What’s in a Name? An Entire Culture

Khadijah McCaskill, Los Angeles Sentinel, August 12, 2010

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When Africans were taken to America to become slaves, they were not only stripped of their clothes, they were also stripped of their names, taking their identities, and hopes and dreams. The slave master had deemed their meaningful African names too “exotic” and too hard to pronounce. In order to turn the slaves into mindless, chattel, upon which to build America’s wealth, it was deemed necessary to rid the African people of a cultural identity. The slave masters usually gave slaves names from the bible such as, Luke, John, James, Joseph, Mary, Eve, and Ruth. Some were given short, percussive names such as Tom and Bill. During the time shortly before the Civil War, some masters named their slaves after the American forefathers such as Washington and Jefferson.

After the Civil War, many slaves decided to reinvent their identity by making their names more unique. Common names such as Lucy were embellished to Lucinda. Some common Western names such as John and Mary began to fall out of favor with White people as more and more Black people began using them. {snip}

During the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum. Black people were eager to have equal rights in America, as well as discover their African roots, and create a unique Black culture. This manifested itself in the naming of Black children, and the re-naming of people involved in the Civil Rights movement. Many Black people had Arabic names as the Nation of Islam rose to power within the Black community. {snip}

{snip} A mixture of Swahili-sounding names and pleasing percussive sounds gave birth to names like Lakesha, Swantezza, Johntae, Rashawn, and Shaquan. Dreams of prosperity and better lives for their children inspired parents to name their children after luxury items such as Lexus, Prada, Chanel, and Treasure. Qualities and nouns that parents felt described their children gave rise to names like Heaven, Omunique (pronounced I’m unique), and Precious.

Blacks have been under fire for years for these “ghetto” names. {snip} Even Black people have begun to criticize those who give their children these creative names, saying that Black children should have more “normal” names. But why? Why should Black people’s names be changed? Too often Whites and others attach Black stereotypes to these creative names. {snip}

{snip} In 2003, Marianne Bertrand, an associate professor at the University of Chicago graduate school of Business, and Sendhi Mullainathan of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, designed a study called “Are Emily and Brendan More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” The study was designed to see if there was any discrimination towards people with Black sounding in the screening of applications for different jobs. The team sent out over 5,000 applications answering want-ads in the Boston Globe and The Chicago Tribune. They gave each of the fake applicants either very White sounding names like Emily Walsh or Brendan Baker, or very Black sounding names like Jamal Jones or Lakisha Washington. The study showed that those with White-sounding names were 50 percent more likely to get a call for an interview for the job. It didn’t even matter if the applicants with Black sounding names had more credentials, or were better qualified for the job. The field in which the applicants were trying to get a job didn’t matter much either, the discrimination was the same across the board. Even jobs that posited that they were “Equal Opportunity” discriminated at pretty much the same rate.

The lesson from this study and the history of Black names is that names represent an identity that was created after everything was taken from African people. {snip} Anyone who thinks these names are stupid or outrageous doesn’t understand that they are being duped into thinking that originality is a bad thing, who made them the all-important deciders of which names are “normal” and which names are not? It is absolutely illogical to try and infer what a person can or can’t do, or how much they do or don’t have, just by their names alone.

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