Should I give my baby a “black” name?

Dear Dwonna:

I’m an African American woman who is eight months pregnant with my first baby, and I’m struggling with what to name him.  Should I give my son an “Afrocentric” name, or should I stick to a more “traditional” (in other words “white”) name?



Dear Haley:

Your question is very timely, as I just finished reading—again—Booker T. Washington’s Up From Slavery for my “Critical Studies in African American Literature” class.

Born a slave in 1858 or 1859, Washington explains in the second chapter of his autobiography that until he went to school, he was only known as “Booker” and that it had “never occurred” to him that “it was needful or appropriate to have an additional name.” Washington said that he noticed that the other children had at least two names and that “some of them indulged in what seemed to me the extravagance of having three.” “When the teacher asked me what my full name was,” Washington continues, “I calmly told him ‘Booker Washington,’ as if I had been called by that name all my life.” Washington would later learn that his mother had given him the name “Booker Taliaferro” soon after he was born, and he would later make his full name “Booker Taliaferro Washington.” “I think there are not many men in our country,” Washington writes,” who have had the privilege of naming themselves in the way I have.”

I give this background to explain that there was a time in history when African Americans took great care to give themselves and their children names that exalted honor and that seemed to suggest a “distinguished ancestry,” which is why some former slaves took the last names of U.S. presidents as their own. Today, however, too many African American mothers give their children names that are suggestive of overpriced things that most of us will never buy—Mercedes, Lexus, Infiniti, Diamond, and Porsche.

Or, as Bill Cosby said in a 2004 speech at a multiracial gala commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, too many African Americans make up names that they think suggest that the child came from Africa. “What part of Africa did this come from? We are not Africans. Those people are not Africans. They don’t know a thing about Africa,” Cosby said. “With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua, and Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail,” he said.

Cosby’s comments were met with both furor and condemnation, although one of the loudest criticisms launched was that he should not have gone public with the black community’s “dirty laundry.” Still, Cosby’s suggestion that those African Americans with “black names” ultimately end up in jail has become a present-day topic of conversation for some pregnant black women who must decide what to name their baby.

In a “Motherlode” blog for the New York Times, African American freelance writer Nikisia Drayton admits that when her baby’s father wanted her to name their son “Keion” after his childhood best friend, Drayton first looked up the history of the name and then did the “Google test”: she “typed ‘Keion’s name’ in the image search box.” “To my surprise,” she writes, “my computer screen loaded images of African-American young men posing for their mug shots.” When she Googled “Kian” instead of “Keion,” Drayton found “smiling photographs of Caucasian males” and “could not believe the change.”

Historically, African Americans have given their children distinctively “black names,” but the trend has accelerated since the 1960s, when “black is beautiful” perhaps became one of the most repeated mottos of the Black Power movement.The sad truth is, however, that giving your baby a “black name” has repercussions far beyond what most parents would want for their child.

In a paper written for the Cambridge-based National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), Roland Fryer and the University of Chicago’s Steven Levitt found that “black names are associated with lower socioeconomic status,” although the authors did not believe that the names themselves created “an economic burden.” In a paper titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal?” University of Chicago professor Marianne Bertrand and MIT professor Sendhil Mullainathan found that resumes with names that “sounded white” received one callback per 10 resumes whereas similar resumes with names that “sounded black” received just one per 15. “Carries and Kristens had call-back rates of more than 13 percent, but Aisha, Keisha, and Tamika got 2.2 percent, 3.8 percent, and 5.4 percent, respectively,” the authors wrote.

Another study found that black-sounding names were 50 percent “less likely to get a callback than white-sounding names with comparable resumes.” “I do believe now when a resume comes across an employer’s desk they can be easily discriminated against because they know that person is of African-American descent,” Bertrand writes. “It’s a difficult decision.”

Minority groups of all kinds have had to decide whether to give their children names that celebrate their cultural heritage or whether to give their children names that will help them “blend in” with “white” America. Whether or not it’s fair, our names have meanings far beyond what our parents intended for them to have, and sometimes the consequences can be far reaching. Not only can our names affect our job prospects, but they can also be the reason we get teased at school or bullied by our classmates.

