Literary Names: From the World of Toni Morrison
If you’ve read a book by the great Toni Morrison, chances are you’ll remember some of her characters’ names. From vivid nicknames to evocative biblical names, it’s easy to believe there’s a story behind each one.
Morrison’s novels tell of African-American communities, from the time of slavery to the present. One of the issues she explores is the loss of African Americans’ identities and heritage, and how to reclaim them. Names play a huge part in this, as you might expect.
Change a person’s name, as slave owners did, and you take away their identity and cut them off from their ancestors. Once that connection is lost, how do free African Americans get it back? Should they accept the names they have been given, or choose their own names and forge a new heritage?
Morrison’s characters answer these questions in various ways. Some freed slaves reject their “white” names and use their own names: in Beloved, Jenny and Joshua become Baby Suggs and Stamp Paid once they are free. Others stick with the name they have been given and pass it on to their children.
In later generations, giving nicknames was a way for a community to recover from a history of having no names. Morrison has said that, as a child, she never knew the real names of many adults, only their nicknames – and that, unusual as her characters’ nicknames may seem – like Soaphead Church, Empire State and Chicken Little – they are no stranger than real life.
The line around nicknames is rather blurred, because many characters have nickname-like word names, like Guitar, First Corinthians, and Kentucky Derby. In some cases we never find out whether these are their “official” names or not.
Morrison’s names may be taken from real life, but they’re clearly chosen with care, and add extra layers of meaning. For example, characters with biblical names often have features in common with their namesakes. One such is Shadrack the Great War veteran (in Sula), who echoes the biblical Shadrach who survived a spell in a fiery furnace.
Like many great namers, Morrison has her own name story. She has often said that her pen name is a public persona she puts on – Toni is from her baptismal name, Anthony, and Morrison is her ex-husband’s name – while her real self is her birth name, Chloe Ardelia Wofford.
Here are ten distinctive and usable names from her books.
Booker (God Help the Child)
This character in Morrison’s latest novel has an on-trend occupational name. It’s appropriate for him, as a somewhat bookish student. It also has great associations with the African American rights activist Booker T. Washington, and the musician Booker T. Jones.
Bride (God Help the Child)
Denver is a woman haunted by her sister’s ghost, named from the surname of a girl who helped to deliver her. Denver has been given to boys steadily over the years and it’s rising for girls, so it may soon become a truly unisex name. There’s a lot to like: it’s a cool place name with an -er ending, and for boys it’s an alternative to more popular Dexter.
Raised as his mother’s golden boy, Golden’s name is full of positive meaning: not just the shiny metal, but also colours in nature, golden ages, anything of the best quality. It calls to mind Golden Frinks, the civil rights activist, and it’s close in sound to literary favourite Holden. Right now it’s used roughly equally (but rarely) for boys and girls.
Florens (A Mercy)
An alternative spelling of Florence, this is also the name’s original form, meaning ‘flowering’ or ‘flourishing’. It’s fitting for this girl who comes of age and finds some emotional peace in the novel. It’s a traditional male name in the Netherlands.
A family name for characters in this novel, the original Macon got his name by accident from the Georgia city. The city itself was named after politician Nathaniel Macon, so it has surname and place name credentials. Macon has just started rising in popularity. 48 boys were given the name in 2015, probably as an alternative to Mason.
Pecola (The Bluest Eye)
The young girl in Morrison’s first book has a frustratingly mysterious name. It brings to mind the Latin word pecco, meaning ‘I sin’, which is sadly appropriate for this victimised child. It’s not unique to the novel. It was used through most of the 20th century, peaking around 1920 at the same time as similar names like Pecolia and Piccola. The latter means ‘small’ in Italian: could that be the origin? On a different note, Pecola is also a (male) penguin in a Japanese animated show of the same name.
Paradise is set around the town of Ruby, named after a woman in the town’s founding family. It’s an example of a name being chosen by African Americans to build a new community and identity. The gemstone’s red colour fits with the hot-blooded characters and violence in the story. Peaceful Emerald or Sapphire just wouldn’t work so well. Today, Ruby is a sweet top 100 choice which still has a vintage feel.
This seems to be a feminine form of Seth, as in the biblical figure or the Egyptian god. The character is based on the real-life Margaret Garner, who escaped slavery at great cost to her family. Neither the book nor the film adaptation (in which Oprah Winfrey played Sethe) has had much impact: Sethe is extremely rare, but it would make a gentle, simple choice.
Morrison has said that Sula May Peace, name and all, popped fully-formed into her mind. If Sula comes from the biblical Shulamit, her name means ‘peace’ twice over: double irony, as she’s not a peaceful or peace-bringing character. You could also see it as short for Ursula. Morrison remembers Sula May as a common name among African Americans, but in 2015 only 10 girls were called Sula, making it a rare but sweet literary choice.