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?


By Zoe (not verified)
October 13, 2009 9:31 AM

Great post, as always, Laura!

By Esther (not verified)
October 13, 2009 10:50 AM

Thanks for the correction on the Ima Hogg joke. I didn't realize it stemmed from a real person because it seemed so far fetched. I guess the Ura Hogg was added on in making the story funnier. The names Ima/Ura Hogg are clearly white sounding but I think racism/classism falls into the same category though on jokes like these. Ignorant White is just as racist as Ignorant Black.

I grew up with Tikki Tikki Tembo also. My mom read it to me when I was a little girl, closed it and said, "well that was a racist story." It's actually based on a Japanese story and the characters are illustrated wearing Japanese clothing and have slits for eyes. There are tons of books for children that are more offensive, but I can't think of any that have to do with naming. The lesson of Tikki Tikki Tembo is that now Chinese people have short, simple names because long ridiculous names are too complicated.

October 13, 2009 1:50 PM

So still crazy here, but I wanted to comment, Laura, that I do so appreciate how well you write about these issues!! It's understandably nerve-wracking to put these things on the internet, but I'm glad you do. Thanks!

By Guest (not verified)
October 13, 2009 6:17 PM

It seems to me that the Tikki-tikki-tembo story is a bit of mangled folklore from a Japanese story, Jugemu. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jugemu

I suppose these days if you want to make a silly story about silly names without being insensitive, you're pretty much limited to science fiction. And even then you're likely to offend someone (see: Jar Jar Binks).

By LuLuZoo (not verified)
October 14, 2009 1:06 AM

I completely agree with you on the entire subject, though there is another side to this. Like the celebrities that name their babies bizarre names like Apple,Pilot Inspector..... you know what I'm talking about.
I am not passing any judgment but every stereotype has a pattern of strange names. The hippies, lower class, rich snooty patooties....
I would really like to see a post covering names of all stereotypes because it's not just 'lower class' or 'African Americans' though I am not trying to make light of the obvious racism in those stories.

I think you know where I'm going though I'm having a bit of trouble explaining myself.

By Guest (not verified)
October 18, 2009 8:42 PM

Thank you so much for this series of posts. Fascinating, thought-provoking, and right on the money. I've been hearing this story for a while now and never quite know how to express the ickiness I feel because of it, but I feel like I'm closer now to formulating a good response for the next time I hear it.

By Sassy Lass (not verified)
October 18, 2009 10:19 PM

southern black girl here - thanks for this series. I've been a long fan of your blog and am consistently impressed with your thoughtful and well-crafted posts. Thanks again and keep up the great work!

By Medbh (not verified)
October 19, 2009 4:29 PM

This was one of your more compelling set of posts, Laura. Great, great reading. Social scientist, you are!

By Beth the original (not verified)
October 21, 2009 11:07 PM

Loved the posts. I've been away dealing with a family crisis, but this serious was so great.

By Beth the original (not verified)
October 21, 2009 11:07 PM

Ooops. This series. Groggy, here.

By Carl Novak (not verified)
November 2, 2009 2:09 PM

And we let these people vote.

By Guest (not verified)
November 3, 2009 5:48 PM

Even the misreading of medical jargon remains a popular touch; just swap out eczema for an STD to give it a more contemporary punch.

I did in part one and it's no joke or embellishment.

By TG (not verified)
November 3, 2009 7:07 PM

One possibility: the Ledasha story could perhaps have an element of truth.

Perhaps some woman is, in fact, named Ledasha. If so, then perhaps if she was clever, she might have abbreviated her name Le-a. I know a woman who sometimes writes her name br&ie, so that sort of thing happens.

And perhaps someone saw that she wrote her name like that and inquired. And Ledasha explained politely. The inquirer, however, may not have been as clever as Ledasha. Perhaps they thought that she was being entirely serious about the spelling of her name.

And perhaps that person jumped to the conclusion that Ledasha was stupid having an oddly spelled name, when in fact it was they themselves that was being stupid for not picking up on the clever spelling.

Seems plausible to me. But anyway, it's not really germane to the larger points presented here. Thanks for the great posts!

