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What’s in a name? Why Ketanji Brown Jackson’s matters so much

Her African name challenges the respectability politics that dictates how Black people should present themselves, including the names they go by.
Image: Ketanji Brown
Ketanji Brown Jackson during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, on March 22.Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images file

The addition of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court doesn’t alter the body’s conservative majority as the court opens its new term on Monday. But she does change the court’s makeup in fundamental ways that go beyond ideology.

That transformation begins with the first name she bears and now adds to the high court’s pantheon. While she is the third Black person to become a justice, she is the first Black woman and the only one to have an African name. The significance of that lone African name being listed among the 115 others since the court’s inception cannot be understated. It represents a powerful twist in the history still unfolding since the first enslaved Angolans arrived on the coast of Virginia in 1619.  

Throughout their history in America, people belonging to stigmatized groups have undergone name changes in hopes of managing that stigma.

During Jackon’s confirmation hearings, we heard accounts of her career as a federal judge and public defender, her judicial track record and philosophy. But we also heard more personal stories from Jackson about her family, including her parents, who she said gave her an African name to demonstrate their pride and hope in who she might become. Elsewhere, she recounted that an aunt who was a Peace Corps volunteer in West Africa suggested Ketanji Onyika, telling her parents it meant “lovely one.” 

Jackson was born in 1970, and the name she was given by her parents was part of a trend in the Civil Rights era in which African Americans chose ethnic names as a mark of racial pride and self-determination. Along with wearing one’s hair in braids, Afros or other “natural” styles and donning African garb, it was an especially loud way to celebrate one’s African heritage and challenge respectability politics dictating how Black people should present themselves, including the names they go by.

Names are often tricky, especially for those of us who belong to marginalized groups. “Name-signaling,” as referenced in The New Yorker, is what our names say to others about our gender, sex, race, religion, ethnicity, nationality and class. And they say a lot. Studies have shown that people regularly face name discrimination based on people’s perceptions of what their names reveal about them. 

Writer Bich Minh “Beth” Nguyen, for example, has written about the psychological toll of having an ethnic name that is constantly mocked, mispronounced and judged. During the 2020 presidential campaign, some deliberately mispronounced Vice President Kamala Harris’ name to emphasize her otherness. Sometimes our names open up conversations about who or even “what” we are that we’d rather not have.  

Throughout their history in America, people belonging to stigmatized groups have undergone name changes in hopes of managing that stigma — with varying degrees of agency in the process. The notion that in the early 20th century immigrants’ names were forcibly changed upon arrival at Ellis Island is mostly unfounded, but the immigrants themselves did frequently change their names voluntarily, and often prior to arriving in the U.S. 

Immigrants have largely done so to assimilate into mainstream society, often in response to pressure to have common names that are easier for native English speakers to pronounce. But doing so can expose them to accusations that they’re ashamed of their culture or are internalizing racist thinking. That has led some immigrants and their children to reclaim the ethnic names that were once abandoned. But either way, judgment often comes regardless of one’s decision.

The story is somewhat different for Black Americans. The names of the enslaved Africans who helped build this country were most definitely forcibly changed, as their language, kinship ties and links to home were brutally interrupted upon capture during the transatlantic slave trade. Recovering the names of the 12.5 million bought and sold into slavery across the Americas is a difficult task, but one essential to seeing them as full human beings. 

The records are lacking in part because the kidnapped Africans’ names were generally replaced with “slave names” — chosen by slave masters and often reflecting their ownership. Additionally,  the census did not record the names of the enslaved. From slave trading records it’s clear that they were sometimes given only first names, usually Anglo or biblical ones, that they were expected to accept, like the fictional character Toby in Alex Haley’s “Roots. 

Yet the enslaved maintained rich traditions of providing their own names and nicknames among themselves that persist to this day. In other words, there were the names documented in slave records, and then those passed down through oral traditions. Once freedom was secured, some legally changed their first names to these alternatives. They also often adopted last names like Washington, Brown and Freeman. While these names were not African, they were of their own choosing, and they indicate an attachment to and stake in American society. 

During the civil rights movement, that tradition was revitalized. Prominent figures embraced name changing, particularly Malcolm X, who was born Malcolm Little but dropped his last name, which he considered a slave name, in favor of an “X” to represent a lost tribal name. Throughout his life he was also known by various nicknames, like “Detroit Red” for his affinity for the city and his reddish hair, and, shortly before his assassination in 1965, he changed his name to El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz after a transformative trip to Mecca.

Despite the complex history and sociology of naming practices, nomenclature in the U.S. often gets reduced to whether it is Black or white, with the latter considered normal. Names have even become a sort of racialized shorthand — think Karen, Becky, Felicia and Shaniqua. And while we don’t consider them “slave names,” white Americans’ surnames also carry the weight of historical wrongs when shared with ancestors who were slave traders or owners, as Ben Affleck was stunned to learn. 

Naming practices — keeping so-called maiden names, using illegal names, creating online aliases, burying deadnames — are diverse but they almost always involve questions of identity. What we call ourselves and each other matters. In teaching students from every ethnic, racial and religious background, I understand well what a difference it makes to get someone’s name (and pronouns) right, or at least to earnestly try, to apologize when a mistake is made, and then to try again. This is a basic requirement of inclusion.

Nowhere is that inclusion more needed than at the Supreme Court, where the vast majority of justices have been white men since it was first assembled. Yes, she is part of a small minority, but even before hearing her first case, Jackson has already shifted social expectations about the face of justice.