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.