On Being an Icon

“That’s a ghetto name!”, he said. I didn’t have time to respond. His classmate, another teen court-ordered to participate in an intervention program for juvenile gun offenders, immediately admonished him: “Don’t call people’s name ‘ghetto.’ That’s rude!”

Over the past two decades, I have grown accustomed to my name – Chanequa – becoming the iconic ghetto name – used by comedians, singers (remember Oran “Juice” Jones: “Shaniquaaaa…ya got me whupped”), and celebrities who mistake themselves as intellectuals (remember Bill Cosby’s 2004 speech to the NAACP?). Whenever someone wants to evoke the image of a gum-popping, neck-wagging, eye-rolling, hand-on-hip-placing, lower class African American woman, Chanequa (and all its variations: Sheniqua, Shaniqua, Shenikwa, etc.) becomes a common target.

I was born in 1972. As Lisa Jones would say, I am a movement baby whose Mississippi-born mother reached back to Africa for some sonic inspiration when naming her first-born. She had no book of African baby names to draw upon, just a deep longing to give her baby girl a name that would mark her as special, as touched by the ancestors. Pulling from a rich family heritage of unique names (Laquitta, Lunetha, Sarita, and so on), she sat down one day and started putting letters together.

I find it ironic that my name has become identified with some of the worst stereotypes of African American women. As far as I know, I am the original Chanequa. While the name has become increasingly popular over the past three decades, I have never heard of a Chanequa who is older than me (and trust me, I always ask). So until someone proves otherwise, I am the prototype.

And just to be clear about what the prototype looks like: I am a highly educated (Mr. Cosby – that’s 3 graduate degrees, each of them earned, not honorary), sophisticated, ambitious woman. Happily married for 13 years, I live in the suburbs and drive a mid-sized SUV (the last two are not necessarily points of pride, just counterpoints to the prevailing image). I am a voracious reader of theology, cultural criticism, historical fiction, fantasy, and memoir.

I love documentaries and hip-hop. I make my own granola and can cook up a mean pot of greens. I love being among the folk, but I’m also comfortable in environments where I am the first, the only, or the youngest. I am grounded in what I believe to be the best of my culture even as I try to transcend and transform some of its worst elements. And I love seeing the looks on people’s faces when they realize that this icon of all things “ghetto” is capable of deconstructing the classist and racist assumptions behind the term with minimal intellectual effort.

In other words, my name is Chanequa and I am the ish. So stop taking my name in vain.

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