After reading Nikisia Drayton’s blog, one of my former University of Texas students said that she found herself “unnerved.” In a Facebook post, she wrote that she adored a family friend named “Jahwon” and “carried his name in my ‘when I grow up suitcase’ so that I could give it to my future son.” “Since childhood,” she wrote, “I envisioned an educated, respectful, self-assured young Black man proudly introducing himself—and in the simple act of introduction—shattering misconceptions and stereotypical fallacies of what it means to be a Black male.”

She also wrote that “Whitening” her child’s name so that a Google search would not bring up mug shots “never has or would cross my mind.” “Just the opposite,” my former student wrote, “instead of feeding the beast by shying away from ‘Black’ names because they carry negative connotations, I’d rather make a concentrated effort to change the image.”

I must respectfully disagree with her. As someone with kind of a “black name” (there was a white girl named “Dwana” at my high school), I have had too many experiences of people assuming who I was and what I was about before I even walked in the door. I know that my parents did not intend to place any burden on me when they named me “Dwonna” (my mom says that my name came to her in a dream), but this name has come with some challenges.

Having to constantly repeat my name when asked can be tiresome, and waiting for teachers to try to pronounce “Dwonna” has been, at best, annoying. When I have applied for jobs, I have often wondered if my application will be tossed before the person in charge of hiring has even looked at it. And, when my mother would complain about my obstinate behavior and ask why I couldn’t be like my brothers and sisters or “like everyone else,” I would remind her that if she had wanted me to be like the kids in the neighborhood or my three siblings—who all had “white” sounding names—then she should have named me “Julie.”

Thirty years after these fights with my mother, she now says that she looked at my name as “unique, strong, and intelligent which equals ONE of a kind.”  In an email reply to this essay, my mother wrote that I represented “the essence of conviction, righteousness, intelligence, compassion and a vision to change the hearts, minds and intelligences of those around you. I’ve often wondered if you would have accomplished all that you’ve reached if your name had been Mary!!”

I very much appreciate my mother’s kind words and love reading that she is proud of the person I have become, and having an unusual name probably did toughen me up since the jokes people made about my name were plentiful and not always kind. Nonetheless, even when parents raise “righteous Black individuals with so-called ‘Black’ names,” as my former UT student wrote, too many people in (white) American society hold prejudices that can negatively affect how these children experience America.

Black folks need to go back to the time when, like for Booker T. Washington, names meant something meaningful and were intended to convey an honor or to show respect. It is not fair to ask black children to fight the battles of adults, and saddling an African American child with a “black name” could very much limit this child’s opportunities. The world is cruel enough, and your son will have plenty of challenges as he navigates his way through school and then through adulthood. Thus, give your son a “traditional” name so that his name will not be one of those challenges.

David Boyd, a former student at Austin Peay, has weighed in on your question, too.

David Boyd

Dear Haley:

I asked my friends on Facebook the following question: “What are some of the most ridiculous African American names that you have ever heard?” Here is a list of some of the answers I received—Prada Princess, Sinful, Jodeci, Jaycent, and La-a (for Ladasha). I have long considered the power a name holds and how names affect children when they become adults.

I don’t want to be so biased as to limit this commentary to “ethnic” names, or to be so crass as to just call out Black and Brown peoples. Stupidity knows no color. In fact, I consider ignorance to be “the great equalizer.” The problem is that some people may have a prejudice due to their ignorance of what other cultures may consider the norm. Prejudice isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and neither are ignorant names given by ignorant parents.

So why then, give up your heritage and the way your family and ancestors name people just because other (white) people are uneducated about where the naming comes from? Some cultures believe there is power behind a name and that there is great meaning as well. Again, that is not what I am talking about here.  The issue, however, still remains—why do people find names that have nothing to do with their heritage? Did these people select these names because they wanted something that “sounded” African? Or did they just want something that sounded “cool” and “different”?

It is just my uninformed opinion that people should embrace their heritage by doing due diligence in not only looking up beautiful names but by researching what those names mean. Let’s even go beyond that by taking into consideration how those same names may affect your child’s future. Why won’t people stop being half-assed and STOP making up names because that is what’s trending right now?

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