AFRO-AMERICAN NAMES AND IDENTITY
Ethiopiques numéro 18
Revue socialiste de culture négro-africaine
This particular juncture in history is a very relevant one during which to attempt to delineate the patterns of naming behavior characteristic of Afro-Americans and to analyze the Socio-cultural significance of these patterns, since it is a period of name changing. Every society has its own specific naming conventions which may reflect and give insights into aspects of its culture by indicating certain social outlooks and values. Names are dues to a people’s self-image, self definition and sense of social identification. A descriptive analysis of the evolution of the naming behavior of Afro-Americans offerts some very interesting perspectives of the dynamics of their sense of socio-cultural and political identification.
ln such an analysis one must obviously begin with the West African origins of Afro-Americans. In many traditional African societies as in many other traditional societies, the names of people had greater signifiance than the mere labels that they have become in modern western society. Many of the names that now function main ly as labels in American society also originally had meanings. For example, Anglo-Saxon surnames, such as Cooper, Smith, Hunter, and Weaver, indicated the occupation of the bearer.
Different traditional African societies have different naming patterns, but one may generalize to say that names are more than mere labels, but rather very much a part of the per son’s identity. They may refer to some events pertaining to the birth of the child or describe some characteristics or potentials that the family sees in the child or hopes that he or she will manifest. For example in certain societies a child born into a family after several others have died may be given a name that means « god given », hence « Dieudonné », the french translation of « godgiven » is not an uncommon name in parts of Francophone Africa. A child sired by a European colonial offieer who failed, as was usually the case, to recognize his offspring, might be given a name meaning « She who brought shame upon her mother ».
The Fon of the Republic of Benin, an ethnie group from whieh many of the slaves brought to the U.S. came, have a series of names refering to different characteristics of the individual A person may acquire new names at significant points in his or her life cycle, such as puberty, or marriage. The new name is symbolic of a new identity. Some names are private and may only be known or used by certain categories of people or in certain circumstances, and within the traditional system, additional names may be acquired as the result of significant events in one’s life. The royal names of the kings of Abomey, the center of the Fon kingdom, were parts of proverbs that indicated something about the nature of the king or of the quality of his reign.
The name of Houégbadja, the founder of the kingdom, means « the fish refuses the net », refering to the proverb, « The fish that refuses the net will not enter », which alludes to the king’s ability to successfully avoid all of the traps set for him by enemies. The name of Tegbessou, a later king, means, « The yam field is full of weeds », which is part of the proverb, « The yam field that is full of weeds will not produce ». The origin of this name was an event that took place prior to his becoming king. The Yoruba king of Oyo (in Nigeria) demanded that the defeated King Agadja pay him tribute by sending his son to cultivate the victorious enemy king’s yam fields. The young prince went to Oyo, but once there refused not only to work, but also to eat, drink and speak. The king of Oyo, worried lest his rival’s son die and provoke his father to retaliate militarily, sent the young man home. Tegbessou, considered to be a hero for his ability to outwit the enemy king, was enthroned to succeed his father d’Oliveira 1970). Thus these traditional African names reflected some aspect of and were therefore very much a part of their bearer’s identity.
The Africans brought to the Americas as slaves had the problem of creating for themselves a new culture and a new identity in an entirely new social context. In this new context the Africans became Afro-Americans as they developed a new hybrid culture combining, in a novel synthesis, element of their Afriean culture with aspects of Euro-Ameriean culture. Because of their racial difference, Afro-Americans have been kept at a definite social distance from Euro-American culture and have as a result developed a distinct culture of their own, as weIl as participating and contributing to the larger American culture to different degrees. This position of the Afro-American as a part of, yet apart from, American society bas tended to lead to dualistic approaches toward self identity which are refIected in naming patterns – in the coexistence in a given historical period of names reflecting a dualistic cultural orientation, as well in the naming patterns of different historical periods.
The idea of writing about the names of Afro-Americans is not new. White travellers in the South a century ago and more took note of the « curious » or unusual names by which many Afro-Americans were known. Such original naming behavior was generally attributed to the « fanciful imagination » of the Afro-American. There is even a special collection of 500,000 Black names dating from 1619 to the 1940’s, in the John G. White Departement of the Cleveland Public Library. Little attempt, however, was made to relate the phenomenon of distinctive Afro-American naming behavior to its social and cultural context, althrough Newbell Niles Pusckett did begin an effort in that direction in his collection, Black Names in America : Origins and Usage (1975).
