In today’s Slate, there’s an article about the phenomenal names black folks give their children these days, and whether these names affect positively or negatively their ability to get jobs, apartments, and/or loans. Do employers tend to give callbacks more regularly to guys named Jonathan Smith than to guys named Montell Smith? Are landlords more suspicious of people enquiring about an apartment if the apartment seeker has a noticeably “black” name or accent? Can your name really have such an effect on how you can live your life?
I grew up with the opposite problem. My first name is Walter, and I used to like it. I spent the first years of school at a private Montessori school with mostly white kids, a relaxed dress code, and an inordinate amount of free time. Nobody really commented on my name. The only other black kids I remember were named Marcus and Leotis. Two Hispanic girls—Margaret and Carla, both of whom I had crushes on at some point—had names that were shared by other white kids they know. Although I’ve yet to meet a white person named Leotis, I don’t think anyone considered it noteworthy at the school. Other than kids calling me Walter Kronkite or Walt Disney, I had no problems with it.
And then came junior high school. Ah, that haven of name-calling and quick-and-sleazy identification! I was already having problems adjusting, never having spent so much time around so many other black people other than my family. I discovered that I talked “white.” I’d never considered the idea before. But, then, I had previously gone to school with almost all white kids. I wasn’t up on the latest slang, black or white. I didn’t listen to much hip-hop, though I do now. My fashion sense left much to be desired, as far as black kids were concerned. As Paul Beatty has one character say to the protagonist in The White Boy Shuffle, “Damn, fool, what’s up with your loud-ass gear? Nigger got on so many colors, look like a walking paint sampler. Did you find the pot of gold at the end of that rainbow?”
Roll call was where things got really bad. My pre-algebra teacher called out “Quietbubble, is there a Walter Quietbubble here?” Snickers. “Walter, that’s his name? No wonder he talk proper like a motherfucker.” Raucous laughter.
And so it began, a full decade of black folks thinking I was a direct descendant of Little Lord Fauntleroy because of my name. Nobody ever believed me when I said my parents too grew up in the projects. Kids addressed me in faux-British accents in the cafeteria: “Oh, Wult-terrrr, could you perchance pass me a muhfuckin napkin?” The one fistfight I’ve ever gotten in (I won, by the way.) started because someone started taunting me with my name. Oddly, I had a respite throughout high school, because everyone there was just as weird as I was. In college, however, a guy stopped me cold in the computer lab by saying, “Man, I know you got money, with a name like Walter Quietbubble.” No, I wanted to say, I’m a scholarship kid who eats cafeteria food, same as you, asshole.
Something about my full name, my bearing, and my manner of speaking made me seem aristocratic, like I was putting on airs. I felt the opposite. Technically, my full name is Walter K. Quietbubble II—the roman numerals after my name only made it worse.
I do wonder, however, if I’ve had an easier time of things because of the name. Do white people think I’m less threatening because my name’s not LaFonque? In Spike Lee’s movie Bamboozled, the protagonist changes his name from Peerless Delacroix to Pierre—his father obviously meant “Peerless” as a compliment, but Pierre sees it as a burden. If I’d had my druthers in eighth grade, I’d have reversed this trajectory. I’d have happily gone by Walt-Dizzle or Deuce if it meant I’d be accepted by other black kids.
These past few years, however, have seen me accept my name. It is what it is. In fact, I don’t allow anyone to shorten it. I’ve never really had a nickname, and I’d probably snap at anyone who made a point of calling me Wally or Walt. Besides, my father meant my name to be a source of pride. Because I’m proud of him, of my namesake, I’m proud to be called Walter, or at least as proud as I’ll ever be. (Do you know anyone who really likes his or her name?) Just don’t say it with a British accent.