What’s in a Name?

Image Courtesy of Imib.org
Image Courtesy of Imib.org

I recently participated in a discussion group at the Carver Library in San Antonio, Texas. During the exchange of ideas among the participants, one brother who called himself, Brother Cedric X, asked me why I hadn’t changed my name from my slave name of Williams. That question changed the entire dialogue of the discussion and was an attempt to make those of us who still have our “slave names” deal with “our failure to break free of our slave mentality.”

It has also triggered my thoughts on what is in a name? Does it really matter that millions of Black folk haven’t taken on an African name? And would it have altered the direction of our history if we had? Does it really matter that Martin DeLaney, Frederick Douglass, Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois, and A. Phillip Randolph did not change their names? Could Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have been a more effective leader if he had been Martin X or Martin Muhammad? In other words, what is more important the individuals’ deeds and accomplishments or their name? What more could Rosa Parks have done if her name had been Rosa Ali? What about Fannie Lou Hamer? Wasn’t it really her no-nonsense fiery personality that made her so effective and not the name?

It seems that our heritage and culture have evolved from African to African/ European because of over four hundred years of absence from Africa, and presence in this country. Furthermore, because of the abuses of slavery we all have a mixture of blood, both African and European. During an interview on the Joe Madison Show, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, host of “Finding Your Roots” PBS program, conjectured that the majority of African Americans can have as much as 20% European blood, and with some as high as 40%. Does the name change help eliminate that influence on who we are? Through the change of names, are we trying to build an African based culture in this country? Name alone will not accomplish that. Culture is about language, religion, music, literature, foods and most important a continuity in history from one generation to the next. What names best fit those variables?

We represent a cultural transformation that has made us a very unique and beautiful people who evolved out of slavery and through Jim Crow and oppression. Our ancestors triumphed over the worst and created the very best not because they were African, but because they were very strong human beings. I, for one, am very satisfied with my African heritage for what it is, and not what I am trying to make it to be. However, in the best interest of our culture and its sustainability, we must accept the fact that we are also influenced by the European/English cultures. Dr. Maya Angelou made that quite clear in an interview with Terry Gross of National Public Radio when she explained that her prose and poetry evolved from the rhythm and imagery of Black southern preachers, the lyricism of the spirituals, the directness of gospel and the mystery of the blues. In the same interview, she told Ms. Gross that one of her favorite poets was Paul Laurence Dunbar and she learned a great deal from his poem “Sympathy.” She also mentioned her admiration for William Shakespeare and was moved by the great English writer’s ability, “to know my heart…a Black woman in the twentieth century.”

For my beautiful brothers and sisters who have changed their name that is something they chose to do for their identity and that is admirable. But that is not what we all must do in order to love and cherish our African past, and absolutely does not mean we harbor any positive feelings about the oppressors from whom our names evolved.

5 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Carla D. Walker

    I appreciate the one’s who feel it necessary for them to comfortable with having to change their name, yet I am more impressed with the one’s who will respect their name and carry themselves in a manner in which all can respect them for who they are by their name in which they have inherited. The name is important if you make it important. Who we are is how we are identified leave a legacy so we will remember you by your name in a positive way. Sometimes all one may have is their “word” and their “name” to leave. So, what’s in a name? How will we remember you? When we say your name what will someone think of?

  2. William B. Johnson,Sr.

    Interesting discussion. I continue to identify with the name that I inherited from my daddy.His name was Willie Johnson and my grand Father’s name was William H. Johnson. My name is William B. Johnson and I will continue to be referred to as such. For me, the ability to identify with a known human being, my daddy, is more important than taken on a name of an unknown entity.I hasten to add that I appreciate those bros. who have taken on a name that refers back to the Motherland.I fully embrace my Africaness while realizing that 400 yrs. after the boat landed, I can only vaguely appreciate what it must be like to really Feel African.Unlike my friend, Nias Harris, who has been fortunate and have visited the Motherland numerous times, I can only imagine what it must be like to breathe the African air and to conversate with people whose blood have not been comingled with the European.In the meantime, I will carry on with my Americanized name while allowing my mind to embrace only positiveness where Africa is concerned.

  3. Nias E. Harris I

    As a child, one can remember someone responding to the name “One Eye Willie”. The person had usage of only one eye. Being “Sunday born” the name “Kwesi” is one I and I and others who were born n a Sunday can respond. A name announces a person, place, thing, and/or event. As Mr. Johnson has replied, he can “identify with a known human being”. The term “also known as – AKA” indicates the person can be identified through other names. In some parts of the continent of Africa- one’s name can identify a tribal connection and a geographical location from which one originates. The idea of maintaining a name that maybe linked to an enslaver has many implications. African Americans who have tried/ are trying to trace a place of origin have used names which are associated with their past. In doing so, they have, in some cases transcended the enslavers name and found a root. As one considers the initial conversation it relates to taking on the name of enslavers. Recently, a Belgium tour guide decried their involvement in the slave trade. However, he emphasized the Arabic involvement in the slave trade. Thus, is a there a difference in taking on a name of a European enslaver versus an Arabic enslaver. There are some who indicate their are sacred names. However, there are persons whose name is: Jesus, Ptah, Yaweh, Jah, Amen Ra, Osiris, Isis, Ra and many more names that are associated with god and goddess. Is it heir names ? Is it what they represent? Is it what they suppose to represent? Currently, in international news there is a group called/labeled ISIS. Do they represent the virtues of the goddess? Is it a name they gave themselves, or did someone give this group that name for particular purpose? There is a musical group that have labeled themselves- Buffalo Soldiers? No member is of an African origin. Because of my knowledge of the name I and I possess with the knowledge thereof, I and I believe a name is important to the point of some cultures having naming ceremony to name the child. It is strange that even on the continent of Africa, I and I have met an African named Joe Jackson, and another one – the color of midnight with a last name of Jones. Are you the individual comfortable with the name you have been given, are given, are called and why?

    1. Carla D. Walker

      I appreciate the history and the story. Yes I am very comfortable with my name mainly because I received my name from my Mother and My father and I understand how I was named and why for my generation and with GREAT pride and respect. That is for me and my house.

  4. Interesting discussion, I love the topic question: “What’s in a Name?” Here are my thoughts on the question: Everything is in a name. Names reveal the identity of a people. One of the first things that belongs to you when you come into existence is your name. That’s because when you find out who you are, you get your name. If ever you want to take away the identity of a people, you do so by first taking away their name. From both perspectives: those who opt to change their names and those who do not, the actions are based on identity. Some people change their names because they want to associate with a certain heritage; others don’t because they want to remain connected to their parents and family members with that name etc. Some cultures wait 8 days (according to the Biblical tradition of the ancient Israelites) before naming a child for the purpose of discerning what his or hers personality is like so that the name truly represents who they are. Abram’s name was changed to Abraham because he became the father of many nations, Jacob to Israel, and even in Maya Angelou’s case name has ties to identity, as she changed her name from Marguerite Johnson to Maya Angelou—a blend of her childhood nickname, “Maya,” and a shortened version of her husband’s surname Angelopulos. Speaking of which, wives themselves take on the last name of their husbands to symbolize that they belong to that man, that is, the man has been given the authority over the woman that once belonged to her father. Thus she exchanges her father’s last name for her husband’s. In short, names are very important and possess a lot of meaning. But some people change their names to what they think represents their heritage even though it has no connection to who they are. I have no opposition to those who choose not to change their names and those who do. My hope is just that for those who do change their names, they do so with the surety that this name is an authentic representation of themselves.

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