Thursday, March 05, 2009

African American Baby Names

John Derbyshire, in reference to a child named in a recent Obama speech, blasts parents who invent names for their children:

I wish no offense at all to young Ty’Sheoma, but much offense to her damn fool parents, who saddled her with that absurd name. Making up a gibberish name and burdening your child with it is heinous. Sticking unnecessary apostrophes in there is beyond heinous. There should be fines, at the very least, for these parents.

Although he doesn't say it, the Derb is referring to what is almost exclusively an African American practice: creating a name out of sounds without any particular philological origin.

Although the results may sound odd (I have personally known two ladies named Niptheria and Retunga), I am sympathetic to the practice. If my identity group had been oppressed by a dominant culture for generations, and within recent memory, I would be inclined to reject the names of that culture on that basis alone -- even if it meant resorting to creating a name out of nothing. Better to have an invented culture of one's own than a historically-grounded culture associated with oppression.

20 comments:

Marcel said...

"Better to have an invented culture of one's own than a historically-grounded culture associated with oppression."

It seems like an invented culture would not be a thing of your own, but just something made up by your ancestors.

trekkerjay said...

My understanding is that the names are not created "out of nothing", but rather created from the names of other family members... but instead of taking whole names from family members, parts of the names are used, and a new name is created. In a sense that is how my parents created my first name - some of the letters are from my dad's name and some are from my grandmother's name... it gave me a unique name...

Tom Jackson said...

It seems that Ty'Sheoma's parents are very optimistic about the decline in racism in America. I am not, and I suspect that, twenty years from now, there will still be many employers who will not read past the first line of Ty'Sheoma's resume.

Mencken spends a few pages of his American Language on unusual names (although most of his examples are from the white
culture of the South and Midwest) so the phenonomenon dates back quite a few decades, and is not exclusively African-American.

Anonymous said...

If my identity group had been oppressed by a dominant culture for generations, and within recent memory, I would be inclined to reject the names of that culture on that basis alone -- even if it meant resorting to creating a name out of nothing. Better to have an invented culture of one's own than a historically-grounded culture associated with oppression.

Uhh, no thank you. I respectfully disagree. Many blacks from previous generations faced far greater "oppression" yet did not invent names or cultures as you suggest. Oppression, slavery, and racism has turned into a card to excuse any and all sorts of behaviors as "culture". I am inclined to agree with Tom Jackson regarding this phenomen; which is also supported in Thomas Sowell's book Black Rednecks and White Liberals.
As a medical student, my friend Keith (who is also black) and I were shaking our heads over some of the names we came across in our clinicals. Regrettably, one young lady opted to name her baby girl Placenta.

Respectfully,
Joseph
(Joseph David III)

Art said...

This is now not an entirely African American phenomenon. I know of a handful of caucasian parents who have named their children in like manner. I suspect this will only continue as these types of names become more acceptable.

Apart from that caucasians have been known to saddle our kids with some pretty silly names as well, although these tend to be more tradtional names with, um, "creative" alternate spellings.

And while I have been amused and even dumbfounded by some of the names I've read and heard, I agree with your assessment very much.

Elizabeth said...

I agree too John. I have some friends who I've had conversations with regarding my interest in genealogy, and one friend in particular who is black and expressed such pain/frustration over never being able to trace his own family tree beyond a few generations. His family name is the name of his ancestors' owners, not his own family. It's painful for him.

Also, in my own family tree research, I've come across some interesting names in the 1600s, like: Nostrength (who died as an infant), Moregifte, Suretrust, Joyfoole, TruthShallPrevayl...

John Wilks said...

I can certainly see not wanting "white" names given the past 400 years and I'm always intrigued when I meet someone whose name as African roots and an actual meaning. Even if the name sounds strange, if it has a meaning, I'm cool with it.

Gibberish names, on the other hand, will only serve to humiliate the poor child in years to come. As someone who bears 2/3s of one of the most infamous names in history, I feel for any child who will face ridicule because their parents didn't think the naming process through.

John said...

Tom Jackson:

It seems that Ty'Sheoma's parents are very optimistic about the decline in racism in America. I am not, and I suspect that, twenty years from now, there will still be many employers who will not read past the first line of Ty'Sheoma's resume.

True. I encountered a study yesterday that indicated that applicants with modern African American names were more likely to be turned down for a job compared to equally qualified applicants with Western names.

Jeff the Baptist said...

"Also, in my own family tree research, I've come across some interesting names in the 1600s, like: Nostrength (who died as an infant), Moregifte, Suretrust, Joyfoole, TruthShallPrevayl..."

