Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Hail Lakeesha by Harold M. Clemens
"…with names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all of that crap, and all of them are in jail.” – Bill Cosby quoted at the gala event honoring the 50th anniversary of Brown v Board of Education, May 17, 2004
On the topic of “black” names, many brothers and sisters think parents should abandon names like Lakeesha, DeShawn, and others Bill Cosby would hate, because they could doom our children to poor job prospects and inferior social networks. Many would also argue we should discard such names because they are just plain ridiculous. Luckily, the smart and the brave ones amongst us refuse to limit our personal choices to earn white favor and/or avoid white scorn.
Africans in the Americas are likely the only people on Earth with no knowledge of our true family names and no means to discover them. For the greater portion of our stay here in the Americas, we haven’t even enjoyed the privilege to choose our given names, since our captors had seized that right for almost three centuries in some places. At this juncture, arrived at through the ceaseless, often violent, struggle and persistent suffering of our ancestors, where we can now name ourselves freely, it’s a shame that some of us would relinquish this blood-borne privilege to succumb to white hegemony.
If the accommodationists amongst us had their way, we would all repudiate names that don't have Anglo, Hebrew, Greek, etc. (read: white) origin to avoid discrimination. But is entrance into middle-America worth relinquishing a piece of our identity? After all, so many non-European names, dubbed deviant, laughable, awkward, or “super-black” (as economist, Stephen Levitt, refers to them in his article “A Roshanda by Any Other Name”) by the mainstream bear meaning to us; for example: Jamal, means “beauty,” Malik means “master,” Aisha means “lively” or “life,” and Aaliyah means “high exalted” or “to ascend” in Arabic, respectively. Prejudiced whites and similarly prejudiced, uppity blacks and anxious Asians would see those names on a job application or hear them in conversation and immediately envision thugs and “welfare mothers.” Someone from one of the groups mentioned, ignorant of its origin, would probably frown upon a name like Amani, which means “peace,” or “loveable” in Swahili.
Undoubtedly, the character above would probably dislike a name like Amani, not only because (s)he didn’t know its meaning, but also because the naming controversy is essentially rooted in disdain and contempt for anything associated with African-Americans. This truism is evidenced by the phenomenon where names with European origins gain infamy once they become popular amongst black folks. Take Tyrone for instance. Even though it’s an Irish name, meaning “from Owen's territory; County Tyrone in Ireland,” many now look down on it as “ghetto,” or at least, typically “black.” Dante’, the name of one Italy’s greatest poets, has suffered a similar fate.
Again, the conservatives amongst us would likely suggest that, this author’s identity question notwithstanding, we relinquish names that identify us as black in order to survive and thrive. But perhaps worse than surrendering our privilege to name ourselves freely and ignoring our legacy, if we gave our children names that "didn't make waves," we would also relegate them to inferior status consequently. Suppose someone named his child James, instead of Ogun, and James’ counterparts' parents named their children (James’ classmates, playmates, neighbors, coworkers, etc.) whatever they wanted to without concern for his, or any other black person’s, impressions. Meanwhile James bears a name given him so that he could fit in with vanilla company. Is this conditional acceptance the “equality” we strive for?
Some readers will say it’s not names like Jamal and Aisha that they have beef with, instead it’s names like Alize’, TreShaun, and others, which sound like they were conceived in the shower, that they laugh at. Perhaps they wouldn’t laugh as hard if they remembered that most of our surnames don’t have any lofty origin. According to Wikipedia, surnames generally refer to the occupation (e.g. Baker, Smith), personal characteristics (e.g. Goodman, Brown), location/origin (e.g. Scott, Rivers) and ancestry (typically father's name, e.g. Johnson meaning “John’s son”) of the distant ancestor to whom the surname was first applied. If you are of African descent, yet live in the Americas that means that you probably bear the name of the “gentle” man that tormented and tortured your grandfathers and degraded and violated your grandmothers. Appropriately then, if Ronteefa and Nevonte’ make you laugh, your own last name should make you cry.
Given this base and/or ignominious history of last names, why shouldn’t one give her child a name that has significance to her, regardless of how awkward it is? Beyond that, “white” names don’t encounter scrutiny about meaning, awkwardness, and etc. so why should ours? No one ever asks what Marcia means, so why ask about Laquanna?! No one cares Marcia means “martial,” nor will anyone ask a parent how his/her daughter is warlike, or relates to war (the definition of martial), so why the condescending concerning about Shaniqua?
If the accomodationists had their way, our country would only contain Ashleys and Johnathans. Fortunately, there are smart and brave ones amongst us who refuse to limit our personal choices to earn white favor and/or avoid white scorn. We understand that the progress we have made came from struggle, not acquiescence; from a strong sense of identity, not imitation; from creativity in expression, not uniformity.
Harold M. Clemens is a freelance writer from Roxbury, Massachusetts. He blogs regularly at http://ghettouprising.blogspot.com and is a staff writer for We The Voices. He can be contacted via-email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Harold M. Clemens
Tuesday, July 12, 2005