African American naming practices have established patterns, intention and a history.
The intense spotlight has once again landed on African American naming practices, thanks to the foolishness of Raven-Symone. However, I thank her for the opportunity to discuss this subject once again because the practice of African American onomastics (the branch of linguistics that deals with names of people) is not nearly studied well enough or thought carefully enough about. Part of my interest in onomastics comes from being a writer and my understanding of how names reflect a great deal about the history and back story of characters. I certainly knew this to be personally true because the other part of my interest came from my own name as an unusual one and in understanding how my unusual name has shaped me a person.
Let’s get this understood first, just as Kim Love pointed out on Twitter: Naming is a coded language that reflects the class position, hopes, dreams and aspirations of the parents who are naming the child at that time. This includes African American parents. People need to give up the long-held incorrect notion that people, of whatever color, are not thoughtful about what they name their child. That is simply not true.
Whenever I create my African American characters, I always start with the name, because the name tells me about the character’s parental background. For example, in the “Migrations of the Heart” series, my family of sisters were all named after jewels, in some form, because their father, John Bledsoe, insisted that his girls were precious to him. Just by naming his girls, he asserts that the girls have a right to be in the world, certainly a varying attitude about young black girls at turn of the century Georgia. This outlook of their father’s molded them to be young women who stood out in their own way from their larger community. The two deceased baby brothers of the Bledsoe sisters were both named after their father because John and Lona thought it better that their sons didn’t stand out at all.
Raven-Symone herself needs to give some thought to what her parents intended for her by following, as they did, rather standard African American naming practices. Instead, she followed the example of the horrifying video that The View showed before she uttered her foolishness by uttering a made-up name “Watermelondrea.” This is not a name that follows these well-established linguistic patterns and practices, but instead, continues to play upon old stereotypes about African Americans. Her actions cause great harm and further the notion that African American onomastics is a random, and not a thoughtful practice.
The discomfort that people have with these African American naming practices comes because the language patterns don’t “fit” into larger society. They stand out. But did anyone ever consider that was the intent in the first place? That these parents, from their perspective, meant for their child to be seen as a full human being, even in that second when someone is forced to have to think about how to utter the child’s name? It’s a strategy that seems misguided to some, but ultimately it is about achieving the same end as parents who name their children something more conventional—giving their child full humanity.
I find it interesting that now, all parents want to name their child something unique and that naming practices have steered sharply away from naming children something conventional. This was clearly the intention of Raven-Symone’s parents and to me, her utterances came off as ingratitude to her parents. They intended for her to stand out from the beginning and she certainly has, potentially due to her singular name.
I’m grateful to my parents, even though there was a brief period of time when I was young that I longed to be Susan. I’m glad that my musical parents named me what they did. Having had an unusual name meant that I’ve always been prepared for the reaction I often get—that people stop and consider it. African American parents have only wanted some kind of consideration for the humanity of their children. Naming their children with this created, coded language has been a way for some parents to try to get the attention and consideration of a society who wouldn’t care about the child as a person in other ways, just because of skin color. It may not be an approach some people agree with, but that is the intention, nonetheless and should be given more thought and compassion.