The Source: From Lisa to Beyonce’ to Annie and Quevenzhane: The Battle over Black Women’s Names

Last week the first trailer was released for the “Annie” remake with Jamie Foxx, Cameron Diaz and starring 10 year old Superstar Quevenzhane Wallis. As is to be expected crazy racists soon got online screaming that the remake was a bad idea, why did it have to be with black folks etc. etc. However none of this should be new to the Oscar nominated actress. She was the reverse Lupita Nyong’o at the 2013 Oscars. First there was a bizarre and crude “joke” by the Onion website, then there was the exchange with an Associated Press reporter on the red carpet. The AP reporter was interviewing Quevenzhane about the then still far away “Annie” remake, but for some reason couldn’t be bothered to pronounce Quevenzhane properly. “Can I just call you Annie?” she asked. To which the 9 year old responded “No. My name is not Annie. My name is Quvenzhané.” And the internet went wild.

While it was nice to see a 9 year old put a reporter in check, the whole conversation brought up the specter of racial name prejudice that haunts black people from the red carpet to college applications to Craigslist. To many mainstream America, of all colors, Quvenzhane is some weird ‘ghetto’ or ‘hood’ name. So racists can scream about her ruining a 30 year old movie remake, the Onion can make fun of a little girl and a reporter can’t be bothered to learn how to pronounce an Oscar nominated actress’s name. And let’s be honest, for all of the self-rightgeous black folks that came to “Lil’ Q’s” defense if she was a 9 year old ebonics talking Qevenzhane from the inner city instead of Qevenzhane the  cute 9 year old and Oscar nominated actress, plenty of black folks would be throwing shade at her Momma for giving her such a ridiculous name. The reality is that Quvenzhane, like many African American girls with unique names, is a sign of financial and cultural progress in the black community.

A ‘unique’ name is defined by sociologists as any name given to no other child born that year of the same race and sex. And name popularity and uniqueness has changed for black women over time from persona lives to pop culture. Take the name “Lisa” for example. Black men who grew up in the 80’s all have a special place in their hearts for women named Lisa. You really couldn’t help it, just about every televised pop culture crush you could have on a black girl in the 80’s and early 90’s was named Lisa. On Diff’Rent Strokes you had Lisa Hayes, Arnold’s smartypants rival / crush, Lisa Turtle and her ever  changing hats and fashion on Saved by the Bell, Eddie Murphy’s queen from Queens Lisa McDowell in Coming to America and the original bohemian crush Denise Huxtable AKA Lisa Bonet. And that was just movies and T.V. In music you had Father M.C. singing hits like “Lisa Baby” starring Elise Neal in his video (not quite a true Lisa but you get the point), and who can forget L.L. crooning “Lisa, Pamela Angela, Rene’ …. I Love you, you’re from around the way.” Of course now all the Lisas are gone, replaced by Keishas, Kekes, Beyonces and hopefully one day Quvenzhanés. You see, the naming of black women is a great barometer of Black progress in America and the sooner we equate the Shanaynays and Lakishas of the world to the Madisons and Annies the better off we’ll be as a people.

Historically, naming, especially the naming of girls has always had resonance and meaning going all the way back to pre-slavery West African roots of most black Americans. While many African American women’s names can be traced back to West African “Day Names” where a child was named based on the day of the week they were born (Abena = Tuesday, Afi = Friday etc.) the truth is that women’s names are more closely associated with a family’s and community’s socioeconomic progress than boy’s names. Families often name girls based on what sounds pretty, but also the family (or the mother’s) aspirations for the child, in contrast to boys whose names tend to be more conservative. So for example, the most common names forced upon slave women by their masters for public address from 1619-1799 were Bet, Mary, Jane, Hanna, Betty, Sarah, Phillis, and Peg. However the most common private names, used within slave quarters or within families during that same era were Abah, Bilah, Comba, Dibb, Juba, Kauchee, Moma, and Sena. Even during the most oppressive of times in Black history there was still resistance to black identity being completely overrun by mainstream white dominance.

