Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Trouble with Normal: A National Conversation on Names

A friend of mine linked to this article at the Daily Beast on the divisive issue of "black" names.  It's a good article, and the author, Jamelle Bouie, makes some very good points.  But my friend -- whom I respect a great deal -- and some of her friends who commented made some strange remarks about it.  My friend, for example, kicked things off by writing "This shit is depressing. Particularly Malcolm X's observation" (the observation, which Bouie called a "joke," being "You know what they call a black person who earns a Ph.D.? A nigger").  Before Malcolm X said that, someone (I can't recall who it was at the moment) said "A kike is a Jewish gentleman who has just left the room."  In his 1971 essay "On Being Different", the novelist Merle Miller quoted that and asked rhetorically, "Is a fag a homosexual gentleman who has just left the room?"

I'm not sure what, exactly, my friend was saying about Malcolm's joke.  I take it to mean that no matter how hard one tries to assimilate, to be what the dominant sectors of society say you should be, Lucy will always pull away the football at the last minute.  It means that much of the concern-trolling advice minorities are given, whether by our avowed enemies or our well-meaning liberal friends, is at best beside the point.  We can wear ourselves out trying to dress for success, but what excludes us from polite society in the last analysis is always our sexual orientation, our sex, our religion, our skin color.  Which doesn't mean we shouldn't try for success on our own terms, in areas that matter to us; it just means we shouldn't be surprised that some people will never be satisfied.  Instead of trying harder to please them anyway, we should recognize that they don't deserve our respect, that we don't need their approval.

One of my friend's friends chimed in with:
Arrrggghhggpphhh. They are NAMES. Some names are familiar to middle class white Americans and some are not. People (usually) acquire them at birth. It's just as dumb to judge someone by their name as it is to judge them for having freckles or red hair or 6 fingers on their right hand. It hurts my head that we need to have this conversation.
I'm not so sure, for what it's worth, that it's necessarily wrong to judge someone by their name: names are chosen (normally by others), not innate, and people can and do change their names all the time.  Since they are chosen, they are also significant.  I don't get what is meant by "They are NAMES."  Names are words, with meanings, chosen for their meanings.  Jamelle Bouie is explicit about that, in fact:
In the 1960s, Anglo-American names were common among African American children. It wasn’t until the 1970s and the rise of the Black Power movement that this shifted in the other direction. ”The underlying philosophy of the Black Power movement,“ writes Fryer, ”was to encourage Blacks to accentuate and affirm black culture and fight the claims of black inferiority.” The adoption of “black” names is consistent with other cultural changes—like “natural hair"—prompted by the movement. African Americans wanted to distinguish themselves from whites, and naming was an easy means to the end.
This doesn't justify white racism about "black" names, but let's not pretend that names are just meaningless trivia. The question is what, if anything, they do signify.  This ties into an equally depressing debate about gay people, about whether it's a Choice or we're Born That Way.  And who knows?  Maybe Condoleezza Rice became a war criminal because of the name her parents saddled her with.  It didn't, at any rate, keep her from becoming successful in mainstream American terms.  (Full professor at Stanford, Dubya's Secretary of State.)  Bill Cosby ranted about this "issue" during his last burst of public self-hatred a few years back; he didn't mention the odd names he gave his own children, some of whom turned out badly.  (For more details, see Michael Eric Dyson's excellent and compassionate book Is Bill Cosby Right?)

The DB writer has a better point about the weird names many white people have, which no one sees as evidence of a debased culture, though maybe they should.
On Twitter, riffing off of the Reddit thread, I mused on this double standard with a comment and a joke. “Seriously, I will take your ‘questions’ about ‘weird’ black names seriously when you make fun of Reince Priebus and Rand Paul,” followed by “White people giving their kids names like Saxby Chambliss and Tagg Romney is a clear sign of cultural pathology.” If names like “DeShawn” and “Shanice” are fair targets for ridicule, then the same should be true for “Saxby” and “Tagg.”
Saxby Chambliss, Reince Priebus, Rand Paul, Tagg Romney, etc -- can you trust a culture that gives its children names like that?  (Or "Madonna" or "Miley.")  Or as Armistead Maupin once asked in a slightly different context, why should we Homo-Americans trust a culture in which all objects of desire are named "Cheryl"?

Bouie's tweet drew fire from white, erm, "conservatives."  You know -- white racists.
“So, names like Jamelle, Mo’nique, [and] Trayvon are normal?” asked one self-proclaimed conservative. Likewise, another asked if “Jamelle, LaShonda, Trayvon, etc. are signs of advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture?”, which was followed by someone wondering if “names like LaShaniqua, Jamal, Porsche, Mercedes” would be our “future leaders.” Each illustrating my point that unusual black names are treated as evidence of cultural inferiority in a way that isn’t true of unusual white names.
Bouie might have noticed that many "normal" white American names are not "Anglo-American" but Biblical, meaning Hebrew or Greek-derived.  My own weird name, Duncan, is Scots and means "brown warrior."  (Ironic, since I'm pale even for a Person of Pallor.)  And weird it is, or was: I didn't meet another person with the same given name until I was twenty-three.  (A few years later, of course, a popular movie character was named Duncan, and the name caught on somewhat.)  It also occurs to me that chosen, descriptive names are common in numerous other cultures, notably American Indian.  I suspect that for that white conservatives to denounce names like Crazy Horse as incompatible with an "advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture" would have been taking Political Incorrectness a bit too far.  But how about those Biblical names?  Their weirdness has been lost through familiarity, plus the fact that we know them in romanized Hebrew -- that is, untranslated -- forms.  But how about this line from a famous part of the Hebrew Bible:
Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field [Isaiah 7:3].
How'd you like to be saddled with a name like "Shear-Jashub"?  Even worse, how'd you like to live in a culture where everybody knew what it meant?  ("Hey, can A Remnant Will Return come out and play?")  In the next chapter, Yahweh commands Isaiah thusly:
The Lord said to me, “Take a large scroll and write on it with an ordinary pen: Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” So I called in Uriah the priest and Zechariah son of Jeberekiah as reliable witnesses for me. Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria.”
Hey, Quick to the Plunder, Swift to the Spoil, I think I hear your mama calling you!  Why would a so-called "God of Love" give a name like that to an innocent child?  (Well, after all, someone named him Yahweh Sabaoth.  Maybe he wanted to spread around the misery.)  And how did poor little Quick to the Plunder, Swift to the Spoil turn out, I wonder?  Was he ever able to get a decent job?  Or did he become an ancient Israelite juvenile delinquent?  Scripture doesn't tell us, as far as I know.

[P.S. A friend sent me a link to this sampling of names from an 1888 book on Curiosities of Puritan Nomenclature.  H. Allen Smith once wrote a comic piece on this theme, with characters like Drink-A-Little-Wine-For-Thy-Stomach's-Sake Jones.  I thought it was an exaggeration, but there evidently were Americans with names like Jesus-came-into-the-world-to-save and Job-raked-out-of-the-ashes.  More evidence that white Christians are not an advanced, successful, economically stable and crime free culture.  The comments are fun, too.  My Puritan name will be Smite-the-Believer-with-Cunning Arguments Mitchel.]

Yeah, it's depressing that we have to have this conversation, and others like it.  But it seems we do have to have them.  Names should be judged; but we need to learn to be better judges.  So roll up your sleeves and gird your loins, people, there's a lot of work to do.