The Dilemmas of Choosing African American Baby Names

By: Michael Barrows

African American baby names vary from the beautiful, traditional names, full of history and meaning – to the downright ridiculous. The problem is the extreme variety of names available and the possible reasons for choosing them.

Probably more than any other group in the US, African American parents are faced with a number of dilemmas when choosing baby names. Should they, for example, reflect a deep and strong cultural heritage, by choosing an African name? African names are drawn from a vast range of languages and cultures, from Bintu to Swahili from Ethiopian to South African. And let’s not forget that northern Africa is largely Muslim, so should an African-American parent adopt an Arabic or Muslim name?

Even non-Muslim African-Americans sometimes use Arabic names, in their original form or as the basis for a variation. For example, Kadeem is an Arabic name (meaning servant) which has proved quite popular for African-American males, helped by the popularity of African-American actor Kadeem Hardison. Jamal is another very popular African American name which is actually an Arabic name, meaning “Pretty.”

Many African-American names are derivatives of African names, or just “African-sounding.” But the problem is that African-American names can also “stigmatise” the owner in the wider world. There is a famous scene in the movie “Coach Carter” when a pregnant teenage African American girl is asked what she plans to name her baby. She replies "Loquisha" and her friend says “Well, she might as well have the name 'Food Stamps."” The message is crystal clear - Loquisha is a "black" name and – because names can have a powerful impact on destiny – the baby is going to struggle in later life.

This is why one of the other big dilemmas for African American parents is whether they have a responsibility to give their child an advantage by giving them a White-sounding name, which outweighs the cultural considerations or immediate social niceties of choosing one that may sound more cultural, or have a more African root.

This dilemma has been the subject of many debates and studies have proven that many names will be automatically assumed to be borne by a Black person, with the attendant prejudices that these assumptions may bring.

But why do many African American parents go for particular types of names, especially when naming their baby girls? Azizi Powell, founder of Alafia Cultural Services, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization that develops programs and products to increase awareness and appreciation of African-American culture, writes, "It's traditional for black folks in the United States to use prefixes and suffixes to create an infinite number of unique personal names for females." Powell says the prefixes La- and Sha- are most popular and points to names such as Lashawn, Lashonda, and Latifah; Shaday, Shawnda, and Shamika. Common suffixes include -isha or -esha, with names such as Latisha, Tanisha and Moesha.

The debates rage on about these types of African-American names. Scholars stress that it’s not actually the names themselves that create problems; it’s actually the communities where these children live and grow, that creates barriers to their achievements in later life. Whatever the truth of the matter, its clear that the sheer variety and adventurousness of African-American names will continue to add to the rich tapestry of American social change for many generations.

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Michael Barrows' website has great info on baby names, baby name lists and lots of baby resources. Get your free ebook packed with baby tips for new parents, visit the African American baby names website.

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