What's in a name? Depends on who you ask.
There is a new documentary in the works by writer Phill Branch called Searching for Shaniqua that explores how black Americans are perceived and treated by each other based on the original and/or unique names many of us have. I have always found conversations about this topic interesting and am glad to see a black filmmaker broaching the subject.
Black Americans exist because our ancestors where ripped up by their roots, brought here and enslaved. They were systematically stripped bare of their cultures and languages and religions and taught that everything about them--their languages, customs, religions, hair and names was wrong. Which leaves us where we are today-- embracing negative stereotypes and attitudes about our people, particularly those of us with names that are different. Most black Americans have roots that are not clearly defined, yet we largely don't embrace names that are as much without clear roots or origins as we are. Why?
On Indiewire.com's blog Shadow and Act (On Cinema Of The African Diaspora), Phill Branch is quoted:
"When you hear the name Shaniqua, what usually comes to mind first? I've found that in my social and professional circles, the words ghetto and tacky were often associated with that particular name. A few years back, after a conversation about baby names that spiraled into a deconstruction of race and class in America, I began to question why so many people have discomfort with certain names. After having similar conversations with people from all walks of life, I began to realize the importance of naming as it relates to profiling, bullying and self-esteem. As a professor at a HBCU, I ran across every kind of name that you can imagine. In academia, a place where race and class intersect, my awareness of how names impact people’s lives became even more heightened. In classrooms that were diverse, but largely black, students were sometimes surprised by how much of their thinking about themselves was based on negative stereotypes. In rooms filled with people of color, race wasn’t a dividing line, but social class was."
This documentary explores how we, black people, perceive and treat each other based on our names. If a black person has a name that isn't common or English or Bible-based, and they are American, are there preconceived notions about what their family is like or their hireability? What if their nationality is African, and they speak with an accent? Are we more forgiving of unfamiliar names in the presence of an African accent versus an American one? How does the experience of black men with eccentric names differ from that of black females with names like Shaniqua?
So many questions. Who knows what will come of reaching the answers, but only good can come from having the conversation. I, for one, am grateful to Phill for working on this project and hope he gets the funding to continue.
Here's a teaser trailer for the still in production Searching for Shaniqua.
Read more about Phill's efforts, keep up with events and donate to his crowdfunding page on Indiegog here.
Also, check out the interview where he talks to The Root about the personal politics of “black” names here.
P.S. *ahem*, Phill Branch is like a brilliant brother to my awesome-brilliant sister, and because he loves her in all the ways that really count, I kinda love him too even though I've never met him in person. This is a super important project and I can't wait to see the final cut.