Thursday, November 12, 2009


What's in a name? Shakespeare wrote that a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. He could afford to think, write and even say those words. He was a White male who had power and privilege bestowed on him because of the colour of his skin. His parents probably named him; he was not given a name by people from another culture who had stolen his name and language from him. For enslaved Africans who did not have a choice in naming themselves it is a very different matter. Europeans re-named us. Under pain of death we were not permitted to use our own names or speak our mother tongue. Africans in the Diaspora are the only group of people who do not collectively know who they are. There are individuals and groups who will acknowledge that they are African, but as a people we do not yet know and take pride in who we are. Other groups whose ancestors left their places of origin many years ago are proud of who they are. There is a reason for this difference in attitudes. Our ancestors did not choose to leave; they were kidnapped, dragged out of their countries, out of the continent in chains and held captive their entire lives. Were it not for the 400-year enslavement of Africans we would all know that we are Africans and our names would reflect this knowledge.

Deliberate, strategic methods were used to alienate Africans from tradition and from each other, and to teach African inferiority and European superiority. Europeans first attacked African culture; then they denied that African culture ever existed. Stripped of their names and identities, our ancestors were no longer Africans; they were made "Negro" by White slavers. The names many of us carry today reflect the nationality of the Europeans who enslaved our ancestors. Had this not been the case, my great grandfather's name would not have been Kelly Murphy Jonas. His name would probably have been Kofi. Kofi is the Akan name given to a male born on Friday. My name would probably have been Abena, because I was born on Tuesday. My childhood friends Staye and Faye Daniels would probably have been Taiwo and Kehinde because they are twins. Taiwo and Kehinde are the Yoruba names given to twins. Africans in the Diaspora cannot claim one particular country as the country of their ancestors either; our history of enslavement with the accompanying destruction of family units makes it impossible. Since everyone has two biological parents, four grandparents, eight great grandparents and so on, it is possible that one person can have ancestors from more than eight different African groups. European slavers knew that divided we were vulnerable. They designed a system to make us lose the basis of our collective identity. We were separated, and then our names, our language, our stories, our songs, our family structures, even our understanding of God -- the things that bound us together -- were beaten out of us. Then, they had to make us believe in, protect and even demand White supremacy. We had to be taught to love and revere Europe and European culture more than life itself. We were also taught that Africans had contributed nothing to the world.

There has been continued African resistance to this attack on our sense of self since the first Africans were kidnapped and enslaved. There were always people who resisted. Some of these freedom fighters are well known; many others are not. In 1971, Richard B. Moore wrote in an "Open Letter on Our People's Name" to Bayard Rustin, Executive Director of the Asa Phillip Randolph Institute: "This term 'Negro' has long been a synonym for slave, loaded continuously with scorn and hostility, and still linked in the public mind generally with a vile and repulsive image." Born in Barbados on August 9, 1885, Moore moved to New York as a young man. In the 1960s he created the "Committee to present the truth about the Name Negro". He also published the book, The Name Negro, Its Origin and Evil Use, as part of his campaign to encourage Africans to reclaim their names. He made the connection between the use of the word "Negro" and the beginning of the African slave trade. He proved Europeans used it in their attempt to instill an inferiority complex within Africans. Moore died in Barbados in 1978, but his work and his words live on. Carter G. Woodson initiated the celebration of Negro History Week in February 1926. Woodson chose
February to honour the memory of Frederick Douglass. At the time when Woodson started the recognition of African heritage and history as a public entity, African Americans still used the name they had been given by Europeans. During the 1960s and '70s the "Negroes" and "Coloureds" of the U.S. renamed themselves Black. It was the time of being "Black and Proud."

In 1976, as part of the American bicentennial celebrations, "Negro History Week" became Black History Month. Since then we have been expressing our kujichagulia (self determination) by naming our celebration Black History Month, African Heritage Month or African Liberation Month. In Canada, the Canadian Negro Women's Association pioneered the celebration of Black history in the 1950s. The Ontario Black History Society was instrumental in the recognition of Black History Month as a citywide celebration in 1979. In 1993, the celebration gained province-wide recognition. In 1996, due to the intervention of MP Jean Augustine in December of 1995, Black History Month became a nationally recognized celebration in Canada.
Whatever you are comfortable naming yourself, educate yourself about your history.

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