Once upon a time, when I was a starry-eyed, aspiring writer barely out of undergrad before Sallie Mae started nipping at my backside, I took a gig as a substitute teacher in Baltimore. The loans and the credit card debt I’d racked up in school were putting the hammer down on me—as was my mama—so until my editorial fantasy grew roots in the real world, I was forced to become a kinda-sorta-but-not-really educator in the meantime.
My only condition was a refusal to go into middle school. Kids’ hormones and attitudes reach a feverish funkiness around that time and I knew I wasn’t built for a daily dose of 13-year-old sauciness. So I registered for the elementary and high schools in the area, pleaded the blood of Jesus on my patience and got a call shortly thereafter for my initial placement in a 10th grade biology course.
It was odd, that first day standing in front of a class of 20 or 25 kids, preparing to hand out worksheets for a video I knew they weren’t going to watch, only because I had not that long before been on the other side of that desk, cutting up with my friends and saying a silent thank you when I walked into the room and saw a stranger instead of my usual instructor. Let’s face it—unless they’re on long-term assignment, a substitute is a degree-bearing babysitter for the most part and you know, with more confidence than you usually have about anything at that age, that you’re not going to be doing much work in that particular period.
I felt the same way as a sub, and I went in fully expecting to do call roll, hit the power button on the VCR and keep the chaos to a minimum. Taking attendance seemed like it would be the easiest part of my day. But I glanced at the list to discover that 65 percent of the names on it were a cryptic montage of dashes, accents marks and arbitrarily inserted capital letters. There was a La’ Niaheesa. There was a Devaughntay. There was a Quaymar. There was a Knakeya and a Khaneeka. There were consonant clusters that would tangle a linguist up and combinations that looked like they should be pronounced one way, but in actuality sounded completely different.
It was an exercise in verbal dexterity, and as I slowly sounded out each name like a first grader with an easy reader, the kids were steady shouting out the correct pronunciations. Sans the occasional Brittany or Courtney, I was struggling through and in the interest of time, I just started firing off last names instead: Henderson. Brown. Jenkins. Perry. Jackson. One Funderburke and a Maldonaldo. But no surname came close to being as ostentatious as the first ones. I’ve been speaking black all my life but my native tongue failed me in the eloquent reading of the attendance that day.
I grew up in the era of Tashas and Jamars, Rasheedas and Tyrees, Tanikas and Maliks and The Age of the Almighty Keisha—Tikeisha, Lakeisha, Mekeisha, Nykeisha, Shakeisha—and I remember older folks everywhere struggling with names like that because their generation had produced names like Bernice and Lionel and Marcy. Grandparents, when asked about the latest addition to their families, would stumble and stagger their way through the new baby’s maze of tongue-twisting syllables and land, somewhat close, to the child’s actual name. It’s not like every community doesn’t have their own norms that pay homage to their culture. But creativity in African-American naming convention has gotten progressively bolder, now going beyond the old standards like relatives, leaders and biblical figures to include African words, luxury vehicles, fabrics, precious gems and various brands of liquor (because I’m almost certain there’s a baby named Courvoisier running around out there).
Most of the hoopla about so-called “ghetto names” has swirled around the potential for a child, and eventually their adult incarnation, to be stereotyped and written off on paper when college admissions officers and human resources coordinators take a look at an application and see a clearly African-American name printed across the top. In 2009, more than 40 percent of the black girls born were given names that hadn’t been bestowed upon not even one of the more than 100,000 white girls also born in the same year.
The fear, experts said, is that these children won’t get called back for jobs or other opportunities because any pre-judger worth his or her salt will know that they are dealing with a black person from the break and immediately write them off. Kind of like when you watch the news and hear that some fool has been running up on old ladies and hitting them upside their heads and you hope it’s not a black person, but then the reporter says something like “23-year-old Marsharonda Williams” and you know, without too much doubt, that your hope is futile. The name tells at least part of the story.
Studies conducted by Harvard and other reputable institutions all showed that job-seekers with “African-American-sounding names” were largely discriminated against, sight unseen, and resumes with “white-sounding” names were downloaded 17 percent more based on that reason and that reason alone. Now some professionals, all grown up from the days of a substitute teacher butchering and stumbling through their correction pronunciation, are playing down blackness as a common strategy born of necessity. The same names their parents gave them to stand out are now being tweaked to blend in and ward off stereotyping and superficial preconceptions. There are names that are distinctly Jewish and distinctly Latino and distinctly Asian but just like almost everything else, it’s a different standard for us.
Though, I must say, even changing your name on the resume won’t help you when the interviewer calls you in and discovers the non-descript “T.J.” really stands for Tawanda Jalisha.
There are so many things I love about our people, not the least of which is our innovativeness. We’ll turn something mundane and dry into something fun and interesting, whether it’s food or music or, apparently, distinctive names for our offspring. But is there such a thing as too over the top when a child’s first name looks like a foreign language vocabulary word and they were, in fact, born to English-speaking parents? How creative is too creative in the pantheon of African-American nomenclature?