before you poke fun, here's a history lesson.

Published August 25, 2008 10:57AM (EDT)

A twin brother and sister entered the world on July 12 and were bestowed these names: Knox Leon and Vivienne Marcheline. Considering they were born to a celebrity couple, namely Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, these little ones dodged a serious bullet. Others born into the tiny victimized class of the celebrity baby have not been so lucky, and the wee Jolie-Pitts will surely be grateful if they ever share a sandbox with Freedom and Reignbeau, Ving Rhames' children, or Pilot Inspektor, Jason Lee's child, or Jermajesty, Jermaine Jackson's son.

Ridiculous names: Sure, we all joke about them, but they're real, and sometimes they're illegal. In some places, the severity of the names has provoked government action: In Venezuela, a 2007 bill tried to limit names to an approved list of 100, with the intent of putting an end to names like Hitler Adonys and Batman. More recently, a New Zealand judge made the poor 9-year-old Talula Does the Hula From Hawaii a ward of the court, just so she could change her name. And a New Mexico court in June prevented a man from legally changing his name to "Fuck Censorship!"

That was probably a wise decision. But with creative names, as with all creative enterprises, there is wheat and there is chaff; all too often, the former is cast aside with the latter. And nowhere is this more true than with the particular case of names given to African-Americans.

That African-Americans have a tendency to buck more common names is obvious. Take a quick glance down the Olympic roster. It is the black names that disproportionately stand out: Tayshaun, Deron, Rau'shee, Raynell, Deontay, Taraje, Jozy, Kerron, Hyleas, Chaunte, Bershawn, Lashawn, Sanya, Trevell, Sheena, Ogonna, Dremiel. You can safely bet that NBC's commentators practiced these a few more times in the mirror than the name "Michael Phelps." And, indeed, black Americans have spearheaded and continue to lead the trend of creative naming in this country, even if they haven't garnered as many headlines as Gwyneth Paltrow. Creative naming has reached every race and class, but "it is largely and profoundly the legacy of African-Americans," writes Eliza Dinwiddie-Boyd in her baby-naming book "Proud Heritage." Shalondra and Shaday, Jenneta and Jonelle, Michandra and Milika -- in some parts of the country today, nearly a third of African-American girls are given a name belonging to no one else in the state (boys' names tend to be somewhat more conservative).

Such onomastic inventiveness has irked more than a few observers. Not long ago, a news item with the headline "Federal Judge: Enough With the Stupid Names" began to circulate in many people's inboxes. The judge, declaring that he was fed up with black children's "ridiculous names," apparently issued an order requiring black women to receive approval from three whites before naming their babies. "They put in apostrophes where none are needed," fumed the judge. "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." Soon, according to the article, elementary school teachers were expressing relief. No longer would they have to wonder in panic on the first day of school, "How do I pronounce Q'J'Q'Sha?"

The story, as you may have guessed, was satire (its origin, a comedy site called the Peoples News). It succeeded, though, in duping many of its readers, some of whom wrote in to say they agreed with at least the sentiment behind the judge's decision. The matter had "gotten out of control," wrote one. We need to address mothers' mental health, wrote another. The comments reveal that many people indeed believe that distinctive black names are deserving of not merely ridicule but also regulation.

They're not. The story of distinctive black names in the U.S. is far richer, more varied and interesting than the celebrity's mere pathological dread of appearing normal. From the beginning, many black Americans had distinctive names. The weirdly classical Caesar was a particularly common slave name, bestowed, it would seem, by slaveholders with a profoundly unfunny sense of irony. And sometimes distinctive slave names were carried out of Africa and preserved: Some African societies name children after the day of the week they were born, and "there is a preponderance of day names among the leaders of the very early slave revolts," writes Joey Lee Dillard in "Black Names." From early on, then, some distinctive black names were tied to black resistance against white oppression.

Distinctive black naming persisted through the centuries; the folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett turned up thousands of such names culling records from 1619 to the mid-1940s, names like Electa, Valantine and Zebedee. But by and large, it remained a minority practice within black culture, and most black names weren't all that different from those given to whites. Then, in the 1960s, something changed, resulting in an unprecedented spike in black creative names, to the point where just a few years ago, "Freakonomics" authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner noted that "nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among the names of every baby, white and black, born that year in California."

