African American Names in the Age of Quvenzhanè

May 6, 2013  |  

Growing up with the name Ashley Iman I was granted a sort of flexibility. When I wanted to appear racially ambiguous I would simply write Ashley and when I felt more comfortable I’d write the full Ashley Iman. Ashley is an Old English name and my spelling is very common in the United States across races. Iman, on the other hand, is Arabic, meaning faith and although I know a couple Iman’s now as an adult and it’s not quite as common. In the wake of September 11 I decided to drop Iman altogether not picking it up again until nearly ten years later. As a child, I was trying to seem as “American” as possible. But what is an American name? Furthermore, what defines American?

Too often “American names” are thought of as traditional European names; Ashley, John, Brittany, and Frank are just a few examples. Meanwhile, traditional African or Arabic names are labeled as foreign and the assumptions that come with that label can be questionable at best and downright racist as worst. Then, there’s a third category. These names are more traditionally African American names, newly created and nearly always creative. These names can be combinations of beloved relatives’ names, twists on traditional European names, or new takes on positive abstract concepts (ex. Neveah, which is Heaven, spelled backwards.) Unfortunately, the third category tends to experience the most bias in this country. From the everyday microagressions like coworkers refusing to learn the pronunciation of your name to systematic discrimination like the refusal to hire applicants with distinctly African American names, there is no doubt that America has a long way to go toward racial equality. However, despite all of the negative aspects, we are now living in the age of Quevenzhanè and I’d like to make a case for why you should consider giving your child a name from that second or third category.

Before I make my case I want to put this in perspective, all names were created at one point or another. Our language is constantly evolving, for example Ashley was first considered a boy’s name but with time it evolved to be used mainly for girls with multiple different spellings. So when we hear gripes from those that wonder why you wouldn’t just choose an existing name we have to wonder how much of this is simply shaming African Americans for being African American. We all know that doing anything while black is likely to bring criticism.

Creating and reviving distinctly African American names became popular in the 1960s during a time of great political and social unrest in the Black community. This is the time when we really begin to think about the implications of continuing the use of traditionally European names. When Africans were brought to the United States and enslaved the first two things the master did was take their beads and any other tokens from Africa and rename them. Now, as a Black woman with the name Ashley I am in no way proclaiming that traditionally European names are evil. My grandmother named me and I am very proud of it but there is something to be said for distinctly African American names. I’m not trying to disparage names like my own but instead elevate the names different from mine generally considered “ghetto” or “too ethnic.” These names became a symbol of Black pride in the community.

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