My first son’s name fell into a family tradition, one common among Black families, of adapting a nontraditional name spelling in order to keep everyone’s name beginning with the same letter. Specifically, his name, Kaleb, was adapted from a biblical name, another very common Black naming tradition whether you’re religious or not. For my second son, born 11 years later, I threw away all tradition.
“I’m naming him Theo,” I told my friends at a pottery painting party as I sat in a chair much too wooden for my 6-months-pregnant body. Though I knew the group of Black mothers whose opinions mattered dearly to me would be vocal, I wasn’t quite expecting the responses.
“You can’t name him that!”
“No… We’re going to help you.”
As I listened to a brainstorm of various T names, I hid my disappointment. I was allowed to feel the sting that comes with an idea being shot down. I gave myself the space to feel sad that people who hadn’t met my son yet, as I’d felt like I knew him a little bit as he grew into a bump I talked to every day, did not like his name. I also gave them some grace and knew their concern was well-intentioned. After all, naming a Black child—specifically a Black boy—is not something to take lightly.
For Black mothers, there’s an extra layer of consideration that must be made when we name our babies. At the most minor level, what are considered stereotypically Black names are the butt of running jokes. Kids and adults alike use exaggerations of Black names to get a laugh at the expense of a Black person or diminish the humanity of Black people they don’t like or agree with.
Ethnic names in general that signal anything other than whiteness in the U.S. become a reason to fear or hate the associated person. President Barack Obama’s citizenship was constantly under question. His middle name, Hussein, became the center of conspiracy theories linking him to terrorism and other wild accusations. My oldest son, whose middle name is of Arabic origin and carries a strong meaning, did not even know he had one until he was in high school. It was my own fear, that his middle name would present yet another obstacle and excuse for people to discriminate against him, that kept me from disclosing it for years.
Name discrimination is real. Employers are less likely to call back candidates with Black-sounding names. Distinctively Black names, however, carry power. When Africans were brought to America and enslaved, they were given names by the white people who bought them—and often nothing more than a first name. Over time, Black people have asserted our heritage and culture through names that quickly identify us and connect us to an ancestry that was stripped away from us. But, it’s not an easy decision.
Do we proudly exert our children’s Blackness or African heritage? Do we picture their name on a resume in the trash or in the call-back pile? Will they have to constantly correct or demand they be called by their given first name instead of some nickname forced upon them? A name that’s decidedly Black reclaims the power America’s racist legacy continues to try and take. It’s an act of strength. For me, however, naming my youngest Black son Theo was an act of letting go of all the worries associated with bringing a Black son into the world.
There’s no epic story behind his name. There was a baby book and a feeling that my baby boy matched the name my eyes were drawn to. His name brought me joy, and for Black people, feeling joy is a radical act of its own.