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...

Comments

51
By La Critika (not verified)
October 18, 2009 7:34 PM

Wow. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful and wonderful discussion of the race and class of names. I grew-up with an uncommon name that used to mark me immediately as the child of oddballs. I used to be asked if I made the name up (especially when in a group with my friends, all sporting similar hippie names). Over the years, as Rivers and Forests and the like have become more common, I've noticed that my name no longer clearly conveys my racial (I'm white and Jewish and it's a name more common in Latin America) and class backgrounds. I am less and less likely to be told that my parents must be hippies/freaks. More and more I get the sense that my name now sounds sophisticated to white, middle-class people who used to think it was just beyond-the-pale weird.

I haven't changed, the name hasn't changed, my hippie parents haven't changed, just the cultural capital associated with unusual names has changed.

Which is all a long way of saying thank you so much for your post. You've spoken to one of the ways that we still "code" race and class, often in denigrating ways, without actually articulating racist ideas.

Love the blog.

52
By Guest (not verified)
October 18, 2009 10:12 PM

Your first assumption (regarding Black forums) is false. This is fairly common. Be careful of generalizations and stereotypes - particularly when you are complaining about generalizations and stereotypes.

53
By handbags shop (not verified)
December 25, 2009 10:01 AM

Btw, I've always interpreted the name S-H-I-T-H-E-A-D to be a girls name. the way it was told to me, it was pronounced Shuh-TAY-uh.

54
By Azizi (not verified)
May 3, 2010 1:08 PM

I've just found this discussion,and I'm not sure if it's too late to comment.

I'm an African American female who adopted my first name "Azizi" in 1967 when I was in college. This was during the time when a number of African American musicians, athletes, and others adopted Arabic or traditional African names to affirm our African heritage. Giving children modified African, Arabic, Hebrew, European names is a reflection of African Americans' improvisational creative naming traditions (and our musical, dance and other improvisational cultural traditions). We have always had a deeper pool of proper names than Anglo-Americans, but yes, that practice has increased since the multi-cultural movement and cultural nationalist movement of the late 1970s-1970s.

I very much appreciate the posts on this subject that Laura Wattenberg has written. I definitely agree with the racist/classist subtext of these urban legend name stories. As confirmation that race & ethnicity can influence our reading of names, I'd like to share that when I read the story about the baby name "Kegger", I immediately thought of the "n word". "Kegger" and that offensive racial referent "sound" similar to me. I suppose that I didn't think of "kegs" of beer because those aren't that common a feature at Black American parties.

I also appreciate Laura's comments about differences in pronunciation between African Americans and Anglo-Americans. One example of that is the name "Yolanda". I've found that most African Americans say yoh-LAHN-dah while White Americans (and others?)say yoh-LAND-dah.

I have bookmarked this site & I look forward to reading and participating in other discussions.

55
By Azizi (not verified)
May 3, 2010 1:31 PM

Correction:
I definitely agree that these urban legend name stories have racist/classist sub-texts. I don't agree with those subtext.

The list of name sources for contemporary African American names that I included in my previouos post should also have included Asian names and any other names that we may have heard or read of.

For instance, I believe that the African American female name "Tamika" with its numerous variants has its source in the Japanese name "Tameko". Though I have no proof, I think it's likely that the 1962 movie "A Girl Named Tamiko" was the impetus for this name creation. I also think that it's likely that the African American names that include the element "quan" names such as the male (usually African American) names such as "Quantay" and "DeQuan" are derived from the Vietnamese name element "Quan" (meaning soldier/warrior). Furthermore, I believe that the name "Latasha", "Lataysha"; "Latosha" probably are derived from the name "Laetitia" (Leticia), the name of a minor Roman goddess. Also, it's possible that the (usually African American) female name "Keisha" (Keyshia; Keshia etc) may have come from the "Nkissa", a Bobangi {Central African} word or name meaning “favorite”. However, I believe that it's more probable that “Keisha” is an African American form of the Hebrew female name “Ketzia” or “Kecia” (ket ZEE a) meaning “cinnamon bark" or "pleasant fragrance".

Okay. I'll stop now. Thanks again for the opportunities to share!

56
By LeahRaeScott (not verified)
July 30, 2010 3:47 AM

First off, so everyone knows my perspective... I am a caucasian female in her early twenties. IDK if that does/should matter, but just putting it out there.

Azizi: You have a wonderfully vast knowledge of name origins. It's quite fascinating. I also find it interesting that your 60s/70s African-American culture prompted you to find a traditional ethnic name for yourself. Just out of curiosity, what is the origin and meaning of the name Azizi?

As for the overall post (I've read all three)...

I find the entire 3-part post both enlightening and saddening. It's really been self-realizing for me, since I do not peg myself as a racist person in the least, but I am ashamed to find that I let out a soft chuckle at first reading of the Le-a anecdote. However, I would hope that it is not due to any subconscious racial negativity, but solely due to the unconventional spelling/pronunciation of the name.

I would also like to believe that my open-minded upbringing has had a positive effect upon my overall character. My parents (both caucasian, born in the 1950s) are two of the most honest, non-judgmental individuals with whom I have had the privilege of being acquainted. I grew up in a predominantly caucasian neighborhood, but when I was in elementary school, an African-American family moved in next door to us. This was a completely new experience for me, as I had never known any African-Americans before in my young lifetime. My parents simply explained to me that everyone has a variety of color to their skin, hair, eyes, etc, even within the same race. Since then, I've not really felt that other caucasians, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanics, or any other racial variety of people were really physically different from myself, other than a slight (or not so slight) change of tone to their skin or other features.

I've completely gone off-topic, but maybe this will help give others a sort of self-realization, as well.

Also, thank you Laura, for an extremely well-written and well-thought article.

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August 14, 2010 11:15 PM

My cousin told me my child's middle name was too Hispanic. Every time I mention it to people they automatically ask me if I am Hispanic (I am), but the name is Greek!!

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