Black-ish Recap: What’s in a Name?


The Name Game
Season 3 Episode 14
Editor’s Rating *****
Marsai Martin as Diane, Yara Shahidi as Zoey, Miles Brown as Jack, Marcus Scribner as Junior. Photo: Kelsey McNeal/ABC

After a three-week hiatus, Black-ish returns with a fantastic episode. In “The Name Game” we learn a lot about the newest addition to the Johnson family and we get an incredible story line with the kids, which doesn’t happen as often as it should. As usual, Black-ish takes a very real part of black parenting — picking a name for a child — and layers it with humor and education in a sharp way.

Bow and Dre are excited to learn the gender of the new Johnson baby. They have a deal: If it’s a girl, Bow will name her; if it’s a boy, Dre will name him. Bow thinks the matter’s settled when she has one of her prophetic baby dreams and sees a girl. She dreamed of a girl before giving birth to Zoey, a boy before Junior, and before the twins, she dreamed of a boy then had a lucid nightmare. With news of Bow’s latest dream, Dre’s hopes for another boy are dashed.

At work, Dre’s male colleagues understand why he’s so down about having another girl. Josh and Connor share a moment, labeling women as “the worst” because of their constant rejection, which is totally the fault of all women and has nothing to do with Josh trying to hook up with his cousins or Connor being a stalker. Mr. Stevens points out that the office is almost entirely men, therefore women must be incompetent — a conclusion that catches the attention of Rachel, the corporate evaluator sent to make sure the men are worthy of their jobs. Charlie assures Rachel that he finds her intelligent and competent, and that even though he’s not attracted to her at all, she could still get it. (Good to know, Charlie.)

As a counterpoint, Rachel reminds Dre that men are monsters and it’ll be his daughters who take care of him when he’s older. Charlie jumps in to clarify: When it’s time for Dre to die, he says, it’ll be Diane who puts the air bubble in his IV. Dre defends his daughter: If he’s ever in a bar fight, she’d have his back. Charlie can’t help but agree, and I love his grudging admiration even as he clearly remains afraid of all that Diane is capable of. It’s perhaps the best argument for girl power.

Dre eventually gets onboard with having a girl, so much so that he wears a pink shirt to the gender-reveal party. There are great little details before the reveal itself, like Dre and Bow refusing to patronize a bakery that doesn’t make cakes for same-sex weddings, and the interracial couples in attendance at the party. In many ways, Black-ish offers better examples of modern families than its network sibling Modern Family, but it’s also still pretty traditional. Though it does so in jest, “The Name Game” presents some questionable ideas about gender, like Mr. Stevens saying boys carry a family name to future generations, as if women never keep their maiden names and pass them along, too. In another example, Ruby confirms Bow’s dream by saying girl babies suck the beauty out of their mothers and Bow has been looking haggard lately. Although it’s mainly another chance for Ruby to take a shot at Bow, it also speaks to the way women are set up to compete against each other, even before they are born.

Back to the gender-reveal party: Bow pops a balloon, blue confetti rains down, and the Johnsons will be welcoming a baby boy! Dre can’t wait to have the boy he’s never had — poor Junior and Jack — and waves away the idea that he ever wanted a girl, leaving Zoey and Diane crushed. He even has the perfect name already: DeVante. As in DeVante Swing, producer and member of Jodeci, the greatest ’90s male R&B group. Bow’s eyes widen in horror.

No one is onboard with Dre naming the baby DeVante. Bow knows all too well the struggles of having an unconventional name, and even Ruby takes issue with it, claiming it’s too black. Ruby argues for giving the baby a more common name, so people won’t know he’s black until he’s on the phone. Josh is in awe at Dre stepping into “NFL free safety black-name territory,” and Charlie says if he heard the pilot’s name was DeVante Johnson, he’d get off the airplane. Mr. Stevens doesn’t understand the logic behind overtly black names, so Dre breaks it down, referencing Roots, when Kunta Kinte was forced to change his name to Toby. When black Americans were finally able to live outside of slavery, they reclaimed control of their names. Dre highlights black Muslims like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Muhammad Ali and black nationalists like Amiri Baraka, but yet again, he doesn’t include well-known black women like Assata Shakur. Still, his point remains: Black people use names as a way of reclaiming the heritage that was robbed from them.

At a coffee shop with Bow, Dre purposefully gives his name as DeVante to prove a point, but the barista can’t pronounce the name, giving credence to Bow’s fears. To appease her, Dre tries to get a feel for more traditional names, but he just can’t let DeVante go. He grew up around men with strong, nontraditional names and he doesn’t want to choose something because it hides his son’s identity. Dre becomes emotional, thinking about all the ways people associate being black with something bad, and Bow realizes he’s right. She accepts the name DeVante … but only if they add Matthew as a back-up middle name. The other kids walk in on her calling DeVante Matthew her favorite, and Junior lets her know such favoritism hurts more coming from her than Dre.

In the midst of the baby-name conundrum, the Johnson kids are busy preparing for Valentine’s Day. Diane wants to be included in Zoey’s girl time with her friend Shelley, who inexplicably has a crush on Junior. Jack gives Junior a pep talk, telling him what no one else will: Junior is turning into a good-looking guy. He’s got a nice face, good skin, and is filling out his frame well. Unfortunately, Junior doesn’t know how to be smooth so the next time he sees Shelley, he comes across too aggressively and tries to show off his body in a tank top with a shark on it. He almost ruins Shelley’s crush, but Jack convinces him to apologize.

Junior’s girlfriend Megan isn’t into labels, which sounds cool to Shelley, so she ends up accepting an invitation to pizza dinner for Valentine’s Day. Strangely, Junior also invites Megan, who admits she only said she didn’t want a label so Junior would step up and commit. Neither girl appreciates Junior trying to date them at the same time so they both leave, and Jack realizes he never should’ve told Junior he was becoming a man after all.

Meanwhile, Diane doesn’t get to have girl time with Zoey, who ends up going out on a date, which leads Diane to regret opening her heart up. She and Junior end up watching clips of trampoline accidents together, and while it may not be the most appropriate footage for them to watch, it’s sweet to see Diane and Junior bonding.

It’s no surprise that my favorite part of “The Name Game” is watching Jack help Junior realize his full potential as a ladies’ man. Miles Brown has come a long way as Jack. During the first season, you could tell he was very aware of the camera and maybe a little stiff with his lines, but now he’s much more comfortable and his delivery has improved tremendously. When Junior points out that Jack still wears pull-ups, he pops in to clarify they’re disposable sleep shorts before giving Junior a death glare for embarrassing him in front of Shelley and Zoey. It’s hilarious! Brown really brought that joke home, and I was impressed by his timing.

For people of color, picking out children’s names can become more stressful than (white) people realize. People of color don’t just have to worry about mispronunciation. They have to worry about the implicit and explicit racial biases that can lead to children with “ethnic” names being unfairly treated at school, ignored for jobs, or considered more dangerous. One day, DeVante Matthew Johnson may have to submit résumés as D. Matthew Johnson in order to be given a fair chance. Black parents understand the implications of giving their children unique names, and it’s a constant battle. Do you give your child a name that makes them special and stand out, knowing they will be punished for it, or do you give your child a safe name that lets them blend in the crowd? By asking these questions, Black-ish reveals an important part of parenting that’s rarely shown on television, if at all. Add “The Name Game” to the long list of the show’s well-handled episodes on sensitive subjects.

Black-ish Recap: What’s in a Name?