The Politics of a Name
The spelling of my name is a very Ghetto spelling. I welcome them both, and never want to be separated from either of them for as long as white supremacy exists.
Anderson .Paak once said in a 2016 interview, when asked why he has a period before the start of his last name, that “the dot [in his name] stands for “detail” — always be paying attention to detail.” And with a name like “Da’Shaun,” where the apostrophe and capital “S” are often excluded when people spell my name, this resonated with me. But for me, the “detail” is not just the apostrophe or the capital “S”; the detail is in what those two things represent: the Ghetto.
I was on my way to a meeting when I received an email that was addressed to me as “Desean.” My name is misspelled often, and while I do get very annoyed by that, my brain homed in on one thing this time: this person hadn’t included an apostrophe. I often think about my name and its many misspellings. What this email forced me to do, however, was think about just how often every misspelling of my name excludes the apostrophe.
“DeShawn. DeAndre. Marquis. Darnell. Terrell. Malik. Trevon. Tyrone. Willie. Dominique.” These are the names people most often associate with Black men, boys, and bois. In fact, this list is the top 10 of 20 names listed under “Blackest-sounding boy names” in the book Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner. At the very top of the list is a different spelling of my name. Except it, too, has no apostrophe.
Still in transit to my meeting, I start to think a bit more about what this means and why it was so important to me, other than the fact that I was annoyed with the continued anti-Blackness I often experience because of my name—which I believe is very easy to pronounce and is even easier to spell for everyone with the ability to both read and comprehend English.
Nearing my destination, I remembered a text conversation my mom and I had when I was a child. I don’t remember how old I was, but I do remember that I was old enough to be at a college basketball game with another adult relative that was not my mom. Randomly, my mom texted me saying:
“You know there’s an apostrophe in your name right?”
“Huh?”, I asked.
“Yes. Check your birth certificate, it’s there.”
Now, snidely wondering how she expected me to get my hands on a birth certificate that was in her possession while at a basketball game—as camera phones were barely a thing at the time—I replied, “ok ma.”
I didn’t think of it at the game, but I am sure my mom taught me to spell my name with an apostrophe. My mom was never a negligent parent, and she took great pride in mine and my brothers’ names. Maybe I had learned to keep the apostrophe out of it from teachers, or perhaps I was taught to do that through something or someone else. Howbeit, what I did not realize at that game was just how much my life would change over that one “special character.”
I grew up in very Black neighborhoods. Be that as it may—aside from my 6th-grade year in middle school—I attended schools that had very large white populations. This meant that I learned how to code-switch at a very early age, and long before I even knew what that term was. My name could not code switch, though. It just… switched. And at the time I was in elementary school, so the response to that change was something I was unprepared for.
I told my friends soon after. I told my teachers, too—who, now that I am reflecting on this story, should have all been privy to this information and it should have been no surprise. I went from “DaShaun” to “Da’Shaun,” and that change took me from “stereotypical Black-sounding names” to “ghetto names.” For some reason, people could not fathom an apostrophe being a part of a name. Part of that, I believe, is because, for things like AR tests, usernames on our school computers, and more would not allow me to put the apostrophe in my name. I was always met with cautionary messages that read “blah blah blah no special characters,” and the list of characters always included an apostrophe.
Recommended: I HAVE NO SHAME IN MY DIFFICULT BLACK GIRL NAME
From this, I had internalized a lot of anti-Blackness around my name. Suddenly, no one could pronounce it correctly; no one ever spelled it correctly; I became embarrassed about who I was, where it clearly meant I was from, and who it automatically meant I represented. I became painfully aware of my Blackness, though never named explicitly, and this was all caused by an apostrophe.
As I got older and realized just how many parts of my life would be affected by “special characters”—from standardized tests to booking plane tickets, to social media usernames, to voting—I felt less shame around my name and more anger around how the world chose to demean, dismiss and criminalize it. At some point, I transitioned from allowing people to misspell my name to boldly, and sometimes angrily, correcting their spelling; demanding that they include the apostrophe and capitalize the “S”. That mattered to me then and it continues to matter to me now. Much like Sherronda Brown wrote in her essay, I Have No Shame In My Difficult Black Girl Name, I have no shame in being a “difficult” Black [person]. Fat Black Queer and Trans folks are often always labeled as “difficult” or “shady” for asserting ourselves and creating boundaries.
Reflecting in the car on the way to that meeting, after receiving that email, finally gave me the language for what I had been feeling for a long time now: my name is a very Black name. The spelling of my name is a very Ghetto spelling. I welcome them both, and never want to be separated from either of them for as long as white supremacy exists. “Ghetto” is not just geolocational. Much like Blackness, “Ghetto” is sociopolitical and serves as an incubator to the Black babies who so often create and shift culture; the apparatus of culture. It is not a utopia, but rather a response to—or a result of—white supremacy and colonialism. Which is to say: “Ghetto” is home to both the Black boy who dreams of changing the world, and the Black boy who knows the world won’t ever let him leave Mama’s couch; it is home to the Black girl who wants to go to Spelman College, and the Black girl who will one day be forced to sacrifice all of her dreams to raise her children on her own; it is home to the Black child who prances around in their mama’s heels when she ain’t home and is called a faggot for the switch in their hips; and the Black child who will never know themselves as gender deviant until they are much older. And sometimes, these are all the same people.
The Ghetto, riddled with its own harm, pain, joy, and peace, is my home. For this reason, I feel personally disrespected when people don’t include the apostrophe in my name because it feels like a not-so-purposeful—and sometimes purposeful—attempt to position me outside of the Ghetto. The apostrophe and the capital “S” are both something I’m always intentional about naming because they are Ghetto, and I am Ghetto, and I always want to be closer to Ghetto than not, because I always want to be far away from whiteness and never far from Blackness unless and until race itself is abolished. Suburb over Ghetto; Dashaun over Da’Shaun; comfortable over uncomfortable; white over Black; cultural appropriator over cultural shifter; special characters over characters. My Ghetto ass name, even with all the stipulations the world places on it, will always embody exactly who I am and exactly who I always want to be in proximity to.
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