In search of Pookie, Peanut and Peaches

Baltimore (CNN)When Ernest Shaw calls out the names of his students during morning roll call, he'll occasionally get an odd request.

"Please don't call me by my government name, Mr. Shaw," some of the students at his West Baltimore middle school will say.
So instead of calling them by their "government names" -- the names on their birth certificates -- Shaw calls out their nicknames:
"Rah-Rah."
    "Here!"
    "Pee Wee."
    "Here."
    "Pookie."
    "Here."
    Shaw can improvise so easily because he comes from the same world as his students. His childhood nickname was "Pooh." That's what people called him when he was growing up in West Baltimore. In his community, nicknames are like passports -- they allow entry into other people's lives.
    "One of the worst things you can do as a teacher is call a child by their full name," says Shaw, who is also an artist whose murals can be seen throughout Baltimore. "They don't associate with it. They know each other by their nicknames and the names they've earned."
    Many people know Baltimore through one name, Freddie Gray. Gray is the 25-year-old African-American man whose death in police custody sparked riots in April and led to the arrests of six Baltimore police officers. The trial of the first officer ended in a hung jury. Another officer's trial is scheduled to begin today.
    But like Shaw, I know my hometown through many names: Peaches, Little Man, Bucket-Head ....
    I never thought much about those nicknames until I returned to Baltimore this year. I grew up in the same neighborhood where Gray was arrested and the riots erupted. On the surface, nicknames may seem to have nothing to do with Gray. Yet there is a connection. With all the incessant coverage about shattered lives in my hometown, the never-ending photos of beaten-down black residents huddling on grim street corners, it's easy to miss the humanity of the people who live there.
    It ain't all despair in West Baltimore. There's wit, playfulness, defiance -- and all those qualities converge in our fondness for nicknames. I have never been part of a community where so many people had the strangest nicknames. I have relatives whose full names I still don't know. I have an uncle called "Pudding," a cousin called "Chunky," and an older brother named "Twiggy." I've come across several "Junebugs," a "Little-Man" and a "Boonie." I bet you have, too, if you're a person of color who grew up in a place like West Baltimore. But I wanted to find out why nicknames are so popular in my hometown. Do they serve some psychological purpose? Could they be in some way a form of protest, like the protests earlier this year?
    When I took these questions to a colleague who also comes from Baltimore, she gave me a clue to where I should first look. It starts with a concept that she calls: "Six Degrees of Negrozation."

    Six Degrees of Negrozation

    Here's my life now: Suburban home. Homeowner's meetings. Wave to the neighbors as I pull into the garage. I rarely talk to them at length. Some of their names I don't even know. It's all so ... quiet.
    It was never like that in West Baltimore.
    The concept of personal space didn't seem to exist in my neighborhood. Everybody lived on top of or next to one another in row houses. I'd hear couples arguing, having sex, throwing parties. Outside there was the constant hum of street life: old ladies with their arms folded over ample bosoms watching children; young men hanging on the corners; strangers talking at the bus stop; men flirting with young women walking by. It was all so noisy.
    In such an intimate world, everyone seemed to know everybody's business. I knew the neighborhood drug dealer, the closeted gay man who lived several doors down, the prostitute who saw "visitors" in her home late at night. It was a tough place to live, but it was a genuine community. If you didn't know somebody, you both probably knew someone in common. It was Six Degrees of Negrozation.
    I felt that again when I returned earlier this year to Baltimore to talk to people who knew Gray. When I first spotted Shaw, the middle-school teacher, both of us narrowed our eyes and smiled.
    "I know you from somewhere," I said, and he agreed. We traded names and places to figure out in vain where we might have met.
    I felt it again when I talked to Kiona, a smiling 25-year-old woman who lives in the housing project where Gray was arrested. She said something strange, but it made sense to me
    "I love thugs," she told me. "These people that you call thugs, they're just misunderstood."
    I glanced behind Kiona and it looked like a street carnival. Teenagers revving their dirt bikes popped wheelies in the middle of the street. A cross-eyed young man pushing a baby carriage showed his new son to his buddies. A driver virtually parked his car in the middle of an intersection to have a conversation with someone who trotted over.
    Kiona "loved thugs" because she knew that at least some of them would look out for her. She couldn't trust the police or the political leaders downtown. Yet at least she could trust some of the people in her neighborhood because she knew them so well.
    When you live so closely with other people, calling them by their government-issued names just won't do. It's like the private nicknames lovers or spouses create for one another. If you know my family, my secrets and the things that really annoy me, you just can't call me John Blake.
    But Peanut just might do.

