Sunday, May 24, 2015

Comments About Distinctive African American Names (Which I Don't Call "Ghetto Names")

Edited by Azizi Powell

This is part of an ongoing series on distinctive African American names and naming practices. Other posts in this series can be accessed by clicking the "distinctive African American names" tab below.

This post features three excerpts of online articles/blog posts with comments about African American names and naming practices, with a particular focus on distinctive, and often newly created African American names.

The content of this post is presented for cultural, linguistic, and sociological purposes.

All copyrights remain with their owners.

Thanks to all those who are quoted in this post.

This pancocojams series provides examples and comments about African American naming traditions, including my speculations about why many African Americans have preferred and, in some cases, still prefer certain prefixes and certain suffixes. For example, it's my premise that the large subset of 19th century and, in particular, 20th & 21st century distinctive Black (African American) names that begin with "sh" or "ch" can be at least partially explained by 1. the existence of a large number of Arabic names and traditional African language names that begin with one of those sounds, and 2. the existence of pre-1960s mainstream American names and distinctive Black American names that begin with one of those sounds and 3. the mass media attention given to some people or products with those names from the 1970s on.

I was one of the African Americans in the late 1960s who were interested in finding lists of African names so that we could change our "slave names" (birth names from European languages or from Hebrew) to "free names" (names from Arabic or traditional African languages.) In those early days of the Black power movement with its interest in African cultures there was no internet and lists of African names were hard to come by. I recall people in the Committee For Unified Newark, (the cultural nationalist group that I belonged to which eventually was headed by poet, playwright, activist Amiri Baraka, formerly Le Roi Jones), sharing mimeographed (reprinted) copies of African names that we happened to come by. Many of those names were from the Arabic language and others were from KiSwahili, which is largly based on Arabic. I'm not aware of any book of African names that was published before The Book of African Names (As Told by Chief Osuntoki) was published in 1970. In 1972 another book of African names was published - Names from Africa: Their Origin, Meaning, and Pronunciation by Ogonna Chuks-orji helped introduce African Americans to names from traditional African languages. I owned both of those books, but unfortunately, The Book of African Names (As Told by Chief Osuntoki) has gone missing. Some names from that second book is included in the pancocojams post on traditional African names that begin or end with "sh" or "ch".

More information about the presence of the Arabic language in African is included in the upcoming pancocojams post on Arabic & African language names that begin with "Sh" or "Ch".

These quotes are presented in somewhat random order. They are numbered for referencing purposes only. I also added a brief editorial comment regarding quote #1 & #2.
Quote #1:
The Quarterly Journal Of Economics "The Causes and Consequences of Distinctive Black Names"
Ronld G. Fyrer, Jr. and Steven D. Levitt
Vol CXIX August 2004, Issue 3
“In the 1960s Blacks and Whites choose relatively similar first names for their children. Over a short period of time in the early 1970s, that pattern changed dramatically with most Blacks (particularly those living in racially isolated neighborhoods) adopting increasingly distinctive names, but a subset of Blacks actually moving toward more assimilating names. The patterns in this data appear most consistent with a model in which the rise of the Black power movement influenced how Blacks perceived their identities. Among Blacks born in the last two decades, names provide a strong signal of socioeconomic status, which was not previously the case. We find, however, no negative relationship between having a distinctive Black name and later life outcomes after controlling for a child’s circumstances at birth.”
[The researchers] used data that covered every child born in California in the past four decades. “We first document the stark differences between Black and White name choices in recent years. For example, more than 40% of the Black girls born in California in recent years received a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 White girls born in California that year was given. Even among popular names, racial patterns are pronounced. Names such as DeShawn, Tyrone, Reginald, Shanice, Precious, Kiara, and Deja are quite popular among Blacks but virtually unheard of for Whites. The opposite is true for names such as Connor, Cody, Jake, Molly, Emily, Abigail, and Caitlin. Each of these names appear in at least 2,000 cases (between 1989- 2000) with less than two percent of the recipients Black. Overall, Black choices of first names differ substantially more from Whites than do the names chosen by native born Hispanics and Asians."...

Quote #2

"Question: Ethnic and Cultural Differences: It is relatively common for African-Americans to have given names that appear to have been coined by their mothers, whereas it is very uncommon for others. What is the explanation?"