Africans brought to the Americas came bearing their own meaningful names. Some continued to be know by these names by both Blacks and Whites. Hennig Cohen notes, from an examination of slave documents and newspapers dating from before the revolutionary war, that at this period many slaves bore African names. Some were known exclusively by African names, such as Sambo, Quash, Mingo and Juba, which common in the 18 nth centuy (Cohen 1952 : 105). Puckett reveals the interesting fact that between 1619 and 1799 African names were more common among free Blacks in the north than among southern states (1975 : 16). This fact can undoubtedly be attributed to the free Black person’s greater freedom in defining his or her own identity rather than having it imposed by someone else.
The choice of an Afriean name by free Blacks suggests that they still identified with their continent of origin.
The Akan ethnie family from what is now the Ghana-Ivory Coast area contributed many slaves. The Akan naming system includes 14 day names, seven for males and seven for females. A child is named for the day of his birth (*). Cohen notes that Cuffee and Cudjo of the male names, and Abba and Juba of the female names, were the most widely used in the U.S. (1952 : 104).
These names also existed in the West Indies, and were maintained the longest among the maroon communities of escaped slaves, as they were in the U.S. among the Gullah of the Sea Islands, i.e., in the areas in which Blacks remained most isolated and were best able to preserve African cultural forms. Lorenzo Turner, well know Black historian and linguist noted the continued existence of this day-naming pattern among the Gullah in the 1940’s, as well as the practice of translating day names into English in his work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect . An important figure in Afro-American history was Paul Cuffee, an outstanding free Black businessman, whose father’s name was Cuffee Slocum. Cuffee, who led a back-to-Afriea movement, perhaps chose to be known by his father’s given name rather than his surname precisely because of its African origins. The name, interestingly enough, has been resurrected in the 1970’s as the name of the heroine of the movie « Coffie ».
These spellings, witch are an American version, vary from usage to usage in America and Africa e.g., Quamin is the same as the name of the Saturday-born former president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah
DeCamp, in an article on the transformation of these day-names in Jamaica, notes that they have ceased to exist as personal names there, but have continued to exist as naines for stereotyped Black characters, or Black people ih general. Thus a « Quashie » is a pejorative term designating a woman of loose morals (DeCamp 1967). That the same type of usage existed in the U.S. is evidenced in Black anthropologist and novelist Zora Neale Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks an the Raad, (1971), in wbich she several times refers to Blacks, particularly lower class rural Blacks, as « Coffie’s ». Mencken notes that from the early 18 nth century until about 1880, « Cuffy » was a generic term for a Black person (1944 : 173). Puckett also noted that another common African name of the 17th century, Sambo, had become a racist slur by the 20th century, and wbites commonly summoned Black men by this name (1975 : v).
Although some slaves continued to be known exclusively by their African names, many were immediately renamed by their white owners for their 9wn convenience in a gesture that attempted to put an end to the Black person’s old identity and impose upon him or her a new identity symbolized by the new name.
Frank Yerby, in his bistorieal novel The Dahomean, provides an excellent example of the process of renaming and of the profound meaning of this act in redefining an individual and his role and identity in life.
Nyasanu Dosu Agausu Hwesu Gbokau Kesu had been captured in West Africa and brought to the United States as a slave. Each constituent of bis name was an important part of bis identity as a per son in his native culture in which it was customary for names to grow out of circumstances. Nyasanu, bis common, everyday name meant « man among men », indicating bis ability to cope with trouble ; Dosu, his most secret name, was known to the three persons closest to him, and could be used to harm him through witchcraft ; the other four secret names referred to his birth – feet first, at noon, almost strangled because his umbilical cord was around his neck, and with a caul that almost smothered him. Asked his name by the man who purchassed him, he responded with Hwe su, whieh his new owner found « too heathenish » and decided to change to Wesley Parks.
For Nyasanu Dosu Agausu Hwesu Gbokau Kesu, son of Gbenu, a great chief, and himself lately governor of the province of AUadah in Dahomey, husband of six wives, one of them the daughter of the king, a notable, a « personage with name » in his own lilting Fon or Fau language, life was over. But for Wesley Parks, a beast of burden, an owned thing, a slave, it had just begun (Yerby 1971 : 10-11, 18, 380).
ln a much more recent twentieth century version of the same phenomenon, Maya Angelou, in her autobiographieal, I Knaw Why the Caged Bird Sings, says that a white woman for whom she went to work objected to calling a Black persan by such a sophistieated name as Maya and decided to call her Mary, which she saw as more befitting in its commonness. Ms. Angelou would not accept « being called out of her name », as many Black folks say, and having her identity denied, and quit the job rather than to submit to the white woman’s attempt to depersonalize her.