    Making a space that the world can't touch

    It must be said, though, that there are other reasons for nicknames. Some embrace nicknames to shield their identity from the police. Some acquire them because of unavoidable physical traits. If you meet a guy called "Bucket-head" or an obese guy called "Tiny," you get the origins of their nicknames.
    Yet there's something about black people and elaborate naming that seems to be a part of our culture. Black mothers have been ridiculed for giving their kids Afrocentric names like "Shaniqua" or "Laquisha," or for naming their children after luxury brands like "Prada" or "Lexus."
    The black comic duo Key & Peele have done more than anyone to expose this practice to a larger world. Two of their most popular skits revolve around black names. In one, a clueless substitute teacher from the inner city mangles the names of his white suburban students during roll call because he's so accustomed to imposing "black" pronunciations on names. Another is their infamous "East/West Collegiate Bowl" skit where black players with names like "D'Squarius Green, Jr." introduce themselves to a national television audience.
    The renaming tradition goes way back in the black community. Some trace it to West Africa. One folklorist said the practice of adding names for honor and prestige is important among the Yoruba people in West Africa. Emancipated slaves also gave themselves new names like "Freeman" to signal their newfound autonomy.
    Renaming continued into the 20th century in another black subculture -- the world of blues and jazz. Many of the old black music greats went by nicknames: Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe became "Jelly Roll Morton," Charlie Parker became "Bird," Eleanora Fagan became "Billie Holiday" and then just "Lady Day," and Chester Arthur Burnett became "Howlin' Wolf."
    It was once considered impolite to call out the real names of black musicians in public because their nicknames were so important. Some musicians would simply ignore those who called them by their real names or even threaten them if they ever did it again, says John Szwed, an anthropologist and author who has written biographies of Billie Holiday and Jelly Roll Morton.
    There's another reason, though, that some black musicians embraced nicknames, and when Szwed explained it I thought of Baltimore. He told me the story of Sun Ra, a jazz bandleader and composer.
    Sun Ra was born Herman Poole Blount in Alabama in 1914. He became a conscientious objector during World War II, citing his religious objections to killing. Here was a man who was reviled on multiple levels: Whites dismissed his humanity because of his skin color, blacks because he refused to fight.
    "For a black man to do that then was murder," Szwed says. "Everybody is going to come down on you. His family disowned him."
    People called him ugly names, so Blount gave himself a majestic one: Sun Ra -- Ra being the ancient Egyptian sun god. Sun Ra even created his own mythology, later claiming he was from Saturn, not segregated Alabama, and had conversed with aliens.
    Sun Ra's new name helped him "step out of the reality he was in" and "free him from the past associations in his life," says Szwed, who authored a biography of Sun Ra called "Space is the Place." In his book, Szwed described the purpose behind Sun Ra's new name: "Sun Ra is making a space for himself in the world that nobody else can touch."
    That same impulse exists in black neighborhoods like West Baltimore. The world may call you a thug, a predator, a loser. But step outside the reality you're in to give yourself and loved ones a new name.
    And sometimes, as in Sun Ra's case, a nickname can be a way to free yourself from shameful associations in your life.
    Shaw, the middle-school teacher, says some students dislike hearing their real name because they attach it to help they receive for being poor, like reduced-price lunches.
    "They may associate their government name with the fact that they're in special education classes or receive special services," Shaw says.
    It would be a mistake, though, to think that renaming is a black thang. It's an American tradition.
    When people moved out West, they often gave themselves nicknames. William Henry McCarty, Jr. became "Billy the Kid." James Butler Hickok became "Wild Bill" Hickok. Go to the early 20th century and you'll see the same impulse in immigrant families. Someone born Bernard Schwartz could change his name to "Tony Curtis" and become a movie star.
    "You could argue that as a frontier society, renaming went with the territory as people of all sorts wanted to rename themselves to start a new life, maybe incognito, but maybe just as part of the personal renewal process," says Roger Abrahams, a folklorist and author of "Everyday Life: A Poetics of Vernacular Practices."

    'It can't be jelly because jam don't shake so good'

    There's another reason for nicknames in West Baltimore -- a love of language.
    I have never been surrounded by so many great talkers, people who could bend words and phrases like licorice. Creating memorable nicknames is just an outgrowth of living in such an oral culture.
    Talk was entertainment where I grew up. A man I knew didn't just say that a voluptuous woman had a nice shape as she walked by. Instead he said, "It can't be jelly because jam don't shake so good" as she jiggled down the street. A guy I encountered at a bus stop didn't just tell me he didn't trust preachers. Instead he proclaimed loudly that, "The only thing a preacher likes is chicken legs and a woman's legs."
    We swam in a sea of words. Kids played "the dozens," the black tradition of trading clever insults with one another. ("Yo' Momma is so fat her blood type is Ragu.") Street-corner prophets preached about the return of Jesus. Nation of Islam members in bow ties talked about conspiracy theories and the "original Asiatic man" while selling bean pies. Men told lies to one another in barbershops.
    Lawrence Jackson, a native of Baltimore and now a sociology professor at Emory University in Atlanta, told me that "verbal contests" and "language games" are part of the culture of our hometown and other black communities.
    He quoted Chester Himes, the black crime novelist, who once said:
    "I've met African-Americans in prison and bars who could tell stories nonstop better than William Faulkner ever wrote, but no one will ever believe that."
    I wondered if that tradition still existed. But one interview restored my faith.
    Not long after the riots in April, I encountered Zachary Lewis near a makeshift memorial for Freddie Gray. It was early in the afternoon, but Lewis' eyes were bloodshot, and he carried malt liquor in a brown paper bag. Tattoos covered his muscular torso, and gold teeth shone from his mouth.
    When I asked him why I never saw any old men in the neighborhood, he somehow reduced the problem of mass incarceration and crime to one pungent expression:
    "They got big numbers or they in pine boxes," he said, meaning they had long prison sentences or were dead.
    And what was Gray's nickname? It was "Pepper." I have no idea why. But I bet there's a story and purpose behind it, as with all of the rest.
    I have no illusion that the problems of my hometown or places like it in America can be solved by colorful nicknames. At times, it was just plain depressing walking through my old neighborhood.
    Yet I confess I miss all of those nicknames, all the Peaches, Ray-Rays and Pookies -- and the wit and defiance they represent.
    You may call them thugs. You may call them by their government names. But I know that for at least some of the residents of West Baltimore, a name isn't just a name.
    They are making a space for themselves in the world that no one else can touch.