top of page

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




Imagine this: It's the inaugural day of school with a brand-new teacher. You stroll into a room filled with unfamiliar faces, maybe recognizing a couple. The seating ritual begins, and the teacher starts calling out names:


"Ashley?"

"Here!"

"Chris?"

"Present!"

"Jessica?"

"Here!"

"Tee… Ty… Ty-a-ree-ya?"

I don't bother with words; I just raise my hand.


Now picture a guy with a head shaped like an M&M proclaiming, "Tyareeya got diarrhea" for the entire school year, simply because it rhymes and cracks up the other kids. I despised my name! (Hence, why I go by Charlie now; that's a tale for another blog.)


No one ever got it right, and the idea of being judged based on seven characters randomly slapped together that I didn't even choose drove me nuts. "Who adds extra letters to a simple name like Tierra? Did your mom want you unemployable?" To me, my name screamed "ghetto."


Our names are the one thing in life that's truly ours, and we should love them. But how can we when we're burdened with preconceived notions and stereotypes about names? From country names like Billy Bob to celeb names like Beyoncé, we've all got judgments attached.


But how did this name game start? Why is "Kimberly" more acceptable than "Imani"?


When West Africans were brought to the "New World," they were stripped of their names. Some were assigned names like David or John upon arrival, while others had their West African names misspelled and morphed into what we know today. And then there were the Biblical names imposed due to the prevalence of Christianity.


After slavery, some in the African American community wanted to break away from Christian and slave-owner-given names. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali, and Malcolm Little became Malcolm X, then El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Some blended West African and Arabic names to distance themselves from imposed names.


African names made a comeback after Alex Haley's "Roots" in 1977. After the tear-jerking "Toby" scene, people leaned towards African names to reconnect with their roots.


But what about those names that make people think, "She'll never get a job"? Many have a touch of Creole, merging French-Creole culture in Louisiana into black naming in the 1960s. Monique and Rochelle (my middle name) are examples. Add some French flair with prefixes like De- and La-, and you get DeShawn and LaKeshia.


While there are countless names born out of parental love and creativity, it matters because our naming history is rich and unique. We're made to believe having a "ghetto" name is wrong, affecting job opportunities and community perceptions. But who planted this idea of "ghetto" in our minds? That's the real question.


Previous generations fought to give back one of the many things taken from us—our names. It seems we've moved away from appreciating the beautiful meanings of our names and why they were given to us, focusing instead on how others perceive them. Before you toss your birth certificate or think your name is "too black," take pride in where you started—it shapes who you are today! Whether your parents are uncertain about your name's origin or you're contemplating a name for your future child, do some research and discover something new!


*Source: "The Means of Naming: A Social History" by Stephen Wilson

bottom of page