Many slaves had no choice but to be « called out of their name » by whites, with the name the master or mistress chose for them, but continued to be called by their Afriean or « country » name by other Blacks, and called their children by African names even if they also had « slave names ». The existence of this dual naming system was recognized by some whites. Cohen cites advertisements for runaway slaves that say :
John – He will more readily answer to the name of Footbea, which he went by in his own country Mask – His country name Mussa Tyra – The wench’s country name Camba (Cohen : 1952 : 103 – 104) Turner noted that this dual naming system continued to exist among the Gullah, with people having an African name, widely used by their friends and family, and a more American name for formal, impersonal usage (1949).
The names that the whites gave to their slaves fell into certain categories. In addition to the ordinary Mary’s John’s and Joe’s many slaves were given classical Latin mythological or historical names, such as Bacchus, Cupid, Ajax and Venus, and Brutus, Caesar, Cato and Nero (Cohen 1952 : 107). DeCamp suggests that the particularly popular classical names were sometimes given to slaves in as whimsical a manner as any other piece of property might be named, or as a joke, such as naming a less-than-brillant man Plato or Socrates, or a woman with much sexual experience after the chaste Diana. A slave might also be named after a publie figure whom the master did not like, to express his disdain for the other white man by naming a slave for him (DeCamp 1967 : 142).
Although most of the names that Black people have chosen for themselves since acquiring that right when they ceased being legal property with the end of slavery are good allame rican names of Anglo-Saxon origin, it is also true that a certain cultural originality has remained which is reflected in Black naming behavior. Arthur Palmer Hudson (1938) has collected from various written and oral sources, more than one hundred highly unusual Black names. Many of the names reflect imaginative and unorthodox usages of standard English by people who do not feel bound by its limitations, and who feel free to transfer linguistic symbols from one category to another, transforming their meanings to suit their own purposes. Children may be named for commercial brands, chemicals, etc., because their parents like the euphony of the words, such as Vitalis, and twins named Clorine and Florine. Poetie license may also be manifest in the borrowing of common names, like Rosy Bell, a boy named after President Roosevelt. Naming children, particularly girls, for jewel and flowers is common, although the reason for the actual choice may be highly original. For exampIe, Hudson mentions a child who was named Onyx because « she come onexpected » (1938 : 187).
This example and others suggest that segments of Afro-American society have maintained certain African attitudes toward naming behavior. In a number of the cases cited by Hudson, a person’s name tells something about the circumstances of his or her birth, or something about him or her as a person. In other cases cited, the name is actually part of a proverb, usually biblical in origin, since the Bible was the major source of inspiration and strength to Blak people.
A child was named Caboose by his parents, who intended for him to be the last child, and another was named James T. L. Smith, with the same sentiment as Caboose’s parents since T. L. stood for « the last » : Gladys Over was so named because her mother was « glad it’s (the birth) over ». Opium got her name because her mother had read that the drug was made from the juice of the wild poppy and « the baby sure had a wild poppy ». Like the Abomean King, Black names were sometimes whole proverbs or inspirational phrases taken from the Bible, such as « 0 grave, where is thy victory ? » referred to as Vick, and « I will rise again », called Iwilla (Hudson 1938).
Nicknaming is also a significant form of naming behavior common in segments of the Blak community that allows people to acquire new names reflecting characteristics and events of their lives that add to their identity in the eyes of those people who bestow the name, as the Fon acquired additional names with successive events and accomplishments. To borrow an excellent example from the film industry, in « Five on the Black Hand Side » the pimp was called « Fun Lovin » and the numbers runner, « Rolls Royce ! » H. « Rap »Brown was so named because of his ability to rap. Guitar Red is a musician, as would be expected, Bobby « Blue » Bland sing the blues and the B’s in B.B. King’s name have been said to stand for « Blues Boy ».
