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"Black names"

One day after work, I had one of the inevitably awkward chats-in-passing with an ex. We worked at the same company but in different departments (and different buildings), and that day, our paths crossed in the parking garage. He was coming. I was going.

As we passed each other, we swapped a polite “Hey, how’s it going?” and a “Good. How are you?” Sweet and simple. Following our greetings, we said our goodbyes.

“See ya later, Court,” he said.

“Court?” I thought. No one calls me “Court” (except for one of my cousins and my sister on occasion). What made him think we were chummy enough for nicknames? We only dated for a few months, during which time he always called me by my full first name. When we broke up, we parted ways (and he started dating another Courtney. Go figure.). Perhaps, he used the nickname to distinguish between me and his new girlfriend. Or maybe, he always called her “Court,” so it just slipped out. In any case, the casual “Court” felt weird.

In grade school, my teenage sister had her own nicknames for me, like “Little African” and “Little Tiger.” I liked them for multiple reasons: for one, they made me feel special as a little black girl. Most importantly, they made me feel connected with my big sister. I treasured any attention she gave me (other than when she employed me to make her a sandwich, so she could enjoy a P.B. and J. with her T.R.L). Those nicknames didn’t last long, but they still make me feel special to this day.

By the time I started college, I was essentially nicknameless, but that changed freshman year. As part of a dorm bonding experience, our floor decided to give everyone nicknames. My friend Elizabeth was nicknamed “Biz.” My friend Emily was nicknamed “M.Z.” I was nicknamed “Court Court.” I liked my nickname. It was different from any other I’d received, and with it came a sense of community, comradery, and acceptance.

At some point, however, our dorm’s resident advisor (our “R.A.”) expanded my nickname.

“Shacourt Court!” she’d greet me with a smile (she was always a fun ball of energy and enthusiasm). I didn’t think much about it at the time, but years later, I grew curious about the added prefix. They didn’t teach us about “black names” at my small, private, and primarily-white college, so I “enrolled” myself in a little self-taught history lesson.

In “A brief history of black names, from Perlie to Latasha,” Trevon Logan, an economics professor and research associate, summarizes his and other scholars’ research on “black names.” He recounts that the rise in “black names” can be traced back to the time of black slavery and the Civil War. Creating new naming practices was a way for the black U.S. population to “distance themselves” from the white population, who had stripped them of their surnames.

“In other words,” Logan explains, “people from various parts of Africa came together to form black culture as we recognize it today.”

Logan also notes that “none of these black names are of African origin, [meaning] they are a distinct African American cultural practice.”

After absorbing Logan’s and other similar articles, I took to YouTube (you know, to diversify my resources).

My web search took me to a clip from White Names v. Black Names: A Freakonomics Movie. In the clip, economist and expert on race in the U.S., Roland Fryer, breaks down the gap between white and black cultures. He calls it “cultural segregation.” In addition to words from Fryer himself, the documentary also includes street interviews.

“I like the names that begin with S-H-A,” a black male interviewee voiced, “like ‘Shaheem,’ ‘Shahee,’ ‘Shamar’…”

That interviewee would have loved my R.A.-assigned nickname!

After learning the origins of U.S. “black names,” I’ve decided one thing: anyone can call me “Shacourt Court” any time. Just don’t call me to make you a sandwich (which I would happily do anyway, let’s be honest).

As always, thank you for listening!

Keep curious!

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