Where did your last name come from?
If you’re African-American, it is probably the family name of the white people who owned your ancestors hundreds of years ago. Or it may have come about as the kind of work your ancestors were forced to do when they were enslaved (like Cook or Baker). One way or another, we can literally refer to most of our last names as “slave names”.
When people argue that we need to get over slavery… that it didn’t happen to us or anyone that we know… few consider the impact it still has on us today. That among the many ways we still carry the burden of our ancestors, the most obvious is what we call ourselves.
Back in Africa, was our last name Jackson, Johnson, Smith, Hamilton or Jones? Were we the Nelsons of Sierra Leone or the Hendersons of Ghana? We may not have any idea what our names were before our elders were crammed into slave ships, but we can say with 100% certainty that the names we bear today weren’t the true names of our ancestors pre-slavery.
What’s In a Name?
We debate the word nigga or nigger night and day. Some believe it’s offensive, others that it’s a term of endearment. But what’s more offensive than calling someone by the name of the person who raped their mother and beat their father? The person who held their entire family in bondage and sold them to the highest bidder like cattle?
I’m told that my last name came about as the result of one of my great-great-relatives taking the surname of a man who provided friendly assistance during the war. This was after slavery had ended and we don’t know whether this person was white or black or other. Still, it’s problematic because it’s not our family name and whether the original person was white or black, the name, itself, traces back to Europe and is definitely not African. Whether it originated with a so-called slave master or not, it found its way to this country attached to a white man who upheld the system of white supremacy that made slavery possible. (NOTE: With the exception of white abolitionists who were among a tiny minority, all white people supported the institution of slavery either through ownership, catching runaway black people for reward profits or by simply keeping silent and accepting its existence.)
When most women get married, they change their last names to that of their husband. Some may hyphenate their last names, but they still go through the process of legally changing their surnames. Of those who don’t fill out actual paperwork for a legal name change, their husband’s last name soon becomes associated with them just by common everyday usage. I’ve also seen debates over husbands taking a wife’s last name, which some do.
I point all of this out to say that changing our last name isn’t difficult to do. Whether legally or by association, people literally do it every day.
So, why haven’t we shed our “slave names”?
The First Step Black to Africa
This Black to Africa movement of ours begins with a change in mindset. One that deliberately calls for us to abandon our former ways of thinking about Africa and of thinking about ourselves in relation to the continent. We may not know where we need to go “back” to any more than we know our ancestral names, but we know the vicinity. We know that neither America nor Europe are our motherland. Just as we’ve encouraged you to investigate and choose a country in Africa to explore for future settlement, it would behoove all of us to do the same thing with our last names.
Some of you have already had your DNA tested and know where your ancestors came from. But even if you haven’t gotten that far yet, we all know that West Africa is the most probable vicinity. So, why not Google several W. African surnames and pick the one that resonates with you the most?
I happen to know that, through my paternal lineage, I share DNA with the Krobo, Akan and Ewe tribes in West Africa. With this knowledge, I moseyed on over to Africa-Facts.org to check out some names on their list of 150 Common African Last Names. Didn’t quite find what I was looking for there (but I learned a thing or two about African names), so I headed to Wikipedia to check out some Akan names. There, I assembled a name that resonates with me and one I’m thinking about changing to soon: Amma Ntonni Quainoo
Amma, because I was born on a Saturday and many Africans choose names based on the day a child was born. It can also be shortened to Ami, which I also like.
Ntonni, mainly because I like the sound and spelling. It also means advocate and hero.
Quainoo, because my VERY dearly departed aunt’s name was Quaintance, so Quainoo was close enough and unique enough to capture my attention.
I’m weighing the possibility of changing my entire name, but in the end I may end up changing only my last name.
National Name Change Month
One of the first orders of business for this Black to Africa movement should be to establish a National Name Change month. Giving ourselves ample time to select one, fill out the necessary paperwork for changing the name on our birth certificates, drivers licenses, social security cards, etc. November should be good, right? Of course, your name can be changed sooner than that, but November would be a sort of deadline each year just to motivate folk to get it done.
Visit your state’s website for information about the process of changing your last name. And let’s make doing so a priority, shall we? The clock is ticking, so mark your calendars for November 30th and let’s get it done before then!
Wouldn’t it be dope if black couples, instead of fussing about whether a woman is going to take a man’s name or if she’s going to hyphenate hers with his, decided to BOTH change their names to a West African one, instead? This can happen if we encourage our friends and family members to do just that.
I’m also thinking back now to the 2008 election and how some were extremely pissed about having a president with an African last name. Yes, his middle name, Hussein, drove them nuts, but I also heard MANY protest his very African last name, too. To be clear, we’re not changing our last names just to piss racist white folk off… that’s just a natural bonus!
What Do You Think?
Do you know where your last name comes from? Does it represent who you are as an African or does it pay homage to the Americans who oppressed your ancestors? Are you ready to give those people their name back and establish a new legacy that will free your future descendants from the labels our forefathers were branded with?
Share your thoughts about changing your name and about establishing a National Name Change Month in November in the comments below.