Ledasha, legends and race: part three (of three)

Oct 11th 2009

Reader advisory: sensitive topics/vocabulary

In parts 1 and 2 on Ledasha, I talked about how fake names can convey real social cues. In most of these stories, though, the social cues go far beyond the names.

Consider the language of the Ledasha tale. Google counts 100,000 results for the punchline "dash don't be silent." (For the linguistically inclined, that's the "habitual be," a distinctive syntactic feature of African American Vernacular English.) You'll also find thousands of similar hits for "dash ain't silent." But when you search for the Standard English version "dash isn't silent" you mostly find explanations in the storyteller's voice, not quotes from Ledasha's mother. The mother's vernacular is intrinsic to the story.

For some perspective on this, let's take a trip back in time. Urban legend resource Snopes.com, in their excellent review of name tales, unearthed a relevant item from a 1917 book of humor. Please excuse the period vocabulary:

A young woman in Central Park overheard an old negress call to a pickaninny: "Come heah, Exy, Exy!"

"Excuse me, but that's a queer name for a baby, aunty?"

"Dat ain't her full name," explained the old woman with pride; "dat's jes' de pet name I calls for short. Dat child got a mighty grand name. Her ma picked it out in a medicine book — yessum, de child's full name is Eczema."

The blithe racism makes us cringe today, but every element of this joke is echoed in modern name tales. The proud, earnest ignorance, the desire to aggrandize, and the vernacular speech are all familiar. Even the misreading of medical jargon remains a popular touch; just swap out eczema for an STD to give it a more contemporary punch.

The big difference between the Eczema tale and today's is that the 1917 teller had no qualms about identifying the child's race as the central point. The many widely circulated versions of Ledasha, laden with racial signals as they may be, never come out and say it. Tellers rely on implicit cues so that the story, on the surface, is just about a funny name.

As is so often the case, what we tiptoe around is as revealing as what we say. The minute you inject adjectives like "black" and "poor" into a story, the ground shifts. You've lost your protective coating of mere humor; you're talking about society. That can be dangerous ground. A funny name tale is a safer way to poke fun, with plausible deniability. Indeed, some tellers may pass on the stories without a thought about their cultural underpinnings. Yet the real issues are still there just below the surface. You can tell, because in settings where people are not afraid to talk about race and class, the same stories still flower with full, explicit cultural context.

On many African-American messageboards you'll find people laughing over the familiar name tales, including Ledasha. In those forums, though, the racial and cultural setting isn't just alluded to, it's the whole point -- and the distinctions go far beyond black and white. Names are dissected as "ghetto" or "saditty," likely to get you rejected for a corporate job or likely to get you beaten up in the 'hood. "Ghetto names," including the standard urban legends, are a staple of black dj's and comics, as in this YouTube video. The names are used as explicit, exaggerated symbols of a specific social set, just as a caricatured "valley speak" might be used by whites.

At the extreme opposite end of the spectrum, you'll find the name tales repeated in white-supremacist publications and web forums. There, not only is the racial element of the stories explicit, but the most outrageous examples are presented as typical black names. Moreover, the truth of the stories is never questioned. In fact, the white supremacists often embellish the tales in ways that reinforce their supposed authenticity and typicality. One common approach is to interweave the absurd names with real, unremarkable African-American names. For example, in one article from a "racial realist" magazine an attorney offered "Some Names of Blacks Encountered in My Practice." Names like Lemonjello and Orangejello and even Godzilla Pimp were nestled among the likes of Ajeenah and Tywanna. The effect was to smoothly suggest that all were equally ridiculous.

In another case, a poster in a white supremacist forum acknowledged that some of the names he was talking about were cited as false urban legends on a well-known web site. He quickly found his own unique way to discredit that source, though, noting: "Of course they also say that it is false that Israeli workers stayed home from work at the WTC on 9-11-2001."

As you might imagine, most of the name stories in the white-supremacist forums are laced with filthy racial epithets. Tellingly, though, I found the story of Ledasha cut and pasted directly from widely circluated mainstream versions, without any mention of race. No added commentary was needed when the "mainstream" versions included lines like this:

"SO, if you see something come across your desk like this please remember to pronounce the dash. If they axe you why, tell them the dash don't be silent."

Or, to quote another common version of the tale: "And we let these people vote."

"These people." It's a loaded phrase, eh?  Ostensibly "these people" are just people who choose silly names, so it's safe to make fun of them...right?

Ledasha, legends and race: part two

Oct 10th 2009

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...

Ledasha, legends and race: part one

Oct 9th 2009

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...

On to part two!