A relative of mine recently announced the birth of her daughter. The baby’s name? Kalayshia. That’s Kuh-LAY-zhah. Rhymes with Malaysia. Now I know what you’re thinking, because I thought the same things. Why is there an H? Does it mean anything? Can I call her Kallie? Why can’t you give your baby a nice, “normal” name, like Sophia or Emily, so that she can succeed in life? That’s what you’re thinking, because that’s what everyone wants to ask, but of course, out of respect for the new mother, and perhaps out of fear of being labeled culturally insensitive or racist, most people just smile and say, “Oh. That’s a nice name.”
It’s the right thing to say. But still, the questions are there. Many non-black people are perplexed by the naming traditions of many black Americans. To be fair, there are quite a few black Americans who are puzzled by recent trends of unconventional naming, too. For decades after the abolition of slavery in the U.S., black families often gave their children traditional names like Mary, John, Richard, or Katherine; names inspired by the mainstream culture, family heritage, or the Bible. Around the early 1970’s, the civil rights movement and the rise of Afrocentrism and ethnic pride resulted in a shift toward African or African-inspired names for black children, such as Keisha, Aliyah, Khalil, and Malik. As more parents caught on to the trend and embraced the idea of expressing their cultural pride through the naming of their children, more unique names began to emerge. Parents strove to create interesting names that sounded pleasing to the ear, often by taking African, English, or French names and adding their own twists.
Today, it is not unusual to see black children with less conventional names, such as Shyreese, Jayvon, Ki’ani, or Marquel. At times, the attempts to be unique seem a little overboard, with such inventive spelling and phonetic rules that it is not easy for others to pronounce the child’s name. For example, I once met a child named Dyonjena (Pronounced Dee-ahn-gen-AY). And while I applaud these parents’ efforts to embrace the black subculture and give their children unique names, a part of me cringes. I cringe in part because of the at times outlandish spelling and the stray from phonetic rules — what may seem unique and pleasing to the ear of the parents may be seen as uneducated and laughable to the rest of society. I also cringe in part because of the research indicating that people with more African-American sounding names are less likely to be hired than people with more mainstream names. I cringe, because as if we black Americans did not already have such a strong current to swim against (the standard of beauty, the culture of poverty, mainstream language barriers), we still insist on giving our children something that may give them an additional disadvantage — an additional barrier to future success.
Perhaps I cringe for nothing. Perhaps eventually, society will fully embrace the unique naming patterns of African Americans (as well as other ethnic subcultures with non-mainstream names). Perhaps the key is not to shrug our shoulders assimilate, but to boldly push forward and force the mainstream culture to include us — kinky hair, inventive names, and all. It only took a generation of Marys, Johns, Martins, and Rubys to change the culture and end an era of legal discrimination and separation. Perhaps it will take a generation of Shyreeses, Dyonjenas, and Kalayshias to force open the remaining closed doors.