An article on Black nicknames in a state penitentiary lists sorne imaginative biographically revealing ones such as : Heart Trouble, obviously a lover ; Po’Chance, who never had a chance to make anything of his self ; and Been Home, who escaped from prison but later got into trouble and was caught and sent back. Every Saturday was so nicknamed because once when asked by his white boss why he always asked for money in midweek after just being paid on Saturday he said, by way of explanation, that if the white man could ever be Black for just one Saturday night, he’d never want to be anything but Black for the rest of his life (Lomax 1943).
Thus many Black names have been much more than labels. Names have been an important part of the AfroAmerican cultural identity. In the face of efforts to strip them of their original African identity to replace it with a new slave identity, Black slaves developed a dualistic cultural orientation : to their own Black community, in which their identity as persons was often reflected in their meaningful names, and to the white world in a more formalistic relationship , in which they were non-persons, as reflected in the arbitrariness of the names assigned them. Meaningful names for their children have been bestowed by many parents in ways reminiscent of African patterns, and nicknaming has provided tides giving additional information about a person’s significant deeds and existentially evolving character as he or she goes through life. But, as with the original Afro-Americans country name and slave name, the nickname is usually limited to the Black community, whereas the person’s formal name, used in the context of the larger society, may be meaningless or even unknown to the person’s close friends. Thus, the dualistic naming system developed by the slaves, reflecting the dualism of the Afro-American orientation, continues to exist as a feature of Afro-American culture.
Naming has been, in a sense, a political act for Afro-Americans. The voluntary taking of new names has reflected an assertion of a new status. It is the symbol of the end of a rite of passage from one status to another. When Blacks became slaves, their newly imposed names symbolized the change of status that many tried to resist by maintaining the names that were associated with their preferred independent identity.
A major characteristic of slave names was that slaves had no family name as did all free people, including , free Black people, since they were not allowed to form family solidarity. One of the first acts of freed slaves in asserting their new status was to take on second names, which were by sorne referred to as « titles » or « titlements ». Having a surname gave them the « title » of a free person, something they were now « . entitled » to A manifestatlon of whites refusal to acknowledge and accept this change in status, and to see Blacks as free and equal human beings, was evident as late as more than a century since emancipation, in their refusal to call Blacks by their family names, and by the normal terms of polite address, Mr., Mrs., and Miss. To express a sense of sociallly sanctioned superiority, whites, especially in the South, tried to deprive Black people of their dignity by insisting upon calling them by their first names, whatever their age and however elevated their socio-economic status.
A mechanism developed by Blacks to deal with this attitude on the part of whites and to subvert it as best they could, was to name their children with actual titles. Dick Gregory named one of his daughters « Miss » so no white person could call her by her first name without using a title of respect. Military and royal titles were given as first names so that whites could not avoid using terms of respect for Blacks. Thus, people named their children General, Major and Sergeant, and King, Queen and Prince. The founder of the fast Black masonic lodge was Prince Hall, and it is no accident that the nicknames of two big jazz band greats are royal titles – « Duke » Ellington and « Count » Basic. There was also « Lady Day » (Billie Holliday) and (Nat « King » Cole. And Leroy, a name considered almost stereotypical for Blacks, means « the king » in french, although this meaning seems to have been forgotten, just like the original meanings of Cuffy and Sambo. So, naming a child could be used as an aggressive political act, if assesting the right to self-defined and dignified identity must be one.
When Blacks did take on their « titlements », some took the names of the white people who had owned them but many rejected the names of their old masters as symbolic of the bondage from which they were free. Most, however, chose the common Anglo-Saxon names held by most of the white population, since they provided the only standard for what family names should be. According to an article on Black family names,
Washington is by far the most common Black family name. Four-fifths of the Washingtons in the D.S. are Black. Their emancipated ancestors probably selected the name from either or both of two heroes, George and Booker T. (Barker 1939 : 163, 168). Freeman was chosen by some Blacks as a particularly appropriate new « title ».
Naming children for heroes has been common. Who the heroes are has changed over time, reflecting current political definitions of who is heroic. When the Bible was the chief source of Black inspiration, Biblical names abounded. The use of Moses has been interesting, because many middle-aged Black people use it in the same generic way that Coffie was used. However, Moses’ role in liberating the Jews, with whose oppression Christian Blacks have long identified, suggest a more heroic usage. Perhaps the name did have this more heroic referent, but lost it through overuse in the real world like others.