Jon Pennington
"Answer: In his book A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashion, and Culture Change, the sociologist Stanley Lieberson attributes the increase in unique African-American names during the 1960s to greater black cultural pride in the context of the U.S. civil rights and black power movements:
Throughout the twentieth century, black parents were somewhat more disposed than white parents to give their children names they had invented. The gaps, however, were modest. Beginning in the 1960s, there is an unprecedented rise in invented names for African-American children (daughters more than sons). Among African Americans in 1989, for example, 29 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys born in Illinois were given unique names (fig. 3.2; source: Lieberson and Mikelson 1995, 930). By contrast, 5 percent of white girls and 3 percent of white boys have such names.

This change in Illinois is not caused by the migration of blacks from south to north. And there is evidence to show that this taste for invented names is not a historic one—at least to this extent. In fact, as we shall see, the timing of this development suggests an influence stemming from the broad and intense social and political changes beginning in the 1960s, a period marked by intensified social protest, a renewed emphasis on a distinctive and valued African-American culture, and black separatism (Lieberson and Mikelson 1995).

Lieberson gives several examples of how black pride and black culture influenced naming practices among African-Americans after the 1960s, not just for invented names. When the African-American miniseries Roots became a ratings blockbuster in 1977, the character Kizzy, played by actress Leslie Uggams, was so popular that Kizzy became the 17th most popular name for black girls in the state of Illinois almost overnight. Marcus was the 164th most popular name for black boys in 1956, but became the 13th most popular name for black boys in 1970, as a result of increasing interest in the early 20th century pan-Africanist and black separatist, Marcus Garvey. Islamic names previously popular in the Arabic-speaking world also became popular among African-Americans, due to the increasing prominence of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Finally, another factor was the publication of baby name books that encouraged African-American parents to choose distinctive names for their children, such as this book on African names originally published in 1970: [picture of the cover of The Book Of African Names As Told by Chief Osuntoki]."
While I agree that there has been a huge increase in the selection of what mainstream America views as "non-standard American" names since the 1ate 1960s/early 1970s, long before those decades African Americans had personal names that were different than the names that Anglo-Americans gave their children. Documentation of that is found in Eliza Dinwiddle-Boyd’s 1994 book: Proud Heritage: 11,001 Names For Your African American Baby (New York, Avon Books). In that book Dinwiddle-Boyd cites names from Newbell Niles Puckett's Names of American Negro Slaves (1937). Examples of some of those names -which Dinwiddle-Boyd often refers to as "unusual names" are included in an upcoming pancocojams post on distinctive African American names that begin with "Sh" or "Ch".

Quote #3:
"I Gave My Daughter A Ghetto Name And i Regret It" November 8, 2013
Summary: An African American mother named Diamonte writes that she was seventeen years old when she gave her daughter what she wrote is believes is "now considered an ethnic name (I think this is a politically correct way of saying “ghetto name". The mother wrote:
"My daughter’s name is Qui Ante’ (pronounced Kee-on-tay). It means brave warrior and is also a combination of my name and her dad’s name. For my moms who are also wine aficionados, you’ll notice it is very similar to Chianti. I assure you, that part is purely coincidental.

When I gave my daughter her name, I honestly wasn’t thinking about how it would look on a resume. I was 17 and wanted something unique that had meaning and a little pizzazz. Like my name, Diamonte, which means diamond in Spanish. Needless to say, her name has that in spades. At the time, it sounded cute, so I went with it. When I got older, and the bias in the world became more apparent to me, I began to feel a sense of regret and began researching the name change process. I haven’t done anything with the information because I felt it something she should decide for herself, but I still wanted to know what options would be available to her should the time come where she needs to change it."
There are 420 comments to date. I've selected 26 comments to re-post here that are somewhat representative of that discussion thread, although I admit that I selected more comments whose positions I agree with than comments I don't agree with. I believe that readers can probably guess which positions those are.

All but one of these comments are from 2013. These comments may not be in sequential order.

a. Candeice Llovely
"Allow her to be proud of her name, who cares what others think or say....she'll grow up with what you call a ethic name while pursuing her Master's degree and reaching for the stars : )) God bless"

b. DontAskStillTell
"You shouldn't put a social boundary on your child that she would have to fill out some resume. I have a unique name myself and I've had no problems finding great paying jobs. However, why not raise your child to be self-employed, innovative, fashion designer or more. There's a world outside of the 9-5 where a person doesn't have to change their name, ethnic root or personality to fit in. They make their own way. Let it go and let Qui Qui be.:

c. LouLouB
"I think a lot of people a missing the point. Being ashamed of a ghetto name doesn't mean you're ashamed of being black. There's a difference between the two.

To me names like Issac and Earl are black sounding names but they're not ghetto. La'Quisha etc sounds ghetto. A similar thing (to a lesser extent) can happen to white people. With a name like Kyleigh or Kaihden some people will assume they were born to teenage parents or are uneducated etc.

