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‘Searching for Shaniqua’

search 600The blogosphere has been on fire over a story about Kylie Austin, a biracial teen who changed her name from Keisha to Kylie because she was frustrated with being taunted about her "black" name by her mostly white peers.

And there's a new film on the way that takes this issue head-on.

There have been widely publicized studies about what having a "black sounding" name can do for job prospects, but until recently, relatively little public discussion about what can happen – job discrimination, bullying – to those who carry these names. So the Keisha/Kylie dust-up is a good thing, prompting public discussion about a topic with real consequences for real people. Some believe that Kylie did the right thing by changing her name, while others, like The Root's Demetria Lucas, believe that a name change won't change the ignorant attitude and behaviors of peers focused on Kylie's skin color, not her name.

Enter director Phill Branch, who's currently working on a documentary entitled Searching for Shaniqua, which started out as a project to find the oldest living person named Shaniqua in the country, and has morphed into a documentary about the complexity of names and what they mean for those who have to live with the real and imagined consequences of them.

A graduate of Hampton University and the American Film Institute's MFA screenwriting program, Branch has worked in the industry for nearly two decades, doing the indie-film hustle, including screenwriting, teaching at his alma mater and producing the underground hit Web series, "The PuNanny Diaries," which his team is developing for television. The Root caught up with the man behind the documentary about a topic that inspires passionate conversations about what some call black folks' creativity and other call black folks' shortsightedness. Branch talks about what motivated him to make this film, why the topic is important and "checking" himself during the filmmaking process:

The Root: How and when did you decide to become a filmmaker?

Phill Branch: Hmm ... this is tough. Short answer, I always knew I wanted to tell stories. As a kid, sometimes that took the form of me writing little stories, and other times it took the form of me lying to see how far I could take a story before someone stopped believing me. Early on, I learned that there's a natural ending to a story, and when you go that extra beat, you lose your audience, or get a spanking for lying. I think about that when I write.

TR: What prompted you to make a documentary about this subject?

PB: Honestly, I had a friend who was a substitute teacher, and she would tell me these stories about her class rosters. She would be nervous every time she went into a new classroom, because the names were so hard to figure out. Then, one day I was out and met this woman with a name that had too many syllables and too much punctuation. I was so annoyed by her name, I mean really annoyed. I went home that night and started a blog called "Searching for Shaniqua." I found out that there are so many women named Shaniqua from diverse backgrounds.

I felt like I could use them as a framework to tell a story. My aim initially was to document my quest to find the oldest living Shaniqua. Then, as I read and learned more, I became more serious about the subject. I began to really be invested in this idea of names as they relate to bullying or discrimination. I also began to think about how annoyed I was by that woman's name and what that may say about me. I started having discussions with my friends about names, and they'd always turn into heated debates. I knew this was something that needed to be addressed. I decided to do a documentary.

TR: How has this project been different from other projects?

PB: I've become the "name guy." Friends send me articles about names all of the time. People Facebook me names they run across and offer up friends and family members who might be good for the film. Unlike other projects I've worked on where you just release a completed project into the universe, this project has developed into a conversation. It's bigger than a film. I'm planning to do lectures, panel discussions and live chats while I'm in the process of producing the film. I don't want the audience to come in at the end; I want them to be involved now. It's great. I feel connected to the audience, and it's helping me shape the film. I like building community in all aspects of my life, so this interaction feels great

TR: How did you find subjects to interview for the documentary?

PB: At first I sent private messages to friends, but I think some folks took offense to the question. Then, I decided that a better approach would be to start some discussions on Facebook about naming. I wanted people to see that I wasn't going to make fun of them. Folks got into the discussions and have become more open to talking to me. I'm doing what I can to be able to travel and get to all of the people who have reached out. I'm also researching people in different fields who are at high levels of success with "nontraditional" names. I want them to talk about their experiences.
I also approach folks on the street. One of my best interviews was with a woman who was waiting on me at a restaurant. Her name, Chinneaqua—C-H-I-N-N-E-A-Q-U-A—was on her apron, and there was no way I was not going to get her on-camera. I interviewed her after her shift ended.

TR: How has the project been received by the public?

PB: I just released the teaser, and I've been flooded with messages from people who are sharing their personal stories. I am creating a space on my blog to feature some of what I'm getting from people. Most of the feedback so far has been positive. People keep telling me that they think it's an important subject and they're looking forward to it. It makes me excited and anxious. I'm glad people like it, but we have a little ways to go in terms of production and I feel some pressure to not lose that momentum.

TR: What do you want people to consider when watching this documentary?

PB: I'm really big on people thinking about how their attitudes or behaviors impact other people's lives. I've had to check myself a couple times as I've worked on this project. It would be cool if the people who watch did the same. I want folks to think about their responses to certain names, or how they feel about their own names. If there's discomfort, what is it rooted in? What's the historical context of these names? How does literacy fit into the equation? There are so many things to consider. There's so much in a name.

(Phill Branch will host a gathering of Shaniquas on Dec. 12 at 6:30 p.m. ET at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, D.C. Women named Shaniqua (and parents of women/girls named Shaniqua) can register for the event here.)

(Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., is editor-at-large at The Root. She is also editor-in-chief of the Burton Wire, a blog dedicated to world news related to the African Diaspora and global culture. Follow her on Twitter.)

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