African-American names are part of the traditions of African-American culture. While many Black Americans use names that are popular with wider American culture, a number of naming trends have emerged within African American culture. Many use their own or their children's names as a symbol of solidarity within their culture.
Prior to the 1950s and 1960s, most African-American names closely resembled those used within European American culture. Even within the Caucasian population, most babies of that era were given a few very common names with children using nicknames to distinguish the various people with the same name. It was also quite common for immigrants and cultural minorities to choose baby names or change their names to fit in with the larger American culture. This applied to both given names and surnames. With the rise of 1960s civil rights movement, there was a dramatic rise in names of various origins. San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge believes that the shift toward unique baby names is also the result of the cultural shift in America that values individuality over conformity.
One very notable influence on African-American names is the Muslim religion. Islamic names entered the popular culture with the rise of The Nation of Islam among Black Americans with its focus on civil rights. The popular names Aisha, Aaliyah, Malaika, and Tanisha have origins in Arabic and/or Islam.
A number of African American celebrities began adopting Muslim names, such as Muhammad Ali, who changed his name from Cassius Clay in 1964. Other celebrities adopting Muslim names include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Despite the origins of these names in the Muslim religion and the place of the Nation of Islam in the Civil Rights Movement, many Muslim names such as Jamal and Malik entered popular usage among Black Americans simply because they were fashionable, and many Islamic names are now commonly used by African Americans regardless of religion.
Some names of African origin began to crop up as well. Names like Ashanti, have origins in the continent of Africa. The Black Power movement inspired many to show pride in their heritage. Harvard University sociologist Stanley Lieberson noted that in 1977, the name "Kizzy" rose dramatically in popularity in 1977 following the use of the name in the book and televisions series Roots.
Many names of French origin entered the picture at this time as well. Opinions on the origins of the French influence vary. Historically French names such as Monique, Chantal, André, and Antoine became so common within African-American culture that many Americans began to think of them solely as "Black names".
By the 1970s and 1980s, it had become common within the culture to invent new names, although many of the invented names took elements from popular existing names. Prefixes such as La/Le, Da/De, Ra/Re, or Ja/Je and suffixes such as -ique/iqua, -isha, and -aun/-awn are common, as well as inventive spellings for common names. The book Baby Names Now: From Classic to Cool--The Very Last Word on First Names places the origins of "La" names in African American culture in New Orleans.
The name LaKeisha is typically considered American in origin, but has elements of it pulled from both French and African roots. Other names like LaTanisha, JaMarcus, DeAndre, and Shaniqua were created in the same way. Punctuation marks are seen more often within African-American names than other American names, such as the names Mo'nique and D'Andre.
European and Biblical names
Even with the rise of creative names, it is also still common for African Americans to use biblical, historic, or European names. Daniel, Christopher, Michael, David, James, Joseph, and Matthew were among the most common names for African-American boys in 2013.
African-American names are subject to the same prejudice that African Americans face. Multiple studies on the topic found that job applicants with Black-sounding names were 50% less likely to get a call back after submitting resumes than applicants with white sounding names submitting similar resumes. African-American naming trends are often misunderstood, maligned and sometimes referred to by the pejorative term "ghetto names". Many experts assert that this criticism is solely a manifestation of racism as many other American cultures have used inventive names extensively without the same condemnation. For example, the Puritans had a deep tradition of expressing their values through creative names, many in the form of virtue names like Grace, Felicity, Chastity or Hope. These names have entered the standard American usage without issue. Vanessa, Wendy, Jayden, and Scarlett are also names invented in the past century that do not have stigma attached to them as well as invented spellings such as Haleigh and Jaxon. African-Americans of lower socioeconomic standing are more likely to give their children unique sounding names than blacks in the middle or upper classes.
Racist folklore has popped up involving African-American names. One common piece of folklore is the presence of a name spelled "Le-a". In the legend, the mother is frustrated because no one pronounces her child's name correctly as "Le-dash-a" and reportedly states "The dash don't be silent", which is an incorrect attempt to mock African American Vernacular English.
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- American names
- African American culture
- Hispanic American naming customs
- Given name
- List of most popular given names by state in the United States