Presidents have been common sources of inspirational name for Black children. Perhaps like the « strong names », common to some Afriean societies, these names are expected to benefit the chi1d in life, to inspire and empower their holders to great feats. Like « praise names » they perhaps suggest that the individu al is capable of great undertakings because of his symbolic assimilation to the family tree of heroie predecessors. Booker T. Washington and George Washington are common names, the former for obvious reasons, and George as father of the country, not because he was a particular friend of the slave. Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt are also common names because of the roles of both president, in the improvement of the Black people. As allegiances change, or new heroes come on the scene, new sources of heroic names develop.
The best present example of a heroic name is clearly Malcolm, whose own name changes reflected very important changes in his own self-identity as well as in his evolving ideological orientation. Born Malcolm Little, during his days as a street hustler he was known as Detroit Red, Big Red and Satan. When he joined the Black Muslims, which reflected an extreme ideologieal reorientation, he became Malcolm X. When he evolved from that identification to a broader, more internationalist world view symbolized and influenced by his pilgrimage to Mecca and adoption of orthodox Islam, he acquired his final name and identity – El Haj (denoting one who has made the pilgrimage) Malik El-Shabazz.
As Blacks sought social and cultural integration with whites, two trends were evident in naming behavior, both of whieh reflected an avoidance of Black-sounding nomenclature. Naming was either very Anglo _the most common of names : Carol, Joan, Barbara, Robert, John, etc., or highly exotic. The exotic names were Russian, like Tanya, French like Yvonne, and Spanish like Juilnita, or invented like La Morne and La Gayle. Spanish male names like Enrico, Alfonso and Lorenzo became particularly popular. The exotie names clearly reflected an broadening world view, plus, perhaps, a denial of a sense of Afro-Ameriean identity by defining oneslf as exotic and foreign, and may be trying to identify with Spanishspeaking people of colorlike Puerto Ricans, who were originally a novelty and seemed to have a better fate than Black Americans.
Then came the sixties and seventies and the ending of Black efforts to contribute to the willful destruction of Afro-Ameriean culture through assimilationist efforts. Cultural nationalism and separatism replaced integration and Afro-Amerieans changed their names to reflect their new consciousness. The name of the people as as whole was changed from Negro or Colored to Black or Afro-Ameriean to reflect an aggressive pride in the Afriean heritage of Black people, and an affirmation of the validity of selfdefined identity. Africa became a source of names. Very Anglo exotic European names were changed to African names – usually Swahili names with meanings pertinent to the struggle for Black liberation. Afriean leaders, past or present, like Shaka, Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Touré began to provide the heroie, strong, inspirational names to lead namesakes to great exploits in the interest of the liberation of Black people. The eclectic choiee of Afriean names reBects the Pan-Africanist orientation of the new Afro-American identity.
Like the Black Muslims, other Black people began to reject what they consider to be their « slaves names » with their rebirth into a new consciousness. This slave name, unlike the actual name during slavery, indicated that one’s mind had been enslaved by white American society. Many slave names have been discarded in the course of naming ceremonies African in origin. Some people have taken Islamic names influenced by but not adhering to the pattern of most Black Muslims, who have taken X’s in the place of their slave names – X’ for ex-slave, X for the unknown quantity of the trasitional period until they acquired their true names and identity when the goal of total freedom has been attained.
Thus, the cycle of naming has gone a full revolution. African names have returned with the conscious reaffirmation of Afro-American culture. Names forcibly taken away during enslavement have returned with a new awareness. There is nothing peculiar about this changing of names. On the contrary, it is rather a manifestation of a consistent pattern in Afro-American cultural dynamism, a new level in cultural evolution in which a previous identity is willfully rejected to take on a new one. Black Americans have retained a sense of cultural meaning, of which names are but one living manifestation. A Black spiritual says, « I told Jesus it would be all right if he changed my name ». Even if my mother, father, brother, sister, friends won’t know me, my name must be changed to symbolically manifest my change in identity and status to become a new person. And in the words of a great Black American heroine, Isabella Baumfree whose name was changed to Sojourner Truth :
« When l left the house of bondage l left everything behind. l wa’n’t goin’ to keep nothin’ of Egypt on me, an’ so l went to the Lord an’ asked him to give me a new name. And the Lord gave me Sojourner because l was to travel up an’ down the land showin’ the people their sins an’ bein’ a sign unto them. Afterward l told the Lord l wanted another name cause everybody else had two names, and the Lord gave me Truth, because l was to declare the truth to the people ». (Lerner 1972).