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African Americans and Their Not So “Strange” African Names

May 19, 2015

Guest Post by: Mercedes Drew (NYU, BA/MA student, Africana Studies), Naapane Faustina Marius (University of Ghana, MA student, Linguistics), and Nicole Holliday (NYU, PHD student, Linguistics)

Duke University Professor Jerry Hough has found himself the subject of criticism due to his racially provocative comments online about black and Asian Americans.

Hello Name Tag Sticker on White

Hello Name Tag Sticker on White

One of the more controversial points in Hough’s (self-admitted) racist commentary was his assertion that “Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration.”

Though his comments have recently come to light, Hough isn’t the first to criticize the naming practices of some African-Americans and to consider them “un-American”. In fact, this well-worn stereotype has been shown to have real consequences for black Americans with “non-traditional” names. In the video below, filmmaker Morgan Spurlock discusses the consequences that “black” names may have on an individual’s employment. Spurlock tells the CNN anchor that in his experiment, he found that a resume with the name Jake Williams was significantly more likely to get a call back than DeShawn Williams. This held true even if DeShawn was more qualified. Watch for yourself:

This ideology against “black” names is strong and it is rooted in a long history of rejecting the naming practices of blacks to assert political power. When brought to America, most slaves were given the surnames of their masters and were often forced to change their first names to something more Anglicized, as made famous in the epic mini-series Roots where Kunta Kinte was whipped for refusing to identify as Toby (Warning: The video portrays racialized violence). Many slaves rebelled against this cultural white-washing by looking to their past to reclaim their identities. In his work “Naming and Linguistic Africanisms in African American Culture”, Ohio State University Professor Lupenga Mphande , writes,

Among the various endeavors that African slaves made in becoming African American in culture, orientation was the culture of resistance involving the process of re-naming themselves, constantly reverting back to their African cultural forms.

malcolm x

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz, formerly Malcolm X (who replaced his surname, slave name, with an X to signify his lost African name)

Indeed, some of the most famous African Americans in history, like Malik El-Shabbaz (formerly Malcolm X) and Muhammad Ali (formerly Cassius Clay), changed their names to reflect the social movements of their time and their personal realizations of self in relation to their culture. Mphande’s research examines the “linguistic remnants of the African naming practice in American culture.” Just as we can observe parallels in grammar and syntax between African American English and some African languages, the so-called “black” names that are the target of so much public derision can also sometimes be linked to African naming systems. The “La” and “Sha” prefixes that have been the source of misguided humor for decades may indeed have roots in African languages. Mphande states that according to Dinwiddie’s work, Proud Heritage: 11,001 Names for your African-American Baby, the “da, de, la, le, sha, and ja” sounds are the most “common affixes that African Americans use to create new names, and that these account for 75 percent of all new African American names.” He connects these prefixes to Bantu languages, such as isiZulu, where these “affixes have gender implications, so that Leshandra, for example, can only be a woman’s name.” Additionally, some names also combine one of these prefixes with a Latin base, like the various permutations of Dante. Mphande states that in creating names, “people take the forms with which they are familiar, and play with them in a creative way to formulate new structures that fulfill their needs in a more satisfying and meaningful way.”


Muhammad Ali, formerly Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr.

Names hold immense power for those with African ancestry, because they were historically a powerful tool for stripping individuals and communities of their identities. Mphande notes that “a name may indicate the linguistic structures and phonological processes found in the language,” which implies that the a child’s name can carry their culture. In Accra, Ghana, for example, names can be given based on the day of the week; the common names Adwoa (‘Girl born on Monday’) or Kofi (‘Boy born on Friday’) are two examples. Some of these features survived past the Atlantic Slave trade, with children having names that resemble the names from a possible country of origin. Mphande also points out that black names have always been controversial in the United States.

However, many of the African names faded and disappeared because of (a) the threat of repatriation, and thus those who did not want to go back to Africa had to claim that they were not Africans; (b) slave rebellions, particularly in South Carolina: slaves did not want to be identified as “rebellious” because of their name-identity with Africa; (c) some slaves were coerced into changing their names to that of their masters by the slave owners; (d) although the Garvey brand of the back to Africa movement encouraged many to identity with Africa, there were still some slaves who wanted to distance themselves from such close identification with the continent.

Despite this social pressure, there were some African slaves who made various endeavors in their transition from being African to African American to maintain connections to their ancestral cultures. And later, as black consciousness rose especially during and after the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, many African Americans found a way to stay connected to their “complex African roots”, sometimes by rejecting “traditional” European names. While individuals like Professor Jerry Hough may see non-European naming practices as reflective of a lack of desire for integration, this criticism is Eurocentric and short-sighted. Ultimately, Hough’s criticism of the “strange new names” of African Americans, is simply a reaction to African American naming practices as an act of political and racial identity.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Dayna permalink
    May 19, 2015 11:19 am

    A topic that was heavy on my mind when naming my daughter. Keep ’em coming, Word is one of my online reads!

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