Ledasha, legends and race: part one
A new Queen of Urban Legend Names has been crowned! I first heard reports of her last year, but the sightings are coming fast and furious now. Friends, acquaintances, and total strangers write to me about her. She's the new darling of messageboards, a blog and Twitter staple, and a big hit at watercoolers around the country. If you haven't been introduced to her yet, allow me to do the honors:
My aunt/cousin/college roommate is a teacher/nurse/social worker in Georgia/Louisiana/Detroit. She had a student/patient whose name was written Le-a. She asked, "is that pronounced LAY-uh?" and the girl's mother got all offended: "It's Ledasha! The dash don't be silent!"
Now, I should be clear. I have no idea whether there really are girls named Le-a. It's certainly possible, and hard to confirm either way. Punctuation is a rising name trend but it's usually stripped out of official records, so a Le-a would be recorded simply as Lea. True or not, though, I consider this an urban legend name because the tellings of the tale make it so.
Look at the form of the story. It's widely repeated, always in the third person, with constant embellishments and no consistency to the details. (Sometimes the girl is La-a, Li-a, even Lou-a.) And to borrow a phrase from libel law, the story is told with a "reckless disregard for the truth." Sometimes the teller will even say "I don't know if this is true, but" before launching into a "can you believe how stupid that mother is" yarn.
That's the ultimate mark of an urban legend. As tellers of the tales we don't want to know if they're true or not, because we kind of suspect the answer would be not, and what fun would that be? If you don't look too closely, you get to pass the story on. My favorite example of this ostrich approach is from the book "Freakonomics," in which the authors describe their purpose as applying disciplined, rigorous analysis to social questions. Yet they repeat as fact certain well-known urban legend names -- then explain in the footnotes that it must be true because a friend of theirs swears he once overheard the names in a grocery store.
Why does it matter? We tell funny stories all the time without believing them. (Does anybody really think that a priest, a rabbi and a chicken walked into a bar?) I believe it matters in the case of urban legend names because they're not merely humor...and they're not random. They exist in a complex social setting, and they serve a subtle and consequential purpose. They are proxies for talking about race.
I am not saying that telling the story of Le-a, or Lemonjello and Oranjello, or Male and Female (that's MAH-lay and feh-MAH-lay, of course) makes you a racist. People of every color and background repeat the stories because they're clever and amusing. What I am saying is that as a group, the legend names have a context and meaning we shouldn't ignore. Or to put it another way, I haven't mentioned a word about Ledasha's race, but didn't you draw assumptions about it? And aren't those assumptions a key part of the story?
This is a big topic for me, and to do it justice in blog form I'm going to have to break it into pieces. More tomorrow...