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Voices / Essay

A name is just a name?

Broadening our understanding of Black names

Shanta Lee Gander is an artist and multi-faceted professional in areas of marketing, management, event planning, and other areas. Among many other projects, she serves as the president of the Arts Council of Windham County Board.

“I remember there once was a day

when I wished my mother would’ve stuck to something simple and pretty and majestic

like Tiffany or maybe even Alexis.

But my fate was sealed by signatures on my birth certificate,

granting me the right to forever bear the shame of having been given a ghetto a** name.

So this here poem is for all the little Black girls with big names.

For the “sha”s and “isha”s, the “ana”s and “iqua”s

who were told never to write their names on applications,

for fear of experiencing discrimination...

—Excerpt from “To All the Little Black Girls with Big Names,” by Sha’Condria Sibley

Brattleboro

This story starts with a conversation I was having with my husband about what might be referenced as “Black names.”

I showed him “To All the Little Black Girls with Big Names,” a piece by spoken-word poet Sha’Condria “iCon” Sibley which encouraged me to think differently about what might be referenced as “Black names.”

Most of us have either commented about Black names consciously or subconsciously without giving much thought about the roots of our bias or reactions.

As we watched Sibley, I outed myself as being just as guilty for accusing Black Americans of doing ridiculous things that caused white society to continually stereotype us. My friends and I would make all sorts of jokes centered around stereotypical Black names.

“That is an interesting point,” my husband said. “How did we get from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka?” Was the poet’s name change linked to the Civil Rights era, he wondered.

I became more curious about some of the research on this topic in addition to thinking about my own insights about my own given name.

How did we get from LeRoi Jones to Amiri Baraka?

* * *

I never gave much thought to why certain patterns emerged for Black names. In fact, I always sided with Bill Cosby’s outlook in his harsh critique of the Black community.

Back in 2004 (before we all found out about his dirty laundry), at an NAACP awards convention, Cosby stated “We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans; they don’t know a damned thing about Africa. With names like Shaniqua, Shaligua, Mohammed, and all that crap — and all of them are in jail.”

Similarly, I often wondered why names had to be associated with brands or be presented in such a way that prevented any understanding from an outside group.

However, both Sibley’s spoken-word piece and the ensuing conversation inspired me to think about the harm and bias I was inflicting by refusing to look below the surface of names in the Black community.

Many have undertaken the challenge of researching the origins of Black names over time.

One study, “Distinctively Black Names in the American Past,” took a historical route, gathering names between the late 19th and early 20th centuries using death and census records in Alabama, Illinois, and North Carolina.

Though the researchers acknowledged that the data set was limited, they show us the use of distinct names in the Black community that predate the modern pattern — prior to the Civil Rights era. Some examples: “Freeman,” “Prince,” “Master,” “Booker,” and “King.”

It is dangerous to assume a direct correlation between the pattern of Black names during any era. However, we can begin to make the connections between naming patterns and the political statements or personal identity that is being crafted by distinct names.

In another study, “The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names,” naming patterns in the Black community were linked to various social factors that impacted African-Americans at the time: segregation, poverty patterns, and the rise of the Civil Right movement, along with a rediscovery of African roots.

Within certain distinct time frames in Black history, like the 1960s and 70s, individuals also chose to rename themselves. Most famously, Cassius Clay became Muhammed Ali. In Baraka’s case, the poet changed his name from LeRoi to Ameri.

Perhaps the names, both given and chosen, can be seen as a barometer for what is central to the Black community within a given span of time.

What do the names that Black people give themselves and their children reveal to us about the Black community if we allow ourselves to explore the culture beyond the lenses constructed by a racist society?

* * *

I can share my intimate knowing of names. My brother has four, including his surname. My mother always said that she wanted to add another name but that there was not enough space on the birth certificate.

My mother took great pride in telling me the meaning of my name in random conversations. Like taking firm instruction from a seer or an edict from a mad woman, I learned about every part of my name.

“It is French and Swahili, it means ‘to sing’ and ‘to dance,’” she would tell me; I knew that my middle name, Lee, is a homage to my Grandmother Leola. My mother would also proudly declare the meaning of my name to strangers who would ask about its origins. She would take credit like a proud artist of a new creation.

Over the years, I discovered that “Shanta” had other meanings in other cultures. Within the Indian culture, it means “peace.”

“Shanta” also appears as the name of a character in the ancient Indian epic, the Ramayana.

Thus, the concept of my name being a Black name might be inaccurate. Much of the research also warns us not to categorize names that seem to be unique within the Black community.

I also thought of other purposes served through choosing a name. The concept of rite of passage or any clear marking of time is vacant in the Black community, along with any direct path to one’s history.

In my experience, I knew more about my own name did I ever did about my family history. While this can’t be assumed for all Black families, there is some truth to the challenges of being able to easily connect to one’s roots as a person of color.

Perhaps a name is the easiest and quickest way for parents to connect their children with any sense of meaning, lineage, or reclamation of identity.

* * *

Names are also very much about language. In her spoken-word piece “3 Ways to Speak English,” poet and intellectual Jamila Lyiscott encourages us to think about the gatekeepers of language, especially as they relate to cultures of color — a concept that can also be applied to Black names. Within any given moment, who decides what names are more appropriate or acceptable than others, and why?

The web of how and why of Black names is so complicated and as sordid as the history that perhaps the name alone is what is used as an act of boldness.

In other words, beyond shaping and crafting identity, Black names dare us all to pay attention while they attempt to give the bearer of that name a crown to wear.

I may not know my history or realize the deepness of my roots, but I know my name, I know the meaning of it, and I say it with great pride.

And to echo Sha’Condria Sibley, I hope that all little Black girls and boys step forward and shed any shame about their names.

Even if society has yet to understand.

What do you think? Leave us a comment

Editor’s note: Our terms of service require you to use your real names. We will remove anonymous or pseudonymous comments that come to our attention. We rely on our readers’ personal integrity to stand behind what they say; please do not write anything to someone that you wouldn’t say to his or her face without your needing to wear a ski mask while saying it. Thanks for doing your part to make your responses forceful, thoughtful, provocative, and civil. We also consider your comments for the letters column in the print newspaper.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #396 (Wednesday, February 22, 2017).

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