A name says a lot to many, whether we like it or not."

d. Betts
"My mother named my daughter Aneesha (Agnus of God) Charmon(charming), she closed her eyes & said yes this is beautiful to hear on the playground, or to call her from outside. Now, if she was teased or not about her name or her skin color, I still gave her the confidence she needed. She is 21 & constantly tells me I prepared her for the world & life."

e. Jessica-Lynn Sage
"sounds like another black woman focused on others' opinions. so you named your child an eccentric name.... it's not ghetto, it's different. and your child is an individual, unlike any other.

it seems when most people name their children they focus too much on "if they'll be able to get a job". why is that the primary concern?? whatever happened to naming your child based on the bond you've created w/ the fetus and what you intuitively feel suits them. Qui Ante may end up being a brilliant, game-changing entrepreneur not even remotely interested in getting a 'nine to five'. Qui Ante could be a trailblazer for women who have unique names and learn to step into their divinity rather than shrink and try to conform.

i say Mama did a great job naming her daughter and Qui Ante has big shoes too fill (based on the meaning of her name), but as long as her mother regrets her name then it could certainly make it difficult for Qui Ante to come into her own."

"There's nothing wrong with an ethnic sounding name but that is different from a ghetto name. I have an ethnic name and although the name was often mispelled and to this day still people have mispronounced it, i love it.

BUT there are names that have nothing to do with ethnicity just plain silliness like being named after luxury items or just trying a lil too hard to be original like Sha_naynay, Nyquila, Obamaneisha and even Taquila....why would we want our kids to stand out like that /??? I have given my kids strong names that are original and with meaning but that will not give anyone pause on if this child is 'hood'. This is of course my personal choice as it is another mom's choice to name her child Nyquila ...i just beleive that every choice i make for my child should not be to be to be cute or different but to matter and to help them int he course of their lives."

g. cantaloupe w you
"My name is La'Shanta Knowles and yes I have a ghetto name. I'm not going to change my name because some idiot assume that I'm a stereotype. So if an employer sees that I have 6 years experience in Graphic Design, has a 4 year degree, but fails to call me for an interview because of my name then I consider that a blessing in disguise because that company might not be a good fit for me.

I love me. I respect me and I respect the name my mom gave me. Perhaps I have too much pride, but I'm not going to change for corporate America."

h. Val > I cantaloupe w you
"I agree with everything you said except your name being ghetto. It's not ghetto, it's just an African American name."

i. StansArePsychotic
"My name is Omolara and I can easily shorten it to Lara and it will be no problem. All of my friends with ghetto names hate it and they use their non-ghetto names (Michelle, Linda, Lisa, Melissa etc) instead. Stop naming your children ghetto names that they late grow up to loathe. Almost all of my friends with ghetto names shorten them or use their middle name (if it's not ghetto)."

j. ogunsiron > StansArePsychotic [2014]
Your name may be foreign but at least it's a real name (yoruba, right?).
Those are way more respected than hood names that mean nothing except "my parents are stupid".

k. ohthatswhatyouthought
"Pizzazz"? I will never understand why people give their children ghetto names to make them feel special. You don't think your child is special enough already?

l. Japera
"It is a very unfortunate reality that those of us with less racially ambiguous names have some sort of built in inferiority complex. Here's the real: If many of our ancestors in America had not been stripped of their identities, many of our parents and grandparents would not have to try so hard to "create" names that signify some desire for individuality and some sort of identity. My name is Japera... no one knows what the hell that means nor whether I am a male or female... most butcher the name when attempting to pronounce it.. and you know what.... I love it! Every time I get the opportunity to tell someone how to correctly pronounce my name, I give them this story: "My name is Jah-per-ay. I was named in a naming ceremony several days after my birth. In some West-African cultures people wait a few days to name children and name them according to birth order, personality, family history etc. In west african cultures it would be pronounced as phonically written, but my parents wanted to add a little flare. I was named Japera because I am the last of four children; my name means 'we are finished.' Although my parents are not clear from which West-African culture my name originates, they are sure one on thing... no more children after me!" I love my name! I love my story and if I had some multi-syllabic name that was a mixture of my relatives or my mom's favorite beverage I'd LOVE that too! All of our names have a story! Maybe ask your parents the story and embrace it! If WE are uncomfortable with who we are, we give THEM permission to be uncomfortable and discriminatory too!"