By CraezieLady (not verified)
December 2, 2009 1:53 AM

Actually, the Ima Hogg story is true:

I don't remember how old I was when my dad told me about Ima Hogg, but I remember thinking he was just telling me a corny joke. And I probably still would have thought that to this day, but I recently saw something in the newspaper referencing her, so I looked it up and was surprised to learn that she was a real person! The "Ura" part of the tale appears to be false, however!

By H. (not verified)
December 12, 2009 5:47 PM

I don't see La-a or Le-a as being racist at all, because honestly, I'm white and they were on my list of potential baby names. Along with Ida Jean or Elwood Alice for a girl, Hunter Hawkeye or Alfred Carter for a boy. Among others of course (I have a huge list so I have lots of options).
Abcde is another urban legend name I think is actually rather beautiful.

Also: I was a adopted and my name cycled through a few things.
Daisy May.
Before finally landing on Hannah, which I highly dislike.
I think I would have been better off with a more unusual name, because I feel plain and ordinary as "Hannah." And I think THAT is worse than any discrimination as a child. I feel boring and useless because I have what most consider a "normal and cute" name. I know at least SIX other Hannah's and because there are so many others, it's like if I dropped off the face of the earth, I wouldn't be missed. Maybe it's a case of one in a million. Where someone would rather have a name that makes them stand out. But people never think about that end of the spectrum.

I don't know, those are just some of my comments because I guess it didn't make sense to me. Maybe I'm just weird.

Otherwise: The article was a rather interesting read. Thanks for taking the time to write it.

And, sorry for the ultra long comment. :]

By handbags shop (not verified)
December 25, 2009 10:01 AM

Thanks for such a challenging and intelligent set of posts. Who knew reading the BNW would make me a better person by illuminating social things which I'd never considered?

By pickles (not verified)
December 28, 2009 8:41 PM

My brother has two biracial sons. One day after the oldest had just started school, my brother showed me a list of all the students that rode his child's bus. I could not believe some of the names on there. There was a LaQuavious, a D'Marious, a Ty'Shun'Ve (not kidding) and all kinds of unusual weird names.

So one day my brother goes to pick his son up from school, but was early so he stood around the classroom talking to the teacher while the kids got ready to leave. He asked the teacher (who was an African American man) how he deals with all these crazy names with pronounciations known only to the mother. He said the teacher looked "exasperated" and told my brother that it was frustrating for everyone because most of the kids with the crazy names went by nicknames like Tay-Tay and Lala and didn't respond to their given names and the worst part is that our state requires that 4 year olds in a Pre-K program must know how to print their names. Try getting a 4 year old to spell a name with 14 consonants and 3 random apostrophes. The teacher said that you can look on the child's face and see that they can't do it, and that one failure so early will negatively impact the student for the rest of their school career because they don't even think they are smart enough to write their own name! It's heartbreaking and I wish these parents would actually put some thought into what a child's name does to them throughout their life, rather than name them something ridiculous "cuz it sound pretty"...which is what you'll hear when you ask why they named their baby Shyquourious.

By Guest (not verified)
January 8, 2010 1:40 PM

So my brother-in-law, who works as a pharmacist, told me about a mother who came in to pick up a prescription for her daughter for La-a. I thought this was funny from a purely language point of view and told this story to a few co-workers. This tale seemed to take on a life of it's own and quickly an embellished form spread around the community in e-mail form. It is a classic example of folklore, but there is an element of truth to it.

Also, when my wife was student teaching she had twin students named Orangejello (o-ron-jel-o) and Lemonjello (le-mon-jel-o). A quick look at Facebook will turn up an number of people with the name LeDasha. A few years ago our high school valedictorian was named Marijuana PepesiCola.

These are real names. Perhaps the humor comes not at the race of the parents, but at the "What were they thinking," aspect of this situation.

I think it is a bit narrow minded to decide that I find the name La-a funny because of some imagined racist undertones. I think this author might want to examine her own belief system if she assumes that all of these real names belong to a certain group of people. The liberty taken in assuming that people are assuming these people are part of a specific group, and then assuming the humor is racist leads to a conclusion that are not justified by the research (or lack there of) of Laura Wattenberg.

By Azizi (not verified)
May 3, 2010 2:44 PM

I cosign what others have written about how on point this series of posts are.

