When I was 12, I decided that I was going to change my name to Kwesi. I’d met someone with that name when I was a kid. He was older, in college and seemed like the kind of man I’d like to be when I grew up. It wasn’t that I wanted to be named after this man in particular; I just didn’t want to be named Phill. Kwesi sounded cool – Phill, not so much.
I began having issues with my name early, from about the age of seven. I’m a junior. My father’s name is Phil (one “l”). I’m not sure why I have the second “l” and no “ip,” but that’s another story. My brother, six years my junior, is named Abdul-Qadir Mustafah. My parents aren’t Muslim, but much of my extended family is. I’m from Newark, NJ a place that was a central component of the Black Muslim movement in this country. I’ve never asked my parents why they chose the name, but for a period of time I admittedly felt jipped.
I went to school with Abduls, Mustafahs, Hakeems and then there were these other names, ones that didn’t seem rooted in Islam, or any language or religion for that matter. I can’t tell you why, but I was never envious of those names. The ones that seemed to be like parents grabbed letters out of a Scrabble bag and just made do. I’m not sure why, at such a young age, I rejected those names. For many years, I felt that some of those names were tantamount to parental neglect. However now, older and a little bit wiser, I see it differently.
The Shaniquas, De’Onte’s, Laquishas and Shaneekas I knew as a kid are all grown up. They are somebody’s mom, teacher, doctor, accountant etc. As I stepped out of my own discomfort with those names and began to look at the traditions of naming in our culture, I began to feel that in some ways, the parents who make those choices are revolutionaries. Who gets to decide what is appropriate? Who’s rules do we have to live by?
I am working on a documentary that examines these names. I want to hear the stories of people who have unique, or “non-traditional” names. I think it’s important that we understand what they face and how they feel about their own names and how we as a society respond to their monikers.
Being honest, while I am open and have respect for non-conformity, I do think some parents take it too far. As a professor, reading a class roster for the first time, I am sometimes shocked by what I see. My students are smart and will rise above any discrimination they may face, but I wonder sometimes…why make it that much harder for your kids?
What do we see and feel about ourselves based on our names? Should we be beyond the idea that there is a right and wrong way to name a child? Are we too judgmental, or even self-hating? I don’t know that there are answers, but I think we have to ask the questions. It isn’t just that unique names that make me ponder these questions, it’s also the names many my friends have chosen over they years that make think about the implications of social class. I don’t think it’s an accident that to my knowledge, I don’t have any friends with children named Shanquisha, DayQuell. However, I can count the Chases, Madisons, Brees and Coles by the handful.
What’s in a name? That’s what I’m hoping to find out with my work. If you’re interested in talking with me about it, let me know. We all have stories to tell. What’s yours?