m. mimi
"Hmmm what sounds better a nice, respectable job with great pay? Or stuck at minimum wage place struggling to make ends meet working with La'Quisha and Anfernee? Sometimes you have to bite your tongue and swallow your pride, it's called growing up! Yes, it sucks to be profiled and sometimes being profiled over as something as little as a name. But I rather much take the job that's gonna look great on my resume and help me get by in life.

n. Truly S. > mimi [2014]
"OK then--don't ever name your daughter something like Condoleeza. She'll be behind a fast-food counter all her life. :-)"
This facetious comment refers to Condeleeza Rice, an African American female with a distinctive first name who was the United States Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.

o. ogunsiron
"Akintundes and Olabumni's don't have the bad reputation of deVandre and LaCoochia. There's a difference between being black and being a low class hoodrat. People discriminate against names that scream "hood" and that's very rational.

There are more classic names that are used almost only by black people like Karl or Clarence or Percy and I don't think those blacks have it hard because those names scream "middle class or upper middle class black" and, what do you want, that's probably a better origin than "projects".

If you dont want to hurt your kid don't name them "I'm from the projects and my mom was a single mom and we were 5 all with different daddies".
This commenter-whose name (or at least the first part of his name) is Yoruba (Nigerian) gives two other Yoruba names and argues that names from other languages aren't what he calls "hoodrat". His comments reveals the stereotypes that he holds for lower income Black people.

p. Guest > Val
[This was written in response to Val's comment which I'm summarizing as 'All names are made up and all names are ethnic; White names are also ethnic names although people don't refer to them as ethnic names.'.
"I get your point. Just as people have the right to raise their own kids as they choose, they should have the right to name them as they choose. But, I believe the thing a parent has to keep in mind when naming their children is: do I plan for my child to be with just me the rest of their life, or go out into a tough world and be around other people? People can do as they please; there are just consequences to everything we do. This is often what guides a parent's decisions in how they raise their children, or name them. Most people would probably make a different choice, if they could look into the future and see the grief their child would suffer because of their name.
It's not just "ghetto" names. Kids named, Apple, Moxie Crimefighter, and North West, are likely going to be pretty ticked off at their parents one day, for naming them like science experiments. There was a time when people thought it was cute - mostly in the south - to give girls boy mother included. Tommy, Billy, Jimmie, Frankie, etc. My sister's given name, is one of those names, and she never thought it was cute when her mail arrived addressed to Mr. ______. She was named in the traditon of women in my mother's family. But, my sister has always considered having to explain that she is a woman with a male name, a bane to her existence.

I try to imagine how the names preceded by Le, La, and De evolved into what are now considered ghetto names, I suppose that people originally thought those prefixes made the names sound French or Spanish. LeRoy is not a name you hear much these days, but at least it's a derivative of 'Le Roi', which is French for 'The King'. But, names can become fodder for ridicule, when someone begins putting prefixes that mean 'the' or 'of' in front of sounds that have no documented meanings. The...wait, what? Some of the names that other people have provided as examples of unusual ones, such as Condoleezza and Barack, actually mean something in other languages. A made up name, that's all flare with no content, musical without notes, initially comes across as pretentious. However, I do believe that people can validate their names. When my daughters were teenagers, I selected their gynecologist based solely on her name. It's a 15 letter name with all the bells and whistles...complete with the phony prefix and a 'Q' in it. I KNEW she was black. But, the woman is a doctor, and I felt that was an important lesson for my daughters. So, when some aspect of a person doesn't get taken seriously, such as a name, maybe it just means that person has to work a little harder to overcome the perceptions That may seem unfair to them, but that's the way life has always been."

q. Val > Guest
"I understand your point but my point was that this is more about perception. The perception being that if it's derived from Black folks (and White folks haven't figured a way to profit from it) then it's bad.

Let's look at an example you put forth, "Condoleezza". Most people think of success when they think of that name. But, the truth is, if that were not a former Secretary of State's name but the name of a teenaged Black girl from the South Side of Chicago people would dissect the name and call it ghetto.

If we really look at the name we'll see that it has no meaning. It's derived for the music term, "con dolzezza" which in Italian means 'with sweetness'. So, just like so many other Black women, Condoleezza Rice's mother took a word and made it into a name for her child. It's only that we perceive the name differently than other so-called Black names.

I just hate it that some of us are so willing to see others of us in such a negative way, while at the same time defending and endorsing White cultural norms."

r. mosambie > Val
"Val, "white" is not an ethnic group. It is a general term to describe people from many ethnic groups.

s. Reply
Val > mosambie
"I think you missed my point, maybe I should have been more clear but it was only a passing point.

