By Elisabeth Waugaman
African American naming traditions were dramatically influenced by slavery.
From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries between nine and twelve million Africans were shipped to the New World as slaves. Existing slave ship manifests for the Atlantic slave trade record numbers, gender, approximate age of slaves, and occasionally “nation” (tribal identity). Given names are only registered on slave ships after the beginning of the international abolitionist movement circa 1820.
Once sold into slavery, Africans 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, Pascol), classical (e.g. Scipio, Venus), and place names (York, London, Hampton). In rare instances, plantation slave lists reveal a name that appears to be African (e.g. Cudjo Lewis). A surviving African name suggests that the slave was able to 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. For an extensive list of evolving African-American names over the centuries, check out Nameberry’s Satran and Rosenkrantz’s Beyond Ava and Aiden: The Enlightened Guide to Naming your Child.
Within their own quarters, slaves secretly called one another by their Africans names. However, since African families were repeatedly split, living in a foreign culture with a foreign language, among diverse African ethnic groups, and their owners suppressing African customs and religions, maintaining African traditions over generations became almost impossible. With emancipation, liberated slaves abandoned diminutive names like Betty or Tom for their full forms (Elizabeth, Thomas). For surnames they had a wide range of choices — that of their former owners, that of prominent leaders, or one based on their occupation, a city or town, etc.
In the 1950s and 60s, Malcolm X became a prominent spokesman for the advancement of African Americans. He chose to call himself X because, since African Americans had no way of knowing their family history, he knew that by using X as his surname it would not be the name of a slave owner. Some Black Americans decided to liberate their identity by intentionally misspelling their given name so that it would be theirs alone and would never have been used by a slave owner—e.g., Dawne.
The Civil Rights movement of the 60s and 70s strengthened the sense of Black pride and identity, inspiring African Americans to discover more about their origins. The horrors of slavery and racism were exposed as never before. Because slave owners were Christians and some slaves were Muslims, African Americans began to explore Islam and Islamic given names begin to appear in the African American community.
In 1976, Alex Haley published the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Roots: The Saga of an American Family, which was made into a TV miniseries that won nine Emmy awards and made a strong impact. The series inspired many in the he Black community to give their children African names (e.g. Ama) or African-sounding names (e.g. Tanisha). Creating African sounding names led to making up totally unique names, which is an ongoing trend in the African-American community.
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 over 3,000 languages within Africa’s six language families, which offer an amazing array of given names. With the Internet, there is more and more information readily available about African culture, including African names. In addition to Nameberry’s, Awesome African Names, Behind the Name has a list of African names with origins and meanings and OnlineNigeria has another extensive list . You can find even more information by Googling different African language names such as Bantu, Hausa, and Yoruba names.
Elisabeth P. Waugaman is the author and illustrator of the medal-winning Follow Your Dreams: The Story of Alberto Santos-Dumont, and author of Women,Their Names, and the Stories They Tell, is a blogger for Psychology Today Online, and is on the faculty of the New Directions Writing Program of the Washington Center for Psychoanalysis in Washington, D.C.