"Why Yo Mamma Name You That?" The History of Ghetto Names


Picture this: It’s the first day of school with a new teacher. You walk into a room full of new classmates but maybe you know a couple of them. Everyone finds themselves a seat and then the teacher starts taking roll:

“Ashley?”

“Here!”

“Chris?”

“Here”

“Jessica?”

“Present!”

“Tee… Ty… Ty-a-ree-ya?”

I don’t even verbally respond. I just raise my hand.

Now picture a M&M shaped head boy calling out “Tyareeya got diarrhea” for the rest of the school year because it rhymes, and it makes the other kids laugh. I hated my name!!! No one got it right and I couldn't stand the thought of people judging me based on seven characters thrown together that I didn’t even get to choose! "Who puts extra letters in a simple name like Tierra? Why yo mamma name you that?" Did my mother just want me to never be able to get a job? My name, to me, was just... g-h-e-t-t-o.


There’s only one thing in life that we have that is our own and it’s our names. You would think we should be happy with them, proud even. You should have a little excitement every time you get to meet someone and introduce yourself for the first time. Or when you are on vacation and find your name on one of those souvenir licenses plates or key chains (I’ve never had that pleasure). It’s a fun little hobby to collect something that seems to be made just for you. We should love our names as they are a sum of who we are.


But how can we when we all have preconceived notions about names and what kind of person they may be because of them? From country names like Billy Bob, to Celebrity names like Beyoncé and Oprah, to those “black” names that stick out like a sore thumb; we all have stereotypes tied to them.


These stereotypes sometimes come from outside sources like media and friends but also personal experiences. For myself, I see someone named “Brittany” or “Tasha” and I run the other way. Our name is how the world around us views who we may be as a person; social status, employment, education can all be at risk because of a few letters we were given before we even knew the alphabet.


But how did this come about? Where did this start? Why do we view common names like "Kimberly" more acceptable than "Imani?"


When West Africans were sold after arriving in the “New World,” they were not allowed to retain their names which is fairly common knowledge. There are some receipts, that show the sell of a person with names that they were given once they arrived like David, Simon or John. No other name would be given but instead a brief description. Other documents show how some Western African tribe names were misspelled and became the names that we may be use to today. For example, the Andoni tribe of Nigeria turned to Anthony as a name here once in America.*

Then there are Biblical names that our people were forced to assume. With Christianity being the most common religion at the time, names with religious significance were a go to option. Which is where the names like Sarah, Joseph, Mary and Daniel came.


As time passed and the abolishment of Slavery came about, some of those in the African American community wanted to move away from their Christian given names and those of their former slave owners. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and Malcolm Little became Malcolm X then El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Both left their Christian roots and converted to Islam.


Others wouldn’t convert to an entirely different religion but instead combine names from West African backgrounds with those with an Arabic history. This done in order to completely move away from the names that were forced on their ancestors. Take Tupac Shakur’s grandmother for instance. She changed her name from JoAnne Deborah Byron to Assata Shakur. Assata being West African for “she who struggles” and Shakur being Arabic for “Thankful one.”


African names made a dramatic come back after the release of Alex Haley's "Roots"in 1977. After those in the black community watched the dramatic tear jerking “Toby” scene, people began leaning towards African names to get back to their own roots. That may be why singer Ashanti, born October 1980, got her name. If you haven't seen Roots, you may want to spend some time watching either the original or the saga made in recent years.


So, what about those other names? You know, the “she ain’t never gonna get a job” names? Well, a lot of names just have some added Creole on them. French-Creole culture in Louisiana was merged into black naming in the 1960s as another way to avoid our past. That’s where names like Monique or Rochelle (my middle name) stem. Then there is the razzle dazzl