Now that I am once again out of the hospital and able to sleep in my own bed without being wakened several times a night to be weighed or have my vital signs taken, I have the opportunity to think about other things every once in a while, or at least to return to thoughts over which I've been mulling for a while. Thus I present part two of my musings on names and naming.
The name Reginald has very different connotations for white people and for black people. For white people, the name sounds very English, and my Anglo accent, though one that I can’t hear, often makes them inquire as to whether I am English, or perhaps West Indian. I just reply that I got my accent from my Barbadian father (whom I met once) and my Jamaican stepfather (who abused my mother and me). But almost the only people in America nowadays with the name Reginald are black. It’s become an almost quintessentially black name, like Antoine (often spelled Antwan, or Antuan) or Leroy/Leroi (“the king”).
Mine is one of a set of categories of black names. There are the names that white Americans don’t use anymore, like Cedric or Tyrone, names that have been handed over to black people (though in the hospital I did have a white physical therapist named Tyrus—but then, the South has always been a bit backward). There are also names like Reginald, Maurice, or Roderick (this last one is on the edge) which have become predominantly black names but aren’t yet perceived so by white people. There are the made-up names, like Materia, Tawanna (a cousin of mine—she was meant to be named after the Mexican border city), or Chicalaundra (pronounced “Shalandra”). There are the Frenchified names, like LaQuan or LeVante or LeBron or LaToya (also LeToya), or the (male) driver of the Greyhound bus I used to take to work when I lived in Chicago, LaHarry. I remember joking once with a black friend that you can make any name black just by adding “La” or “Le” to it; then I realized it was true. (“De” will also work, as in DeWayne, DeMarcus or, my favorite, Da’Sean, pronounced “DAY-Shawn”—the apostrophe makes all the difference.) Then there are the faux-African names, like Kechia/Keshia/Keisha, Kena (another cousin of mine), Kima, and Kwame (this last a genuineWest African name appropriated by black Americans). There is an overlap between Frenchified black names and faux-African names, as in Lakeisha or Deshondra, and between the made-up names and the faux-African names, like Tawanna or Kima or Ebony/Eboni. There are also the Arab names, like Jamal and Malik, Omar and Raheem/Raheim. I’ve always found black Americans' tendency to give their children Muslim names odd, since Muslim Arabs were major slave traders for over a thousand years. A category which seems to have dwindled are names taken from words of rank and position, so that a white person calling a black person by (usually) his first name would still have to show respect, even if the act was meant disrespectfully. The singer Prince a/k/a “Symbol Thing” (born Prince Rogers Nelson) and poet Major Jackson would be examples. Mine is also an example of such a name, since, as I wrote earlier, my mother always told me that it meant “Great King.”
When I was a kid, and up until my mid-twenties, I went by “Reggie.” The only other two Reggies I knew of in my childhood were the baseball player Reggie Jackson and the Archie comic books laughingstock rich bad boy Reggie Mantle. He once went into an office and, unsatisfied by the secretary’s refusal to be impressed by him, announced “Someday my name will be a household word,” to which her response was, “Like dirt?”
A few months before my twenty-fifth birthday, I decided that I was too old to be called “Reggie.” That was a child’s name, and it was time for me to put aside childish things. Since then I have gone by my full name, though people still insist on calling me “Reggie” and “Reg.” But even when I went by Reggie, already a shortened version of my name, many people insisted on calling me “Reg." Besides the obvious fact that it wasn’t my name (if I wanted to be called Reg, I would introduce myself that way), as my oldest friend Merav’s mother put it, “Reg” has the air of a hale fellow well met, a football player perhaps, and that's never been me or anyone I wanted to be. I've never understood why people would need to nick a nickname, anyway. Some people still call me Reg, and I always correct them, except for my editor at the University of Pittsburgh Press, Ed Ochester. He has loyally published me for many years, so if he wanted to call me “Joe,” that would be alright with me.