Synergizing Culture: African American Cultural Recovery through African Name Acquisition and Usage.

Author:Zulu, Itibari M.


The above quotes (Muhammad 1973; Gutierrez 2016) outline the challenge that people of African heritage have with names, particularly in the Western Hemisphere. The first concerns the former enslaved person wanting the name of his/her former oppressor, and the second, is an articulation of how the process of names and naming are locked in power relationships designed to dominate/kill the African ethos, while the African soul seeks to preserve its culture and identity.

The irony is that, should we prepare a list of famous or well-known people of African heritage in the U.S., and not identify them as persons of African descent via photograph, it would be almost impossible to identify their African heritage based on their personal names. Hence, usually when one is taught about the history, life and culture of Black people in the U.S., the focus is on 'race' because names like Huey Newton, Coretta Scot King and other names held by African Americans (e.g., Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Harold Washington, etc.) do not give a clue that they were actually of African heritage, unless there is a drawing, photo, or biography identifying them as African Americans.

Considering this reality, certain exceptions bear some attention. The first is of those with names that perhaps identify them as a person via his/her ethnic origin or identification, such as the creator of the African American and Pan African holiday Kwanzaa (Karenga 2008), Maulana N. Karenga or Cuban exiled former Black Liberation Army activist Assata Olugbala Shakur (Shakur 1987, Wazo Weusi Collective 1995), both of whom are engaged in the social and political domain of African liberation.

The second are of those who have elected to be known based on their religious affiliation such as activist athletes Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. And third, we have those born into their names like Barack H. Obama, the 44th President of the United States, attorney Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, or free agent NBA player Chukwuemeka Ndubuisi "Emeka" Okafor.

Hence, we can see that there are at least three ways some people of African heritage in the U.S. come to be known via an African name, i.e., cultural political formations, religion, and birth. In this paper, the focus on cultural political formations via organizational affiliations that have influenced the prevalence of African name acquisition and usage in the U.S. Accordingly, this work also draws on (1) the author's personal observation, (2) involvement and knowledge discussions with persons with and without African names in the U.S. (3), a literature review, (4) the argument that a personal name is an inalienable human right, and (5) with psychological paradigms that may explain why most African Americans do not have African names. It is recommended that people of African heritage in the U.S and throughout the world more aggressively begin to embrace African names and African naming practices.

The Cultural Dynamics and Politics of Naming

Given the complexities aforementioned, the act of naming is one of Kujichagulia (i.e., self-determination via Kiswahili, and the second principle of Kwanzaa (Karenga 2008) in a set of seven [the Nguzo Saba] total in the holiday), wherein people, particularly in the context of the crime of enslavement, have the right to independently name, define, speak and create for themselves, instead of having others do those essential cultural grounding activities for them. And although often ignored when examining names and naming practices, personal names in the African context specifically serve as useful tools for reference, and as sources of authoritative and authentic pieces of information (Adjah 2011). Hence, Adjah (2011) found that when we emphasize the communicative values of names, they become similar to an open diary of recorded information that can be preserved, retrieved and disseminated throughout society.

Furthermore, naming is a human rights issue (a concern that will be addressed with more detail later in this essay), based in human ethics which should be applicable everywhere, at every time, and for everyone. Nevertheless, this basic right has been violated seemingly without an afterthought as people of African heritage in Africa and around the world have been burdened with European names (first, middle or last). For example, many know of Nelson Mandela, but few know of Rolihlahla Mandela, the African name (an isiXhosa name that means "pulling the branch of a tree", and colloquially, "troublemaker"), given to him by his father. Alternatively, the name Nelson was given to him on his first day at school by his teacher who undoubtedly learned the practice from her British colonizers, who according to Mandela, they could not easily pronounce or often would not pronounce African names. Thus, naming can be an early act of violence on the African mind, i.e. psychological warfare, when it is politically given without regard to cultural reference or respect.

The result of violence-by-naming is the institutionalization of a personal conscience or subconscience that would accept or internalize the views of the dominant society (e.g., British colonialism) over his/her own ethnic group, and thus, participate in internalized oppression/racism (Bailey 2011, David 2014, Mandela 1974, Sullivan 2017).

Literature Review

Literature on African American personal name acquisition or usage in reference to African names is slim. Instead, focus is usually on names chosen after emancipation, most of which were not African in origin. However, an exception is a M.A. thesis titled "African Names and Naming Practices: The Impact Slavery and European Domination had on the African Psyche, Identity and Protest" by Liseli A. Fitzpatrick presented in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree in African American and African Studies at Ohio State University in 2012. Fitzpatrick's (2012) study on African naming practices during human enslavement in the U.S. and its aftermath focused on the centrality of names and naming in creating, suppressing, retaining and reclaiming African identity and memory, based on the idea that several elements of African cultural practices have survived the oppressive onslaught of enslavement, and European domination.

And in doing the above, the thesis investigates African names and naming practices in Africa, the United States and the Caribbean, not merely as elements of cultural retention, but as forms of resistance in an effort to outline their importance in the construction of identity and memory for persons of African descent; and most importantly, as a sociopolitical construct that also examined how European colonizers attacked and defiled African names and naming systems to suppress and erase African identity. Fitzpatrick (2012) aptly argued that because names not only aid in the construction of identity, they also concretize a people's collective memory by recording the circumstances of their experiences. Accordingly, to obliterate African collective memories and identities, the colonizers assigned new names to our African ancestors or even left them nameless, as a way of subjugating and committing them to perpetual servitude (in body and mind). In response to this, the author also investigated how African descendants in Africa and throughout the world resisted this process of obliterating their memories, and thus, deployed the practice of naming for survival in a hostile environment. And unlike most studies, the study focused on the deliberate attempt made by European colonizers to obliterate African memory, and instill a sense of shame within the African community, while simultaneously studying the various ways African folk resisted and sought to maintain their identity through names and naming practices, given the important role that names played in Africa, and elsewhere.

Second, Lopez (2015) discussed names and naming practices among enslaved African people and their descendants in the Americas, and also presented an overview of naming systems among people in colonial as well as modern Brazil. According to Lopez (ibid.), data from previous research on names and naming practices in a number of enslaved societies in the Americas constitute a point of departure for discussing who named the enslaved and their sons and daughters to provide an overview of the different types of names that have been registered for the population, and to comment on how these names may have been chosen and used in reflection of power relationships, and expressed resistance to power imbalances. Thus, she found that enslavers were not always the name-givers of the enslaved, and that although African names are rare in historical records, modern naming practices may still include components of African origins, and therefore, they evoke important memories of collective experiences.

And third, Lupenga Mphande (2006) in "Naming and Linguistic Africanisms in African American Culture" in the Selected Proceedings of the 35th Annual Conference on African Linguistics informs us that the enslaved were captured on the African continent and brought to the 'New World', they had names as a means to identify their environment and themselves. And although many studies have catalogued African names in America, no study has examined the processes that go into linguistic name construction or in the encoding of its semantic import. Second, there has also been no study that has discussed the process that leads to the creation of names, versus simply cataloguing the forms of names themselves.

Hence, in his paper, Mphande (2006) examined the linguistic remnants of the African naming practice in American culture, and interrogated the imaginative processes African Americans have deployed in retaining their African cultural heritage. For example, he describes the Zulu naming practice as an example of a naming culture that the enslaved may have been...

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