Hi Duana,

I hope you're well! Sorry for the strange title, but I hope this email explains it all.

My husband is white and I'm black and we're trying for our first baby. There's nothing immediate, but we've been talking a lot about names. We have a boy's name picked out but are struggling with a girl's name.

Because of our jobs and where we live, our child will likely be one of a few people of color for most of her formative years. I really want her to have a strong sense of her racial/ethnic identities and to feel a connection to black people in particular, especially because she's likely to encounter so few of them. So that brings us to names.

I'd originally been pushing to name her after black women that I greatly admire: Alice (Walker), Simone (Nina), Lucille (Clifton), or Janie (a character from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God). The problems: 1. My husband doesn't like naming her after someone-- he wants our girl to develop her own sense of self and 2. In my heart of hearts, I don't love those names. I want to love them, but really I just love the women who have them, not necessarily the names themselves.

If I had my druthers and I weren't concerned with her being disconnected from people of color, I might name a daughter something kooky like Poppy or Saffron (I love Ab Fab and Saffie as a nickname). But realistically, I know that even if the name doesn't have any direct cultural ties, I want her to at least have a name that is strong and confident--the name of a grown ass woman. I'm looking for a name that has some gravitas, and that gives her security and strength in times when she might need it-- a name that might have a nickname when she's a child, but that she can definitely grow into.

A name that I adore and that meets the criteria is Josephine. I love, love, love it, and it also comes w/ the bonus connection to Josephine Baker, which isn't on purpose. The problem is that it's close to the name of a family member with whom we have a touchy relationship, so we wouldn't feel comfortable using it.

If it helps- we know the middle name for a girl-- Barbara- to honor a family member (though we don't love that name, this is an important person to us and we agreed to make an exception to the "no naming her directly after someone" rule). AND our baby will have a hyphenated last name (not sure how you feel about that, but don't judge us!). The first part is a 1-syllable Anglo-sounding name (like Blunt). The 2nd part is a 3-syllable Eastern European sounding name (like Krasinski).

(This has all made me think a lot about how whimsical names can be a privilege-- ideally, I can name my child whatever I want, but realistically, if she's the only kid of color in her all white, conservative classroom, will she really do okay with a name like Pilot Inspektor? Sigh.)

I know that this isn't a pressing issue, but I'd love your name thoughts and suggestions.


I love this question, and you already know that I love the idea of giving your baby girl “the name of a grown ass woman”, and I further feel like, because you talk about the security and strength a name might give her when she needs it, well, that tells me you have exactly such a name yourself. 

And yet you wonder about naming her ‘after’ someone, both in the admirable women way or the iffy family member way, and you realize that, even though your letter, short as it is, tells me you’re the type of people who would never ‘create’ a name, you start to realize the value of one of those invented monikers that doesn’t have anyone else’s opinions or impressions attached (outside of those assigned to created names, that is).

But the bottom line is you can’t choose something you don’t love, so that cuts out Alice, Lucille, Simone, and Janie. And that’s not really a surprise, when you think about the name you do love – Josephine is longer and more decorative, and for that matter, so is Barbara, when it’s given its all-too-oft forgotten three syllables.

You like a longer name, and probably a classical one at that. That’s great, it’s fine, and it gives you lots of opportunities to have a nickname for your daughter when she’s little, to let her make it her own, and also to find someone inspirational who may share the name if that’s something you and she both want eventually. 

I also think you definitely want a longer name to balance Blunt-Krasinski, which I think is smart. Also don’t come at me, you people who yell about how long names don’t fit on forms—be the change you want to see in the world! If your job involves formatting a form, add some extra boxes because everyone is hyphenating and the times are changing.

I immediately go to Wilhelmina in this case, because I love it, and because for me it’s inextricably linked to Wilhelmina Smiths in Cynthia Voigt’s Tillerman Cycle. That’s great if you’re me, but most people probably don’t have that association, so you’re free to make any you like. On the other end of the scale, a name like Margaret has so many possibilities and notable names attached that you could arguably take your pick. I am incapable of not mentioning Veronica here, because I love it and because four syllables don’t always get their due.

Once I was on four syllables, though, I thought about Angelica, as in Schuyler, as in Hamilton (you thought I was done with that! Ha!) and while I’ve always been kind of weird about names that involve the ‘Angel’ prefix, from there I thought about Renee Elise Goldsberry, specifically her character on The Good Wife, Geneva. I love Geneva and I wish it were used more. It has a lot of the same sounds as Josephine without being a direct homage to the relative you don’t love. Then I think Geneva, as in Europe, and immediately want to point out how very wearable Harriet is, especially in the U.K.

I’m aware, too, that you suspect your child will encounter few black people in their formative years, and the thing to remember there is that even if her name were overtly in honor of a black woman you admire (and here I have to point out that Zora, a name I love, is also a character in Zadie Smith’s On Beauty) she may associate it less with her cultural identity if nobody else where she’s growing up shares the same reference. She will, of course, get it from you and all the influences you bring into her life, but not necessarily as an automatic “Oh yes, the other Condoleeza, the one I’m named after, is incredibly educated and powerful.”   

As such, you can feel a little more free to indulge some of the names you like. That is, I probably wouldn’t indulge in Saffy no matter what, but I was thinking some of the longer Greek names might suit your purpose. Calliope? Iphegenia? Hermione, of course, comes to mind, and really, why not? They have strength and history and length, but they don’t have someone else’s personality bearing down on them.

If the answer is ‘because after I read this I realize we want a shorter name after all’, well, then that changes the game a little. But I strongly suspect you want something that feels like it has strength, history, and enough unwritten space for her to grow into her full-grown-woman self on it, and I cannot wait to find out what you choose.

Also, you’re one of a few people who’s written with a letter like this and hasn’t told us what the nailed-down-no-worries boy’s name is…so let us know either way.