Here's what I meant; Whites refer to all non-Whites as being ethnic. For instance White people refer to Chinese or Mexican food and cultures as ethnic cultures, right? But, in both cases, Chinese culture and food and Mexican culture and food, there are many different groups of people and types of foods that make up the whole.

So, my point was that it's not just people of color that are ethnic, Whites are ethnic too. But, we are taught to view this from a White point of view therefore many of us see ourselves as ethnic while Whites are seen as non-ethnic."

t. mac > Val
[This is written in response to Val's comment that if a number of Black people started giving their children the names "Tom" and "Becky" White people would stop giving those names to their children since those names would be considered "ghetto".
"Tom and Becky will become ghetto?
Lol you were making sense until that reach of a statement."

u. KamJos > mac
"Let Black mothers in the ghetto start naming their kids Tom and Becky"

v. Me
"Perhaps the young lady could go by a first initial and her middle name (hopefully mom didn't go all creative with that too)."

w. Blkbterf1y > Guest
"What's sad is, while you've evolved into a person who has been on fortune 500 hiring panels in the past, you've witness this form of discrimination and racism and apparently condone it by warning of these "exotic" or names with " a bunch of accents" like there is something wrong with these names. If the name Barak was made up would it be taboo? Of course, these "exotic or accented" names can cause a negative outcome for a prospective position. Yet, we should all understand that these only says that race and discrimination is still an issue; we are not 100% excepted for who we are (nor by our own). Simply put, the battle is not over."

x. guest > Val
"Look, folks can name their children whatever they want, from Becky and Tom to Marqueeshiante and Qu'Davionte. Just know that names come with connotations. Like it or not, they do. It's just a fact. And unfortunately, names like the latter are associated with every negative stereotype of Black folks one can think of. So if you're going to give your child a name with 26 letters and 17 syllables that she herself is still struggling to spell in 4th grade (yes, it happens), then do the work as a parent to help your child:
1. CONSTRUCTIVELY handle the teasing that is bound to come his/her way.

2. Build an academic/educational background that is so strong that someone will be inclined to overlook the name and give them a fair shot at an interview.

3. Teach them what the name means (if there actually happens to be a cultural meaning to the name) so they have a sense of pride rather than shame about it.

Just something to think about."

y. Val > guest
"You don't understand, it's not the names, it's Black people that are associated with everything negative by some. Including some people commenting here. So, name your kid Becky and it's not going to matter. As they say, wherever you go, there you are.

The people who are going to discriminate against a person with a Black sounding name are not going to start loving you because your name is Becky.

But, if you want to coddle racists and allow them to even choose for you what you name your child then that's on you."

z. Val > Guest
"Sure, some push the limits. But for instance that girl that hated the name Keisha, that's not an outrageous name. It's only problematic for her because it's considered a Black name. That's what bothers me, that many of us hate or make fun of names simply because they're Black associated names."

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  1. With regard to the commenter quoted whose name is "Japera", I just happened upon that name on

    That site gives this information for that name:
    " JAPERA : Shona of Zimbabwe name meaning offer thanks. (female)

    Of course, that name could also be found in other languages in Africa or elsewhere, and have different meanings, and gender. But I thought I'd share that information.

    Best wishes!

  2. Click for a 2008 article "Top American baby names by race".

    The article and the comments to that article are quite interesting.

  3. Here's a link to a 2015 article about distinctive names:

    Karthick Ramakrishnan, the South Asian author of that article, indicated that " the 4 million or so South Asians living in this country, who make up more than 20% of the Asian American population ... tend to have distinctly ethnic names" while Chinese or Korean immigrants...tend to choose European names for their U.S.-born children."

    Karthick Ramakrishnan also noted that "that unfamiliar names are not necessarily a barrier for advancement. A prominent circuit court judge, and likely next nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, is named Padmanabhan Srikanth "Sri" Srinivasan. The current chief executive of Microsoft is Satya Nadella, and one of the most celebrated architects of the 20th century is leoh Ming "I.M." Pei.

    Indeed, among Asian Americans, Indians are the least likely to have Anglo or Christian names, but they are the group with the highest levels of educational attainment and income in the United States and appear relatively frequently as CEOs of Fortune 500 companies"...

    That author also provides examples of what many Americans would consider "strange" names that are given to White people (such as the male names "Taggart", "Mitt", and "Track" and indicated that " no one should have to choose names that fit an "old American" standard. Instead of pressuring or criticizing parents, it would be far more fruitful to remove the root cause of name-based disadvantage: racial discrimination among prospective employers and admissions officers."...