top of page
Minimalistic work place

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

Picture this: It’s the first day of school with a new teacher. You walk into a room full of new classmates but maybe you know a couple of them. Everyone finds themselves a seat and then the teacher starts taking roll:







“Tee… Ty… Ty-a-ree-ya?”

I don’t even verbally respond. I just raise my hand.

Now picture a M&M shaped head boy calling out “Tyareeya got diarrhea” for the rest of the school year because it rhymes, and it makes the other kids laugh. I hated my name!!! (Hints why I am now called Charlie; that's another blog for another day.)

No one got it right and I couldn't stand the thought of people judging me based on seven characters thrown together that I didn’t even get to choose! "Who puts extra letters in a simple name like Tierra? Why yo mamma name you that?" Did my mother just want me to never be able to get a job? My name, to me, was just... g-h-e-t-t-o.

There’s only one thing in life that we have that is our own and it’s our names. You would think we should be happy with them, proud even. You should have a little excitement every time you get to meet someone and introduce yourself for the first time. Or when you are on vacation and find your name on one of those souvenir licenses plates or key chains (I’ve never had that pleasure). It’s a fun little hobby to collect something that seems to be made just for you. We should love our names as they are a sum of who we are.

But how can we when we all have preconceived notions about names and what kind of person they may be because of them? From country names like Billy Bob, to Celebrity names like Beyoncé and Oprah, to those “black” names that stick out like a sore thumb; we all have stereotypes tied to them.

These stereotypes sometimes come from outside sources like media and friends but also personal experiences. For myself, I see someone named “Brittany” or “Tasha” and I run the other way. Our name is how the world around us views who we may be as a person; social status, employment, education can all be at risk because of a few letters we were given before we even knew the alphabet.

But how did this come about? Where did this start? Why do we view common names like "Kimberly" more acceptable than "Imani?"

When West Africans were sold after arriving in the “New World,” they were not allowed to retain their names which is fairly common knowledge. There are some receipts, that show the sell of a person with names that they were given once they arrived like David, Simon or John. No other name would be given but instead a brief description. Other documents show how some Western African tribe names were misspelled and became the names that we may be use to today. For example, the Andoni tribe of Nigeria turned to Anthony as a name here once in America.*

Then there are Biblical names that our people were forced to assume. With Christianity being the most common religion at the time, names with religious significance were a go to option. Which is where the names like Sarah, Joseph, Mary and Daniel came.

As time passed and the abolishment of Slavery came about, some of those in the African American community wanted to move away from their Christian given names and those of their former slave owners. Cassius Clay became Muhammad Ali and Malcolm Little became Malcolm X then El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. Both left their Christian roots and converted to Islam.

Others wouldn’t convert to an entirely different religion but instead combine names from West African backgrounds with those with an Arabic history. This done in order to completely move away from the names that were forced on their ancestors. Take Tupac Shakur’s grandmother for instance. She changed her name from JoAnne Deborah Byron to Assata Shakur. Assata being West African for “she who struggles” and Shakur being Arabic for “Thankful one.”

African names made a dramatic come back after the release of Alex Haley's "Roots"in 1977. After those in the black community watched the dramatic tear jerking “Toby” scene, people began leaning towards African names to get back to their own roots. That may be why singer Ashanti, born October 1980, got her name. If you haven't seen Roots, you may want to spend some time watching either the original or the saga made in recent years.

So, what about those other names? You know, the “she ain’t never gonna get a job” names? Well, a lot of names just have some added Creole on them. French-Creole culture in Louisiana was merged into black naming in the 1960s as another way to avoid our past. That’s where names like Monique or Rochelle (my middle name) stem. Then there is the razzle dazzling of non-French names with some of the prefixes of the French language like De- and La-. Now you have DeShawn and LaKeshia with a simple two letters added. A completely different look with the same core name.

There are thousands of other names out there that are simply formed out of love and creativity of a parent attempting to be different just like that of our lineages. But why does this matter anyway? It matters because while you may walk away still believing that most black names are just made up, they really aren’t. Our naming history is rich and truly unique because we as a people are just that; unique (I knew a girl name Unique in high school by the way). Now we are made to believe that having a “ghetto” name and being different is wrong. We don’t get jobs because of our names on our resume, we get teased in our own community and we get treated differently because of something most of us had no control over. Fair? Not at all. But who really put this thought of it being ghetto in our head to begin with? Now that’s the real question.

The generations before us tried their best to give back one of the many things that was taken from us; our names. It seems, however, we have moved away from learning the beautiful meanings of our names and why they were given to us to focus on how we look to other people who refuse to learn how to properly pronounce them. So, before you throw away your birth certificate or feel like your name is "too black," remember to always be proud of where you started as it makes you who you are today! Even if your parents don’t know exactly where your name originated or if you are planning on have a child soon and can’t decide on a name, do a bit of your own research and learn something new!

*The Means of Naming: A Social History - By Stephen Wilson


Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page