Let’s begin with a quick, three-question, fill-in-the-blank quiz:
• When I say Kunta Kinte, you say ____?
• When I say Shaniqua, you say ____?
• When I ask what are the most popular names of African-American children today, you say ____?
While I was listening to a local nighttime sports radio program a couple of weeks ago, someone texted a question specifically for the African-American members of the broadcast team.
The listener asked why so many black sports stars had names that began with “Le-,” “La-,” “De-,” etc., prefixes introducing a “main” name, which the texter, I deduced, thought was a little weird. His question really was: Why would a black mother name her son LeBron? Or LeSean or LaShawn or KeShawn? What about DeMarcus, DeMarco, DeVonte, DeJuan, DeAngelo or De-whatever?
Because the sportscasters were running out of time for that segment, they didn’t talk a lot about the issue other than to say something to the effect that it may have to do with parents wanting to bestow a kind of royalty on a kid or just making up something that would be different.
Although one of them began to broaden the discussion to other unusual names of black people, they didn’t have time to go there either. They didn’t get to Taneka and Tanisha, Quiana and Nikeisha, DeShaun, JaQuan, Marquise and Tyrik (also spelled Tyreek and Tyriq). Shaniqua, in fact, has become the No. 1 stereotypical name lampooned in white and black circles.
There has been a lot of talk lately, among people of all races, about black people’s names, with some offering the theory that in a still-racist society those identifiable ethnic monikers will become a hindrance later on. A person who wants to discriminate against you (for jobs, apartment applications or car loans), could make that decision without ever seeing your face.
The hope, of course, is that one day names — along with race, religion, nationality and sexual orientation — will not matter. That day is probably a long way off.
Names do matter, and sometimes they say something whether we want them to or not. Just the other day, a caller from Arizona, after a long conversation about a column, commented that my name, Bob Ray, “must be a redneck Texas name.” He obviously didn’t know my race.
Even a mistake in a name can stick with you for a lifetime, as my late friend Ossie Davis discovered. Ossie, a great actor and director who died in 2005 at 87, was born in Georgia. When the nurse asked his parents for a name, his mother said, “R.C.” The nurse wrote “Ossie” on the birth certificate, he said.
After slavery, many blacks took their masters’ last names, or they chose the surname of a popular president like Washington or Jefferson. The first names often came from biblical characters or other family members.
During the 1960s, a lot of African-Americans, in an attempt to identify with the “mother country,” chose names that sounded African even if they weren’t.
But let’s go back to Kunta Kinte, for I’m convinced that the new wave of christening black children came after the epic miniseries, Roots aired in 1977. One of the most graphic scenes in the television movie was when the young runaway slave was strung up by his hands and whipped repeatedly as the white overseer demanded he say the new name his master had given him: Toby.
Kunta refused over and over, but finally said, “My name is Toby.” (The scene is posted multiple times on YouTube.)
For many parents, the “slave name” was simply unacceptable. They wanted their children, for good or bad, to be identifiably black — proud, free, unashamed and unique — even if it meant they had to make up a name.
Black people decided they would determine what their chldren would be called just as they had decided how their race would be indentified, changing from colored to Negro to black to African-American.
Shakespeare certainly didn’t have this issue in mind when he penned the question, “What’s in a name?”