If you’re Black and you have a Black friend who happens to teach at a predominately Black school, you can safely assume that at least once every few months, you two are going to have a good laugh about some of the names of the students in the school. If this friend is like my teacher friends, this laugh might occur once a week, and you might also regularly joke that kids with those names might as well have been named “Nochance.”
This is not groundbreaking news. There is nothing we (Black people) love to talk about more than the experience of being Black, and one of the lighter parts of this Black experience is the well known tendency some of us have to give our children ridiculously creative names. And by “ridiculously creative names” I mean “names that basically just attach multiple vowel sounds to popular cognacs.”
I even play a variant of this game while watching NFL games. A player will be introduced, and I’ll guess where he grew up by the type Blackness associated with his name.
(For instance, “Jockitchneous Jenkins” definitely hails from the South, and “King-Knowledge Fire Shabazz” definitely hails from a northern urban area.)
It is a game that’s unapologetically classist. We’re aware that lower-income Black people are much more likely to give these types of names to their kids than middle and upper class Blacks. We’re also aware that, unless this kid happens to be a rapper, stripper, or professional athlete, this name will likely have a net negative effect on their job prospects, dating life, credit, and Sam’s Club membership applications.
This has no effect on our amusement, though. We still think the names are hilarious. And, whenever we happen across one of them, we gleefully forward it to as many people as we can, indirectly taking credit for discovering another hilarious example of what those type of Black people frequently do. Happily expert curators of coonishness we are.
But, when the name is just a tad less Black—i.e. “Shamika” instead of “LaShamikalalize”—and we learn that a person making judgments on the name happens not to be Black, it’s an issue. A huge issue.
Now, I realize this isn’t exactly a perfect analogy. There’s a big difference between joking about a name and using a prejudice about a name to discriminate. Also, Black people have more leeway to make jokes about other Black people because, well, we’re Black too. I will not suppress my chuckle the next time I happen across a “Tyranraneousrex Jackson” or “Cirocla Jones” and I won’t hesitate to call someone out for actively discriminating against Black names.
But, I’ve also come to realize that I’m such of a hypocrite about this that even my hypocrisy is hypocritical. Black sounding names are fine, and worth defending. But, names that sound a bit too Black, a bit too ghetto, a bit too embarrassing, somehow aren’t. Basically, lower class Black people—the ones who could likely use the most help from their educated and higher-income brethren—are the ones we reserve the most ridicule for.
The irony of writing something like this while being named “Damon Young” isn’t lost on me. While my name isn’t super Black, I think most people would assume that a man with my name would likely be Black. It is, without question, a safe Black name. A Black name worthy of defending.
The Black community would form like Voltron if we learned I was denied a job because of my name. But, if my mom got drunk while delivering me and named me “LaDameriousness” instead, the only defense I’d get from any of y’all n*ggas is when you happened to be on the basketball court with me.
(Which would be the only place I’d ever be because, with a name like LaDameriousness, it’s my only shot at success.)
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)