‘Why I wanted a baby name that was racially ambiguous’

Influencer Candice Brathwaite knew she couldn't just name her baby whatever she wanted. In this abridged extract from her bestselling book I Am Not Your Baby Mother, she tells us why...

candice brathwaite with book jacket

As soon as I knew I was pregnant, one thing was clear to me: by the time my children’s CVs reached a prospective employer, it was going to be beneficial to them that the interviewer would not know if they were black.

Advertisement

Because my name was Candice, it wasn’t until I was invited to an interview that whoever was on the other side of the desk had any idea that I was black, and by then it was too late; they had no choice but to give me a chance to wow them. I knew absolutely that if my name had been, for example, LaQuisha, my chances of making it to that interview seat would have been less than likely.

Everybody who is black knows that. Living in a space where your proximity to whiteness usually determines your greatness is nothing new for us.

We know that something as seemingly innocent as choosing a name for our child has to be carefully curated so it doesn’t cause 'offence'

I spent long nights scrolling through websites dedicated to the meanings of baby names. My baby would have a name that meant business and was also racially ambiguous.

The names we carry aren’t actually our own

I knew why the naming of my child was so fraught. One of my most enduring memories is when my father sat me down to watch Roots. A scene that has stuck with me until this very day is when Kunta Kinte, a Gambian man who had been taken by force from his village and sold as a slave to a plantation owner in Virginia in the USA, is being whipped because he won’t agree to his slave master’s name change.

Panting and afraid, arms tied aloft with his dense black body swaying to and fro from each swing of the whip, he stands firm in declaring his name is Kunta, whilst his ‘master’ shouts at him to take the name ‘Toby’. The whipping continues until, exhausted and near death, Kunta finally relents.

That was my first indelible lesson in understanding that the names we black people carried weren’t actually our own.

Ever since my ancestors were taken from their rightful birthplace – the land they had governed and owned – they were taught, first by force and then by trend, to assimilate. To hide in plain sight. To pull themselves in so tight to the proximity of whiteness, because it would be this and only this that saved their lives. As the decades pressed on, it was a trend that endured all the way into the 21st century, when the easier your name is to pronounce – or better yet, if it’s a name that can be betrothed to the white race – the greater your chance of succeeding will be.

With this in the back of my mind, and the strained and strange duality of trying to make their lives easier by providing my children with their version of ‘Toby’ whilst also trying to remind them that, deep down, they will always be ‘Kunta’, there were some names I filed immediately under the ‘no’ column.

No car names, no fruity names, no ‘heavy’ names

Any name that referenced a car was out. So, Bentley, Lexus, Mercedes, Audi. Then, names such as Shanay-nay, Devonté, LaToya or any other name that could be associated with a US sitcom or novel were also out.

Also, there would be no f****ing fruity names either. We weren’t rich enough to get away with names like Apple, Peaches or Mango. Also, no names of colours or drinks.

If it were to be a boy, I was vehemently against giving him a ‘heavy’ name. For example, there are only two men who come to mind when I think of Martin or Malcolm, and I didn’t want to weigh down any son straight out of the womb with that kind of expectation. The world would have enough time to do that.

I knew that Hakeem, Kwanza, Malachi, Pharaoh, King, Wendell, Otis, Treyvon, LaBron and Xavier all conjured up images of strong and beautiful black men – and that was the opposite of what I was trying to achieve. And for anyone who's wondering if I'm perhaps overthinking it, I'll put it on my life that that is your privilege talking.

Only those of us who have to birth children in a space that isn’t designed to support them would lose sleep over something which seems as trivial as a name.

“Honestly, if it’s a boy I think we should just call him Richard, after your dad,” said Bode, his voice softening, to indicate he knew how much I wished my dad was here to see his grandchild.

I pursed my lips. It’s not that I didn’t like the name Richard. I did. I liked even more the fact that it did what I needed a name to do, which was to move in plain sight. But what I didn’t like was the idea that he might grow up thinking that he had to live up to the namesake of a man he had never met.

“And what if it’s a girl?” I shot back, hoping to end that part of the conversation there.

“I really like Esmé,” Bode said.

And as he said it, something within me moved and I couldn’t be sure it wasn’t the baby or butterflies.

Bode began to hum a song both of us knew so well. And I couldn’t help but smile. That was it! It was the name of Edward’s mum in the Twilight series: Esmé Cullen. We’d bonded over our love of the vampire fantasy early on in our relationship.

Something moved within me again.

Yeah, I liked that name! It was racially ambiguous, beautiful and, I later found out, had a sweet meaning – to be loved. And a bit like the baby itself, over time the name grew on me

The next important thing for me was that it was imperative the middle name was Nigerian – Yoruba, to be precise. It was a way to honour the tribe Bode was from. I knew the time would come when my child would want to explore that side of their heritage, and I wanted her or him to know that I had encouraged them to do so.

The final question – and the answers

Finally, the last piece in the name puzzle was the surname. That was a whole new level of intense consideration.

Bode understood my requirement for a double-barrelled name but what we couldn’t seem to agree on is which name came last.

“Nope. I absolutely do not agree to Brathwaite being last. No!” Bode shouted from the hallway. “You move like you’re a single parent… Look, I’m really sorry that your dad f***ed your mum over and she had to raise you single-handedly, but stop trying to re-live a negative past. Give us the space to at least try to make this work.”

I sat there, stunned and silenced, both things a rarity for me.

Was I worried about being left alone to raise this baby?

Constantly.

I was surrounded by women whose long-term relationships were with their kids and not the men who got them pregnant. Could my subconscious think that trying to have control of a name was a way to help mentally prepare myself for a future that consisted of me constantly on the phone to the Child Support Agency because my child’s father wouldn’t stand up to his responsibilities? A future of being a baby mother?

Perhaps. Maybe. Who knew?

But what I did know was that in that moment, I had alarming clarity. I heard Bode’s words and I understood that perhaps we were going to have to do something differently.

“Fine,” I shrugged, not wanting to let on how much his words had simultaneously cut me open and opened me up.

I couldn’t believe that this much thought had to go into a name. Why couldn’t I just name my kid whatever the f**k I wanted? Did it have to be so complicated?

I now knew the answers. No, I couldn’t.

And yes, it did.

Candice Brathwaite is an influencer and founder of Make Motherhood Diverse, an online initiative that aims to encourage a more accurately representative and diverse depiction of motherhood in the media. She lives in Milton Keynes with her husband and 2 children.

experiment

Images: Papa B and TrishMcHugh

Advertisement

Read more:

Comments ()

Please read our Chat guidelines.