What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet
Last week, Nikisia Drayton shared her fears about saddling her unborn son with a “black name” on the Motherlode blog in the New York Times. Her friends worried that the name “Keion” would be “too ethnic” or “too ghetto.” (Analyzing the use of the term “ghetto” as if it is synonymous with blackness will have to wait for another blog.) She found that when googling the name, the images that were associated with it were African American men in mug shots. Would this name, suggested by her son’s father, limit his opportunities, or worse, doom her child to appear in one of the aforementioned mug shots?
When I googled “Keion” I found no mug shots, yet I can understand Drayton’s anxiety. Everything African Americans do in this country is scrutinized, including the way we talk; the way we eat; the way we look; and, yes, the way we name children. As the owner of a name, whose non-traditional spelling has caused me a whole host of problems in my time on this earth, I feel you. Why, oh why, couldn’t my mother have spelled “Yolanda” the traditional way? Certainly, I too, have wondered whether my name is some sort of tip-off.
Being a descendant of slaves and a historian, I know that the power to name is extremely important. Our enslaved ancestors could have their names changed as often as their masters. As Olaudah Equiano writes in his slave narrative, he was assigned three different names by different masters–Jacob, Michael, and Gustavas Vassa. After achieving their freedom, former slaves often celebrated and illustrated their new status by choosing new names, different from the ones that they had as slaves. Abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth was known as Isabella when she was a slave.
As this “name game,” is being discussed on social media, I find myself thinking of The Souls of Black Folks (again). Du Bois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Some parents are indeed looking at how a child’s name will be viewed through “white eyes,” as if being less ethnically identifiable (on paper) will decrease the amount of discrimination one faces in life. In doing this, we normalize both whiteness and racism. So, instead of seeing discriminatory acts or racism as the problem, we are the problem. We are engaging in internalized “otherness.”
I hate–no despise–no loathe the insidious nature of racism. It can actually cause its victims to contemplate what they can do to neutralize the racists’ behavior. But we can not become so hypercritical of ourselves that we lose ourselves in the balance.
- Nikisia Drayton, Will a ‘Black’ Name Brand My Son With Mug Shots Before He’s Even Born?, New York Times, 18 September 2013.
- carolynedgar.com, What’s in a Name? Mugshots, Apparently, 20 September 2013
- Black Girl In Maine (blog), Black bodies, black names in a white world, 21 September 2013.
- Anika Myers Palm, What’s So Wrong With Giving Your Kid a ‘Black Name’?, Orlando Sentinel, 24 September 2013.