As an African American, let me also add that the "dash don't be silent" part of this story really sounds to me like fake Black talk. If a lower income Black mother was angry that people weren't pronouncing her daughter's name right, I think that she would have said something like "You SAY the dash", although I don't know that she would have used the word "dash". I think she would have said "line". My sense is that the people who MADE UP this story just wanted to put that "be" in there because "be" is a familiar form of AAVE (African American Vernacular English)and they wanted people to make sure that people got that they were 'talking about' Black folks.

"Ladasha" is structured like many contemporary African American improvised names (as I refer to them). I'm not sure why different populations seem to prefer certain sound preferences over others. These sound preferences can change overtime, but the prefix "la" and the ending sound "ah" for African American female names have been quite consistently preferred for a long time.

With regard to the use of a hyphen in proper names, that practice is much less widely used than the practice of double capitalizations. Two examples of double capitalizations (capitalizing the first letter of the prefix and also capitalizing the first letter of the root name)are the (usually African American) male name "DeAndre" and the (usually African American) female name "LaToya". Apostrophes are also a feature of some African American contemporary names. However, an apostrophe is much less often found in these names than are double capitalizations. It should be noted that apostrophes are used in a number of traditional Hebrew and Arabic names-which may be one of the sources for their use by African Americans.

By Guest (not verified)
May 11, 2010 8:07 PM

I'm a little late to post this, but I just read this for the first time and wanted to say that I thought this was an excellent article. Thank you for writing about this!

By Guest (not verified)
May 11, 2010 11:44 PM

Interestingly I heard this as "A girl on my sister's basketball team" from a friend. I never realized that it was an urban legend. A pharmacist also told me about "S-H-I-T-H-E-A-D" and again it was told to me as someone who had filled a prescription. I find it interesting that in all cases the names were shared as people the person who had told me the story actually knew or met. Although I think in both cases they came up when I was mentioning children in a low income daycare I worked at had unusual names (really all races - as one poster noted it may be a class issue as much as a race issue - and not what I would describe as "dumb" names just unusual) and that my sister has a friend (whom I have actually met - so I know she's not an urban legend) whose name is Trachea (she goes by Tre), and that my sister herself has a really unusual spelling of her name because my mom didn't know how to spell it. I wonder if I hadn't presented my accounts from the first person if the others wouldn't have turned the urban legends into first person accounts.

By Guest (not verified)
May 12, 2010 5:25 PM

My dad swears up and down there was a record of a Latrina Flush at the hospital he worked at once. I'm forwarding this link to him.

By Guest (not verified)
May 29, 2010 3:53 PM

I'd guess she lives in Georgia, Alabama,Lousiana or Arkasas. Names don't just show name,but class, income and geography.

I think AA names tend to follow 2 forms- Fake African or Fake French

A lot of AA upper class people in the South were of French ancestry and ma have even been free blacks, not slaves. I don't know a single middle or uppermiddle class AA person who will use a french name for their child because they've definitely become racialized and are seen as Black Ghetto Names.

Blame Renee, Desiree and Andre for all the "tray" and "que" and "ay" endings and the apostrophes.

O the other side, there are the African names which fit what I call the Mandinga pattern. Even when using Arabic names, the pattern holds. Ashanti, Aisha, Jamilah. And AA parents use the same patterns for "standard names".
Cordell, Cassandra, Ophelia,Leticia, Felicia,Amanda.
You wont find as many Molly,Polly, Annie,Jan,Fran,Beths etc.

For males, the 2 syllable stressed on the 2nd reigns. Kanye. Kevin. KeyVON

Most americans hearing these jokes know that the name just SOUNDS black. Just like Dusti,Sandi, Candi,Lurleen, Darlene are "stripper names" because they are generally low income rural white names.

By Scal (not verified)
June 28, 2010 8:59 PM

This is a great article and I found it really interesting.

You take a very American-centric standpoint, but I guess that's partly because you're writing for an American audience, but also largely because - as you say - names are deliniated by race in America.

I just wanted to add that in Australia, which does not have a large African or African-descended population, "creative" names are similarly derided, but the underlying implication is that the parents are poor, tasteless or uneducated. Race is very rarely a factor.

