African-American names

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.


It is widely held that prior to the 1950s and 1960s, most African-American names closely resembled those used within European-American culture.[1] 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.[2] 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.[2][3]

Although most consider distinctively black names a recent phenomenon, recent research by Cook et al. has documented the use of distinctive names by blacks in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.[4] The percentage of blacks with such names was similar to that in the 21st century. However those early names are no longer used by blacks. In fact, Paustian has argued that black names display the same themes and patterns as those in West Africa.[5]

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.[2]

In 2004, Fryer et al. examined the rapid change in naming practices in the early 1970s, with the rapid adoption of distinctively black names, especially in low-income, racially isolated neighborhoods.[6] They favor an explanatory model which attributes a change in black perceptions of their identity to the Black Power Movement.

Influences and conventions

Lieberson and Mikelson of Harvard University analyzed black names, finding that the recent innovative naming practices follow American linguistic conventions even if they are independent of organizations or institutions.[7]


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

Further information: Afrocentrism
Basketball player Shaquille O'Neal. Shaquille, shortened to "Shaq", is an example of an invented African-American spelling of the name Shakil.

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 such as Ashanti have African origins.[1] 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.[1][8]

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.[9]

The name LaKeisha is typically considered American in origin, but has elements drawn from both French and African roots. Other names—for example 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.[1][10]

In his dictionary of black names, Cenoura asserts that in the early 21st century, black names are "unique names that come from combinations of two or more names, names constructed with common prefixes and suffixes...'conjugated' with a formula..."[11] "Da", "La", and related sounds may originate from the French spoken in Louisiana. Attached to a common name such as Sean and spelled phonetically, one obtains "DaShawn". Diminutive suffixes from French, Spanish and Scottish such as "ita" may be combined directly with prefixes or to a name, as is often found in white naming or nicknaming. Conventions followed usually make the persons gender easily identifiable. Following Spanish, masculine names often end in "o", e.g. "Carmello," while feminine names end with "a", e.g. "Jeretta". Following, Irish, French and Italian, apostrophes may be used, e.g. "D'Andre" and "Rene'e". Two names may be concatenated, e.g. "Raymond" and "Yvonne" might become "Rayvon".


Muhammad Ali's name change from Cassius Clay in 1964 helped inspire the popularity of Muslim names within African-American culture.

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,[1] Aaliyah,[12] and others are also examples of names derived from Islam.

A number of African-American celebrities began adopting Muslim names, including 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).[8] 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.[1][8]

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.[1][13][14]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Wattenberg, Laura (May 7, 2013). The Baby Name Wizard, Revised 3rd Edition: A Magical Method for Finding the Perfect Name for Your Baby. Harmony. ISBN 0770436471.
  2. 1 2 3 Moskowitz, Clara (November 30, 2010). "Baby Names Reveal More About Parents Than Ever Before". Live Science.
  3. Roberts, Sam (August 25, 2010). "New Life in U.S. No Longer Means New Name". The New York Times.
  4. Cook L, Logan T, Parman J. Distinctively black names in the American past. Explor Econ Hist. 2014 Jul;53:64–82.
  5. Paustian PR. The Evolution of Personal Naming Practices among American Blacks. Names. 1978 Jul 19;26(2):177–91.
  6. Fryer RG, Levitt SD. "The Causes and Consequences of Distinctively Black Names". Q J Econ. 2004;119(3):767–805.
  7. Lieberson S, Mikelson K. "Distinctive African American Names: An Experimental, Historical, and Linguistic Analysis of Innovation". Am Sociol Rev. 1995 Dec;60(6):928–46.
  8. 1 2 3 Zax, David (Aug 25, 2008). "What's up with black names, anyway?".
  9. Rosenkrantz, Linda; Satran, Paula Redmond (August 16, 2001). Baby Names Now: From Classic to Cool—The Very Last Word on First Names. St. Martin's Griffin. ISBN 0312267576.
  10. "Black Names". Behind the Names. Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  11. Cenoura B. Black. Names Matter: The Black Names Book. Bobby Cenoura and Slice of Pain Publishing and Media; 2015. 394 p.
  12. entry for "Aaliya" in English, at BehindTheName.
  13. Lack, Evonne. "Popular African American Names". Retrieved 12 February 2014.
  14. Conley, Dalton (March 10, 2010). "Raising E and Yo...". Psychology Today.

Further reading

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