The Culture of Naming

What's in a Name?

Like a lot of people I have never been very fond of my name. When I was a little girl I wanted a feminine name like Stacy or Kimberley, but what I got lacked clear gender classification. For the life of me I couldn't understand what my parents were thinking when they named me.

In my mind's eye I imagine the day I was born, my parents smiling at their new baby girl, while I coo contently from a hospital bassinet. My eyes must have implored them to search their hearts for a cute name. Unfortunately, they assumed the sparkle in my eyes to be gas, and my cooing fell upon deaf ears.

There was any number of women in the family they could have named me after. With all the possibilities at their finger tips they took the less artistic route, giving me a sexually androgynous, milquetoast moniker like Terri.

Growing up I felt as if I was drowning in a sea of little girls with pony tails and pretty names. And here I was with a boy’s name. I always felt like an oddity, less feminine than other girls.

I'd cry and beg my parents to change my name, but, my tears were always met with the same old tired response, "Just wait 'til you get older, you're gonna love your name".

Well…I'm waiting.

I was jealous of every female playmate I met with a nice name. From my neighbors Tina and Stephanie, to schoolmates Kelly and Denise it seemed their parents checked the gender of their babies, or maybe they picked up on the eye signals from the hospital bassinet.

Children hopped up on Twinkies at recess are at their most evil. They can find the most innocuous things to tease another child over. I was teased relentlessly for having a boy’s. When one of my friends called out for me on the playground 3 or 4 boys with my name would come running right alongside me. Sometimes I think I would have been better off with the name Dexter.

Naming a child has evolved so, and there are so very many to choose from now. While some are inspired others strive to be unique, but in the end are only baffling.

The name game is a fascinating practice that definitely draws a line between not only the races, but the classes too. White parents often take names that have long been gender specific only to make them gender neutral. Case in point is the number of males and females with the name Ashley. Something else often done by white parents is taking a surname like Morgan, Cooper or Addison and using it as a first name for a girl.

While it has become fashionable to name their little boys characteristically aristocratic European names, like Sterling and Alexander, it is not unusual for them to dip into the cultural melting pot to scoop out the name Jaden.

I'm mystified by how some black parents can come up with so many complex, polysyllabic, compound consonant names. If you need an example just turn on The Maury Povich Show.

Spellings are another topic all together and I can only relate it to our innate way of connecting sounds and beats. Centuries ago the method of naming African children was through sounds, not in names using an alphabet, as the practice is now. Through evolution the style and substance may be more developed, but the principles of rhythm are still there. There’s often a melody in a black child’s name, a rhyme so to speak.

Whether due to trend or it’s to pander to some idealistic wish for a material windfall, but, it's not uncommon for young parents to give their children names like Lexus, Armani or Mercedes. Perhaps homage to the product itself or as a high five to the marketing capabilities of Madison Avenue, but product allegiance can certainly influence the name of the black child.

Having a historically and/or ancestrally relevant name is unquestionably a badge of honor, but, naming ones child after a luxury item, or worse; an alcoholic beverage can only suggest product promotion at best.

In the early 1970s we were still riding high on the wave of the Civil Rights Movement. We were encouraged to be more informed in the customs and traditions of the Motherland. Out went "do rags and Processes" as we proudly adopted the natural look for our hair and enthusiastically welcomed all things African, and we sported colorful dashikis with our fists raised high.

Along with our new sense of pride in our African culture came a subtle shift in the names we gave our children. As we became more knowledgeable in the African Diaspora our eyes opened to the importance of embracing the country that was responsible for giving us our melanin, our rhythm, and our innate sense of family and community. Many an adult laid down their, supposed, slave names to take on more Afro centric ones. We were learning the importance of a name.

Stevie Wonder is directly responsible for opening the door to generations of Aisha's when he sang his mega hit "Isn't She Lovely". The song was written to both welcome his daughter, Aisha to the world and express gratitude to his wife for Aisha’s birth. The proud father tells us the meaning of his daughters name is "life". Note to parents: It's imperative that you know what the name means.