What happened? The dates, of course, are suggestive. 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. 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.) Islam began in these years to have a clear influence, too, most visibly with Cassius Clay adopting the name Muhammad Ali in 1964. Others followed suit, including two fellows named Lew Alcindor and LeRoi Jones, whom you know as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Amiri Baraka. Around this time, an American boy named Barack Hussein Obama would be born. His given names, of Semitic origin, mean "blessed" and "good." Soon, out of these more political traditions grew a new one of creating names whose sounds the parents merely found pleasing.

White ridicule kept pace with these names and even preceded them: A racist tradition dating to at least the early part of the 20th century has accused black people of having foolish names -- often, goes the story, the result of an uneducated mother overhearing a medical term at the hospital and thinking it pretty. Interestingly, though, much of the recent backlash against black names has come from the black community itself. The Peoples News is written by African-Americans. In March, the black blogger behind Stuff Black People Hate posted a denunciation of "stupid names," which he took the care to subcategorize into "Swahili Bastardizations" (Shaquan), "Luxury Latch-ons" (Prada), "Megalomaniacal Descriptors" (Heaven) and "The Unfathomably Ridiculous" (Anfernee). More than five months after its posting, a thread of feisty commentary still runs in response. Hating on black names is hardly a phenomenon confined to a small corner of the black blogosphere. Bill Cosby a few years back ranted at the NAACP about blacks "with names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed and all that crap and all of them are in jail."

Much of this ridicule is either misguided or misleading. Exhibit A in the attack on black names is often a story about black schoolchildren that some friend of a friend met named Urine or Shithead, Chlamydia or Gonorrhea, or Lemonjello or Oranjello. Neither Lieberson nor Cleveland Evans (former president of the American Names Society) has ever encountered black people with such names, but Lieberson notes that the (white) comedian Dana Carvey chose the name Dex for his child after a bottle with the word "dextrose" on it, and Evans has more than once encountered a young woman on a baby name Web site (most often visited by whites) who rather likes the ring to the name Veruca, a character from "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." Roald Dahl chose that name carefully for the bratty girl he assigned it to: It's a medical term for a wart.

As for those "Luxury Latch-ons," it is true that an unfortunate culture of naming children after brands of champagne or fancy cars has sprung up over recent years. "But that's a class thing, not a race thing," says Cleveland Evans, noting that he has encountered twins named Camry and Lexus who were white. If you are poor and wish a better life for your kid, a name like Lexus declares that hope. With this in mind, much of the gainsaying in the black blogosphere smacks of classism: Many commenters call the unusual names "ghetto," and Cosby's jeremiad was essentially an attack on the black poor. His assertion that "all of them are in jail" is, to say the least, dubious; an economic study by "Freakonomics'" Levitt and Roland G. Fryer showed several years ago that distinctively black names in themselves do not cause a negative life outcome -- vivid evidence of which is seen on the Olympic roster and at the Democratic National Convention.

Of course, the vast majority of unusual black names are nothing like Clitoria or Tanqueray. They are names like -- to page at random through "Proud Heritage" -- the catchy Maneesha and Tavonda, the magisterial Orencio and Percelle, or the evocative Lakazia and Swanzetta. They are names emerging from a tradition of linguistic and musical invention much like those that gave us jazz and rap. And they are names that have paved the way for Americans of all classes and colors to begin to loosen up a stodgy culture of traditional name giving. The census data show that whites, too, are increasingly looking for distinctive names. (To their credit, it seems like the Mormons, like blacks, were also ahead of the curve on this one, if this amazing list is to be believed.)

So the next time you are tempted to ridicule a name of any color -- black, white, red, celebrity, whatever -- it would be generous, and prudent, to do a bit of research. Follow the lead, for instance, of the woman who maintains this Web site that lovingly collects absurd-sounding baby names. She takes care to (sometimes) fact-check her and her readers' mockery. Recently someone presented the name "Shahaadah" to her as a candidate for ridicule: "Disqualified!" she wrote. "'Shahaadah' is the first pillar of Islam ... for a Muslim, this is a beautiful and meaningful name."

But a bit later, she added this: "Update! We've heard back from our operative ... who reports Shahaadah is a Christian, complete with WWJD bracelet. So we can put this one back in the WTF column."

By David Zax

David Zax is a writer living in Washington, DC. His name, a megalomaniacal descriptor meaning "beloved," comes from a Biblical figure noted for his slingshot marksmanship.


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