Elisabeth Pearson Waugaman Ph.D.

"What's in a Name?"

Our Evolving Black American Naming Traditions

Given names can provide important social and spiritual insights.

Posted Mar 01, 2015

Names are fascinating because of their origins, meanings, cultural and family histories. Black American naming traditions were dramatically influenced by slavery. The word slave comes from the word slav because the Vikings sold so many Central Europeans into slavery in the early Middle Ages. Entire sections of coastal Spain and Italy were abandoned from the 15th through the 19th centuries with an estimated one million Europeans captured and sold into slavery by the Barbary pirates. From the 16th to the 19th centuries between 9 and 12 million Africans were shipped to the New World as slaves with another 19 million taken to the East Coast and the Red Sea for the Muslim save trade. Africa was literally bled of its human resources. The horrific history of slavery is as old as that of mankind. Every religion—pagan, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist—has been guilty of slavery. Every race has had slaves. In the Mediterranean, the charm against the evil eye is blue; because outsiders, including many household slaves had blue eyes. Slavery has not been eliminated: today, millions of children and adults are still enslaved, including even in the U.S.

Existing slave ship manifests for the Atlantic slave trade record numbers, gender, approximate age of slaves, and occasionally “nation” (tribal identity). Slave names are only registered after the beginning of the international abolitionist movement circa 1820. Sold into slavery, slaves were given Anglicized names. Plantation records list mostly diminutive first names (e.g. Tom, Dolly) and more rarely biblical (e.g., Abraham, Israel), well-known historical (e.g. Matilda, Pompey), classical (e.g. Scipio, Venus), place names (York, London), and rarely family or place names as first names (e.g. Edgecomb, Hampton). Very rarely, plantation slave lists reveal a name that appears to be an African name (e.g. Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, Cudjo Lewis). A surviving African name suggests that the slave was able to communicate with his owners and gain enough respect to maintain his ethnic name. Such was the case for Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, an educated Muslim, who could read and write Arabic, and eventually published one of the earliest U.S. slave narratives. Scholarly estimates are that most Africans brought to America were animist, ten to thirty percent may have been Muslim, and three to five percent Christian. Biblical slave names may be those of Muslim or Christian slaves.

Slaves secretly called one another by their Africans names in slave quarters.  African families were repeatedly split, living in a foreign culture with a foreign language, among diverse African ethnic groups, and their owners suppressed African customs and religions. Maintaining African traditions over generations would be impossible. With emancipation, liberated slaves abandoned diminutive names like Betty or Tom for the full given name (e.g. Elizabeth, Thomas). For surnames they had a wide range of choices — the surname of their former owners, that of prominent leaders, their occupation, a city or town, etc.

In the 50s and 60s, Malcolm X became a prominent spokesman for the advancement of Black Americans. He called himself X because Black Americans had no way of knowing their family’s history. With the name X, Malcolm could be sure he didn’t have a last name that a slave owner might have used. Some Black Americans decided to liberate their identity by intentionally misspelling a given name so that their name would be theirs alone and would never have been used by a slave owner—e.g., Dawne. In addition to their African heritage, Malcolm X also advocated conversion to Islam because Christianity was the religion of white slave owners and a still segregationist society. The Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s strengthened the sense of Black pride and identity. American Blacks began to discover more about their origins. The horrors of slavery and racism were exposed as never before. In 1976, Alex Haley published the Pulitzer Prize winning book Roots, The Saga of an American Family. Roots was made into a TV miniseries that won nine Emmy awards. The series spurred an interest in the Black community to give children African names (e.g. Ama) or African sounding names. The trend to create African sounding names led to making up totally unique names, which is an ongoing trend. Searching for unique names is also a current phenomenon among Caucasian parents. In addition to names with African resonance, Muslim names are also found in the Black community (e.g., Jamal, Aisha)

Because of the vibrant Creole culture in Louisiana, there is also a French influence in some African-American names. This includes not only French surnames but also given names beginning with “La,” (e.g. Lawanda), “De” (e.g. Deandre’) and with the use of apostrophes (e.g. Andre’, Mich’ele), that represent accents that were not yet available on American typewriters at the time.

Africa has the world’s greatest linguistic diversity. There are five major language families, not including Indo-European languages spoken in Africa. To see a linguistic map of Africa, click here. There are over 3,000 languages within Africa’ six language families. Over five hundred languages are spoken in Nigeria, which has the world’s greatest concentration of different spoken languages. Today there is more and more information readily available about African culture, including African names. In addition to Nameberry, “Awesome African Names,” Behind the Name has a list of African names, their origin, and meaning. OnlineNigeria has an extensive list of African names, language derivation, and meanings. You can find even more information by googling African baby names and by googling different African language names (e.g., Bantu, Hausa, Yoruba names, etc.), which provide numerous websites with information about African names. When researching, consult as many websites as possible. The web is a great resource for name research.

Not only have Black American naming traditions changed, even the names used to describe African Americans have changed as Jocelyn observed in her name essay. Over time African Americans have been referred to as Negro, Colored, Black, and African American, but with the increasing number of African Arab and Black African immigrants and with increasing ethnic mixes, terminology that attempts to divide us is getting more and more difficult to maintain. Jocelyn concluded, “My mother’s name choice was not indicative of tradition, ancestry, or religion; it was predicated on love.” For Jocelyn, love is what her name stands for—a guiding inspiration for leading a meaningful life.

Jocelyn also noted that the colors we use to describe ourselves divide us rather than unite us all as members of the human race. Scientists now know that “race is a social concept, not a scientific one.” Scientists at NIH have unanimously declared, “There is only one race—the human race.”

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