Within a short time it was not uncommon to hear names like Tamika, Tamu, which is Swahili for sweet and, even Aisha resonating from many a double-dutch jump rope games. In time teachers taking attendance didn't have to distinguish the 3 or 4 Michael's in her classroom. Those familiar names were being replaced by names like Hakim, Rashid and Imani, to name a few.

Black parents learned to be creative with the alphabet in, what appeared to be, a competitive name game. Changing the letters in names like Anthony and Keith gave way to more elaborate spellings, and AnThonee, or Anfernee and Keyth were born. Names like Tony, Bobby, and Leroy were thought to be old school and were kicked to the proverbial curb, so to speak, in favor of the more culturally relevant Kwame and KeSean.

With our African influence in our pockets parents adopted names that sounded rooted in the Motherland, - the operative word being, sounded. In reality they were just an assortment of upper and lower cased letters. There was often little or no significance to the name in terms of custom, or tradition, nor was there any connection to Africa.

Within a few generations parents went from gender specific names like John, Michael, and Tracy, and yes, even Terri, to the complex DuSean, Keyanna, and ShaQueeta.

There are a number of positives to giving children culturally relevant names born of the proud traditions and history of Africa, self esteem for one. A child's self esteem can only thrive when he/she is included in something as extraordinary as Africa's history. He learns of the broader picture, in that he is included in the heritage of a continent. He is no longer just a member of a color class. That being said, parents have the remarkable task of passing on names of another culture to their child.

Names from the mother continent are cherished. There is longevity and pedigree within every letter. They are not arbitrary names tossed thoughtlessly in haste from a slave masters tongue. These names are embedded with the blood and sweat of perseverance and tenacity. They echo the cries of a history that should not be bastardized or taken lightly, but revered. With that in mind, I imagine there are not many Africans with the names DuSean or LaQueeta walking the sweltering sands of The Sudan.

Maybe we have come to a place in our evolution as a people where parents should ask themselves if we do our children a disservice by giving them culturally relative names. As parents we are accountable for preparing them for their future, a future that may not welcome them with open arms. Is it more important that we give them names that are trendy as opposed to names that help assure security in their future?

Sadly, parity is not automatic. Even with the articles of The Constitution in place it was still necessary to institute laws to protect blacks from biased practices; unfortunately, those laws don't protect us from biased people. In the land of human resources it is often these very people who have the power over the proverbial red pen in terms of employment. The name on the heading of our resume is the only thing that represents us when we apply for work, and it can open or close the door to a job.

When we choose to give our children names that clearly suggest race or creed unfortunately it tends to predispose another to a general interpretation of that person. No longer is the applicant the MBA seeking to advance, or the impressive candidate with the Ivy League education. They immediately, by name alone, become the stereotype, or the screaming "baby mama" from The Maury Show, posturing and strutting about while awaiting the results of, yet another, paternity test. A name can implant an image in an already biased way of thinking.

Sure, names given to children because they sound cute may be fine on the playground, when a child has nothing to worry about except being in the house before the street lights come on. When that child reaches maturity and tries to take that name into adulthood and the workplace the powers that be may suggest something else.

Like it or not, the heading on a resume can be a significant factor in whether that employer sends that applicant up the corporate ladder, or to the circular file. It can happen as quickly as an available apartment suddenly going POOF at the prospect of a minority tenant!

In hindsight, maybe my parents had the right idea in naming me. So what, my name isn't cute and feminine, but, I'm not the girlie type anyway. I like baseball too much to be an Angela or a Stephanie or a Desiree’, with an accent on the "e". On second thought Terri is fine with me. It looks good on the top of my resume’, no accent on the "e" in Terri.

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SOBF profile image

SOBF 6 years ago from New York, NY

Enjoyable read...

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