By Guest (not verified)
August 17, 2010 12:25 PM

i think it's so imporBotant what name is chosen for a child. i occasionally babysit my coworker's daughter when she travels on business. one day when i signed her daughter out of daycare, the name below hers on the signout sheet was "Ja Rule" as in the rapper.I was dumbfounded, and couldn't help but feel terrible for this poor baby. I don't care about the racial undertones, but think of that child's future. bless his heart is anyone going to take him seriously when he's applying for jobs, or if he goes on to become a doctor or lawyer or politician? Just like those white supremicists up north that tried to name their child "hitler." I mean what are people thinking? White or Black, purple or green, striped or plaid, i don't care, think about what you're naming your child! Because it really does matter; they're stuck with it for life. That being said, I can appreciate the creativity, being an '80s baby, I was one of about 7 Jessicas on my freshman dorm hall in college. We all ended up having to go by our last names! So i always wanted a unique name that no one else had, but i certainly didn't yearn to be called Ja Rule or Hitler or some other nonsense such as that.

By Guest (not verified)
August 17, 2010 12:53 PM

whoops :)

By jodief (not verified)
October 5, 2010 9:39 AM

@guest who posted, among other things, "Also, when my wife was student teaching she had twin students named Orangejello (o-ron-jel-o) and Lemonjello (le-mon-jel-o). A quick look at Facebook will turn up an number of people with the name LeDasha. A few years ago our high school valedictorian was named Marijuana PepesiCola."

1. Marijuana Pepsi is apparently a real person, as I have seen her picture and her name. She works in admissions at a college in the US.

2. You claim your wife had students named Orangejello and Lemonjello. Can you prove this? Otherwise, you are simply providing another example of people telling urban legends.

I work at an inner city school, and we have kids with all sorts of names. I think it's worth looking at the way in which parents name their children, and how it will affect those children later in life. At the same time, I think our society needs to be more accepting of different-sounding names. Inevitably, the children at my school (especially the girls), will be judged by their names when they are older and applying to jobs. I don't know what is easier to change: how people name their children, or how society thinks about those people.

By MaggieK (not verified)
November 1, 2010 3:13 PM

The naming of children so often reflects the popularity of certain movies, TV shows and actors at the time. I remember hearing in the 1970's about the preponderonce of names among some of the First Nations people in Alberta who gave their children names like Pebbles and Bam-Bam after the Flintstones character. You wonder if they later changed them to something that they could actually live with into their later years!

By moncler online shop (not verified)
November 29, 2010 3:34 AM

Now for my story...how about the twin boys here in Ga named Orangejello and Yellowjello (translated that's Orangelo & Yelangelo). They attended Corley Elementary School, my former neighbor was one of their Kindergarten teachers.

By Guest12222 (not verified)
May 10, 2011 7:26 AM

Very interesting set of posts, although I do agree that racism is certainly not everyone's motivation in chuckling. It depends on their actual thoughts about what's funny.

I think many of the names could be real, but I had two white grandmothers whom I dearly loved who pronounced things the wrong way and things like that. Ignorant? Well, sure. That's not such a horrible thing, of course. They were wonderful ladies! I remember one of them talking about my cousin's dissertation work: "Are you still writin' that book of yours for school, Lynn?" I love it :D And my grandmother was very proud of Lynn, indeed.

An interesting point about folks talking about job prospects is that Oprah's name was really a misspelling of a Biblical name. I'm so glad that she was not constantly judged wrongly by something that's a curiosity at best.

By jakeefer (not verified)
August 4, 2011 8:50 PM

So, you're trying to make us feel bad for these jokes, all the while, people actually do give their children ignorant names. It's not just black people of lower class standing. Although, this class does produce a fair amount of names that are a bit ridiculous. I mean, let's just think about "Apple" for a minute.

I think the issue here is when people name their children, they don't think about the child or the fact that they're bastardizing the English language... and this happens quite frequently. So, of course, since there's nothing else to be done, we choose to make jokes.

I for one, will not feel bad about it.

By Sniffit (not verified)
July 17, 2012 9:50 PM

Ironic that the only Le-a I've seen online is snowy white from Texas

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