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 White-American population, most babies of that era were given a few very common names, with children given 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 within the wider American culture. This applied to both given names and surnames.
With the rise of 1960s civil rights movement, there was a dramatic rise in African-American names of various origins. San Diego State University professor Jean Twenge believes that the shift toward unique Black-American baby names is also the result of the cultural shift in America that values individuality over conformity.
Many names of French origin entered the picture at this time as well. Opinions on the origins of the French influence vary, but 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". These names are often seen with spelling variations such as Antwan (Antoine) or Shauntelle (Chantal).
Afrocentric and inventive names
The Afrocentrism movement of the 1970s saw the advent of African names among African-Americans, as well as names imagined to be African sounding. Names like Ashanti have African origins. 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.
By the 1970s and 1980s it had become common within African-American culture to invent new names. 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, DeShawn, 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.
Islam has been a 20th century influence upon African-American names. Islamic names entered African-American culture with the rise of The Nation of Islam among Black Americans with its focus upon Black advocacy. The popular names Aisha, Aaliyah, and others are also examples of names derived from Islam.
A number of African-American celebrities began adopting Muslim names, such as Muhammad Ali, who changed his name in 1964 from Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr. Other celebrities adopting Muslim names include Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) and Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones). Despite the Muslim origin of these names 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.
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 many 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. One study found that people link African-American names with violence. Individuals with black-sounding names and neutral backgrounds were seen as equally dangerous to individuals with white-sounding names and criminal records. 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 or popularized 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 those in the middle or upper classes.
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- American names
- African American culture
- Hispanic American naming customs
- List of most popular given names by state in the United States
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