Throughout Black history during times of high social stress, be it economic or political, black girls names tend to resemble those of white girls. In times of greater economic progress and political advancement girls names tend to get more creative and more original. Naming is never an exact science but its not entirely a coincidence that in the mid to late 1960’s when African American unemployment was on the rise that the top name for white female babies from 1962 to 1972 was Lisa and Lisa was a top 5 name amongst African American girls as well. But the 1970’s saw a rise in the Black Islamic movement, the Black power movement and lo and beyond a rise in more race specific names amongst African American girls. The African American unemployment rate in the 1970’s was around 5.8% (whereas it was 3.23% for whites) and thus those black girls born in the 1970’s and early 1980’s often had more original names which was a good thing. This trend continued for about 20 years, in the Harvard study Distinctive African American Names: An Experimental, Historical, and Linguistic Analysis of Innovation researchers found that original black naming for girls far outstripped every other demographic group in America from the early 70’s to the late 1980’s with girls having twice as many original names than boys (29 to 16% respectively). It’s no coincidence that this time period overlaps with the rapid growth of the black middle class and significant advances in education and political influence for African Americans as well.

For all of the Kente cloth and Bill Clinton speeches the 1990’s to the early 2000’s actually saw the beginning of the backlash to African American gains in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It started with the Bell Curve and anti-affirmative action and by the early 2000’s the full – fledged naming wars had started. Bill Cosby made the first shot with his infamous D.C. speech in 2002 when said: “With names like Shaniqua, Taliqua and Mohammed and all that crap, and all of them are in jail….They are standing on the corner and they can’t speak English.”  Then suddenly reports started surfacing that “Black Names” were keeping African Americans out of the job market as employers were afraid to hire Lakisha and Jamal over Emily and Brendan . Black Americans, always quick to internalize racism were quick to get on the name-shame train all the way up and down the cultural coast and the focus was always squarely on black women. We all got the hidden meaning when Martin’s girlfriend was named Gina, her sassy girlfriend was Pam but the hoodrat next door was Shanaynay, or when tacky slovenly Rasputia was chasing after Norbit when all he wanted was the beautiful “Kate”. Of course all of this ignored the realities on the ground, the economy was already slowing for everybody after 9-11, names had nothing to do with it, but the Gwyneths, Demis and Charlizes of the world were not going to be stigmatized and problematized for their ‘unique’ names. I know a couple that had a serious fight over whether to name their daughter Ebony or Eboni because the husband insisted that “Ebony” sounded too “hood”.

The truth is that despite economic downturns or political setbacks the black community should embrace unique naming as a sign of the resilience of our culture regardless of the challenges that are being faced. Every black child name doesn’t have to have some distinct “meaning”  in order to be acceptable. In many cases (as with Quevanzhane) the name is just a mixture of her parent’s names. If you met Condoleeza the Wal-Mart cashier, Oprah the sales clerk and Beyonce the call center operator you’d probably wonder out loud what her two-tone-hair-styled-long-finger-nail-wearing mother was thinking as she gave her daughters those names. But because those names belong to the former Secretary of State, the most powerful woman in Western media and the pop icon of a generation their names have become ‘acceptable’. The reality is that being named Condoleeza, or Oprah or Beyonce didn’t keep these women from being successful, and nor will naming your daughter LaShon or Shaniqua. It would seem that at least some African Americans are not bowing to larger social pressure as the most popular names for black girls born in 2010 according to the Social Security Administration were Beyonce, Jayla, Ayana, Zari and Laqueta. Let’s be honest, 20 years from now there are going to be some Doctor Zaris, Mayor Ayanas and Senator Laquetas. And one day, perhaps the name Quevenzhane will be roll off the American tongue just as easily as Annie. We should accept and embrace that reality now rather than problematize names which are a reflection of our people’s undying refusal to be dominated.

This article originally appeared online at TheSource.com.

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