Ledasha, legends and race: part two
Reader advisory: sensitive topics/vocabulary
In the first post on Ledasha, I suggested that many familiar "urban legend" names serve as proxies for talking about race. Names are the perfect vehicle for this because they carry so many subtle cultural signals. Even fake names can have real ethnic identities. Take another read of the Ledasha tale, then try this one for comparison:
A college student comes home for the summer and her shocked parents see that she's obviously pregnant. She tells them that she's determined to finish school on time and that all of her sorority sisters have promised to help her with the baby. Sure enough, come September she's back on campus with her baby son in her arms: little Kegger, named for the place he was conceived.
You've never heard that one before, have you? I thought not, because I made it up. But if you heard it in a different context, I'll bet that you'd follow the social and linguistic cues that point to the family as upper middle-class white people. I chose the name Kegger not just for its meaning, but because it follows stylistic conventions of distinctly white names like Kyler, Bridger and Cooper.
Real name tall-tales aren't about folks like that. They're consistently packed with cues pointing to a non-white underclass, and it all starts with the names. Consider one of the longtime kings of urban legend names: shuh-THEED, spelled S-H-I-T-H-E-A-D. When you hear the name shuh-THEED you know without a shred of context that you're not talking about a white boy.
The standard length for an American boy's name is two syllables. By my calculations three-fifths of all boys are now given two-syllable names, and the percentage of white boys is even higher. Yet among all those hundreds of two-syllable white names from Aaron to Zander you won't find a single name with stress on the second syllable. That rhythm is common enough among contemporary black names, as well as in other languages like Arabic. Some more traditional English men's names have second-syllable stress too, but if you think of one chances are you'll find it has dropped out of use among whites while maintaining some currency in black families. Try Jerome, Maurice and Bernard. (That's maw-REECE and ber-NAHRD. As the front-stressed MOHR-iss and BERN-erd, they're solidly white.)
This brings us back around to Ledasha. It's a hair's breadth from the popular black name Latasha, and echoes a whole generation of Leshondas, Lakishas and more. Check out the NameVoyager graph of LAT- names for a snapshot. Not only does the name Ledasha identify the mom as black, but it works a sly bit of guilt by association. It positions its silliness right in the middle of a standard black naming style -- in fact, one version of the story claims La-a is "one of the most popular names in Detroit." The story is designed to be "all too plausible," playing off what we already believe. The implication is that the whole style of names is equally suspect. That's a common technique of derision, as we'll see in part 3...