“Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, events, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness.”—Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
Say these names: Stretch, The Honey Bee, Tank, 2 Ounce, The Mayor, Mack Truck, Big City, Slice, Juice, Fresno Mike, South Central, Tennessee, Famous, SAL, Greedy, Yella Tay, D-Stoud, D-Reid, D Third, Jo Jo, T.B., P-Strick, K-Dub, B-Brooks, T-Ross, T-Bone, L.V., A.D., T.T., Toine, Blass, Fat Fred, Tancy, Fluffy, Bookie, Biggie, Slash, Da Natural, Monkey Mike, Peek-a-Boo, Chicken, Jay Bo, Ray-Ray, Big Red, Playground, Chocolate, Love, Smooth, Foo-Foo, Eastwood, Big Smurf, Lil Smurf, Tuna, Da Bell, Scarface, Jay-Ray, Brain Damage, D-Bo, No Toes, Pooh B, Blazer, Rabbit, Neck, Cool Nutz, G Nuts, Ghost, A-Bone, Champ, Pep, Cluck, Toddy P, Moon, Charm, Fast Eddie, Fast Livin, Slow, Kenny Mac, Maniac Lok, GeeChee Dan, Choo-Choo, Double F, Silk, Goggles, To the Left, Everything…
We could add my ephemeral handle of Kupchak to the list. In the days of yore, young buck me would lounge with my stepdad and his brotherpatnas in an attic room while they puff-puff passed and watched sports. In those days, that’s what most of the men in those sessions called me: Kupchak. The namesake of that fleeting moniker was former NBA player Mitchell Kupchak. Though Kupchak was a stellar college player, and won two NBA titles, he was not an NBA star. In fact, it’s a strong bet that dude wasn’t my stepdad’s nor any of his brotherpatnas’ favorite NBA baller. It’s also true that in those days, I had neither evidenced any great aptitude for the game or confessed aspirations of biddy ball stardom. Nor did Kupchak and I resemble: he being a 6’9” white man and I being a pint-sized Black boy. On the real, my stepdad christened me Kupchak for no other reason I can surmise other than the man and I shared a first name.
In the middle ages people were known by their first names alone: Pate, Larkin, Jude. In England, surnames weren’t added until the tenth century when Norman William the Conqueror (a fine epithet if ever there was one) usurped the throne in the infamous Battle of Hastings. Back then, surnames were often created from a patronym, e.g., generations ago, one of the white men who would come to enslave my forbearers was the son of a man named Jack or Jackson; were also derived from character traits, e.g. a tall man might become Jack Long; were also derived from location, e.g. Jack from London became Jack London; were also derived from a trade, e.g. Jack Carpenter. The gradual change of surnames becoming hereditary commenced around the mid 14th century, and the first names that did were the ones connected to craft since a person often followed their father into a trade.
Nicknames AKA appellations AKA sobriquets AKA handles AKA monikers, follow a kindred christening rubric. And akin to medieval times, one cannot (or better yet should not), name one’s self. Around my way, a nickname must be bestowed—and in most cases, must be bequeathed and earned.
Sometimes between the conferring and the reaping, a nickname follows the Latin proverb attributed to playwright Plautus: nomen est omen. (The name is a sign. Your name is your destiny). It becomes what, almost a millennium later, the editors of New Scientist magazine coined as nominative determinism, i.e. a name-driven outcome. The editors used the term to describe how a person’s name influences their profession of choice, but the term has since been expanded to include “key attributes of life.” And what could be more key than a nickname that dictates the decisions that equal one’s fate?
In what we dubbed the NEP (North East Portland), names again and again became our destiny. Take for example one misguided night friends and I were celebrating a snow day off from high school by sitting on a porch and guzzling brews. The crew included two of my basketball teammates (yep, I ended up playing) and another dude who was a scat back on the football team and also a gang member with a handle that should’ve been spelled with a Q but was spelled with a K, since for Bloods, C’s were straight verboten. Good and loaded, we all decided the sensible thing to do was fetch our girlfriends. The plan was to swoop the girls and meet back on the porch. We returned that night, girlfriends in tow, by the agreed time. All of us, that is, except for K. We waited until our worry that something had gone awry with K threatened to overwhelm us. We marched down the hill to K’s house and knocked on his back door, malt liquor reeking on our breath and swooshing our underdeveloped brains. K’s mother answered and we stuttered a bit and asked for him. “Oh no,” she said. “K left here while ago. Him and ___ got into it and he shot at her in the house.” “He shot at her in the house?!” we repeated, our eyes widened to the size of beer caps. K shooting at his girlfriend in his mother’s house was both unbelievably ludicrous and undeniably plausible. Though I never asked him where his name came from, I was certain K’s AKA had something to do with his physical speed and his temper, and reasoned it working as a harbinger—even if I didn’t yet know that word.
Back then we all lived in what we called the hood. It’s also been called ThetrapThestreetsTheBlockThesetUrbanAmericaAghettoAslum… It exists of course in all the usual urban places that command our popular imaginings. However, I can also attest that it exists in cities like Madison, Wisconsin; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Wichita, Kansas. Scholars and social scientists sometimes call them depressed communities, and though their particulars may differ from state to state, you can bet they all share ubiquitous deprivations and vicissitudes, denizens denied the whole damn pyramid of Maslow’s needs, and beaucoup dudes with nicknames.
In those places, a nickname becomes a means to combat those hardships—what the owner of that name knows, even if they can’t prove it, are systemic assaults on their well-being. It becomes an avenue for reinvention, a means of claiming visibility in a world chock-full of erasures. Please believe, this ain’t me contending all nicknames lead to prison or death or other dire consequences. Let the record show that K re-routed what looked like fate in his youth. There are appellations aplenty which’ve inspired heroism, academic achievement, athletic feats. I once knew a dude who was such a phenomenal athlete that somebody named him Baby Jesus. Post his baptism as such, he leaped so high and from such great distances that I swore he was indeed anointed. But as I said, I’ve seen it work the opposite way as well. A dude is christened, say, Devious or Stitches or Spider and in no time flat, owns a rep for apoplexy and bloody fisticuffs, has committed an armed robbery or assault, has shot someone or been shot, murdered someone or been murdered, which is to say, their AKA became an invitation, an appeal, a beckoning, a motive, a fortune, transmuted into a prison that far too often ushered them into a literal one.
In forty-five years of living, I never received a nickname that stuck. Years after me ceasing and desisting Kupchak as a sobriquet, I was named Action Jackson by one of my high school patnas. Bad as I wanted a moniker, I knew almost at once that Action Jackson wasn’t it. It was an unimaginative name for one. For two, that patna was the only person on earth who used it. For three, it never inspired me on the court or elsewhere. For years, I mourned the fact that I was known in the neighborhood simply as Mitchell or Mitch. These days, though, I’m grateful for my lack of a nickname, for never feeling pressured to achieve someone else’s vision of me, for never feeling confined by the expectation of a name. Oh so thankful for what I now know as the gift of freedom to become.
This series was generously supported by the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.