Some of the puritans had interesting naming ideas, like Praise-God Barebones and his son Nicholas Unless-Jesus-Christ-Had-Died-For-Thee-Thou-Hadst-Been-Damned Barbon. The latter helped to found the Bank of England and went by Nicolas. I think the Puritans started doing this because they wanted to emulate Old Testament naming conventions in the vernacular.

truevyne said...

Whoa, my son came with a very ethnic name which we did not dispose of when we adopted him. I have no regrets. It's who he is, and the name was one of the only gifts he's ever gotten from his birthmom.

John said...

Joseph wrote:

Uhh, no thank you. I respectfully disagree. Many blacks from previous generations faced far greater "oppression" yet did not invent names or cultures as you suggest.

1. True, but how is that more virtuous than inventing a name?

2. Did they even have a choice back then?

Oppression, slavery, and racism has turned into a card to excuse any and all sorts of behaviors as "culture".

I fully agree. But inventing a name is a moral world apart from, let us say, the glorification of violence in hip-hop culture.

John said...

John Wilks wrote:

Gibberish names, on the other hand, will only serve to humiliate the poor child in years to come. As someone who bears 2/3s of one of the most infamous names in history, I feel for any child who will face ridicule because their parents didn't think the naming process through.

True. Parents have a moral obligation not to give their children names that will plague them in years to come.

However, as such invented names are becoming the norm in Black culture, they are ceasing to qualify as "gibberish names."

For my daughter, we selected an exotic, but not unusual Slavic name. I thought that it was prudent to let my daughter be unique, but not an oddball (she'll get enough of that passed on to her through her parents).

Tom Jackson said...

One problem with exotic, but not unusual, names is that sometimes a movie star, pop singer, or other person of ill repute will turn up with the same name, and you'll have to keep explaining that your child was NOT named after Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera or whoever.

Truevyne -- Was your son's name traditional in his native culture? I think people have a greater tolerance for, e.g., a Hispanic-looking man named Juan than for someone whose name is completely unfamiliar.

Tom Jackson said...

I can see the church carnival now:

"Where'd you get that funnel cake?"

"Over there, at John Wilks' booth."

Anonymous said...

John:

Thank you for the follow up.

As a forty-something year old black man, named after my father and grandfather I'm amused at the notion of "white" and "modern African American" names. My parents, my grandparents, and my great grandparents would be amused too.

In my previous comment, I do not believe that I was making the case that not doing so was more virtuous. Where I disagree is ascribing "modern African American names" as a result of previous oppression. There were far fewer Jamals and Ty'Sheoma's during and following slavery than there are today. This phenomena may be due to other reasons like creativity or uniqueness; but not due to past oppression.
As I stated previously, I have heard a gamut of behaviors within the black community today attributed to a legacy of oppression, slavery, and racism. The decline of the black family is a prime example. In 1940, the illegitimacy rate among blacks was 19 percent, in 1960, 22 percent, and today, it's greater than 70 percent. Some attribute these statistics for the black family as a result of slavery, discrimination, oppression, and poverty. Nonsense! If one argues that what we see today is a result of a legacy of slavery, discrimination, oppression and poverty, what's the explanation for stronger black families (and far lower illegitimacy rates)at a time much closer to slavery -- a time of much greater discrimination and of much greater oppression and poverty?

Your second question as to choice, is too difficult to answer with any degree of certainty.

Respectfully,
Joseph

John Wilks said...

Tom, you don't know the half of it.

Bro. Dave said...

What is a name? It is a sound one human grunts to get the attention of another. Who is to say what is a real name and what is "Gibberish"? We accept "Bono" as a name... and "Tom" and "Martha" and even "Larry the Cable Guy". So who can say that Ty'Sheoma is not a legitimate name?

the reverend mommy said...

I have had some children in class with unusual names -- Sweeta, for instance and "Snickers" (last name Barre). The worse was "Phque" -- pronounced in a way that it was a nasty word -- the kid wanted us to call him "Phillip." Bill Lear named his child -- Chanda.

The loving husband and I made a game of who could come up with the worse names when we were expecting: Temperance Ossamus and Rose Berryman (real ancestors), for twins: Bullrun and Manassas, for triplets: April, May and June. My personal worse was "Bullrun Gardenia" for a boy...

Mary Christmas was actually the secretary of Education in Georgia at one time.

At least (and for the most part) the compound names and "invented" names for African American kids will not lead to ridicule in their peer group as these previous examples.

As it is, kids themselves will help their names "evolve" -- From Bobby, to Bob to Robert, for instance -- to help place themselves in the world.

JD said...

When I worked for CPS, there was a family in my unit where a mother had named her children Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. She name them this based upon when they were born relative to their due date. People have all sorts of reason for names. Some make more sense than others. There are really great boy names my wife and I came up with, but probably will not use since his initials would be NAD. Boys can be cruel.

PAX
JD

the reverend mommy said...

OK, word verification?

Imeshea.

It could work....