What’s in an African name? History, identity and self-determination

What’s in an African name?

Chairman Omali Yeshitela of the African People’s Socialist Party (APSP) led an African Naming Ceremony on July 3, 2016 at the APSP’s Cadre Development School. Here, the Chairman outlines the importance of taking on an African name.

Chairman:

Uhuru, I’ve asked Secretary General Luwezi Kinshasa to participate with me in this process. He has already participated by offering up some of the names but I just want to say that the issue of names and naming is really powerful.

It’s so deep and profound, more than what most of us ever think about. Most of us don’t think about our names, where we come from, what our names mean, anything like that, which in and of itself is a problem. But we never think about that.

Names are really important because names connect you to a past, to your history. Names are not just things floating out there in the world, but if you want to even look back and see where you came from and dig into your roots, the name is fundamental. It comes from someplace.

It’s connected to some reality. It’s connected to thousands of years of history that helps to shape and define who we are as a people. To have millions of our people, scores of millions and hundreds of millions of African people who have been taken into captivity and renamed and to have been a part of a situation where royal companies would actually take Africans and then upon capture would brand us and then would give us brands, take our names and then using searing hot irons––this is typical, this is not an unusual situation––would then brand us with the names of the company now branded and seared into our skin and things like that and we got names like “number 1” and “number 2” and “number 3”.

We sometimes didn’t even have names as such but we were “boy” and “girl,” it was an incredible attack on who we are so it’s difficult for us to even find ourselves. If you look back and try to locate yourself, you can’t even find yourself, it’s like we disappeared.

Having your own name became an offense

Once we left Africa, and now we are “Jones” and “Barbara” and we are “Mary” and “Judy,” which are peculiar names for Africans. So you can’t even trace yourself looking, going backwards. It’s a really powerful and significant thing. It is something that Africans who have been brought into captivity have been struggling with forever.

Having your own name became an offense. One might even say, a criminal offense. That we were beaten and traumatized just to try to hold on to our name, because to hold on to your name is to hold on to your past, is to hold on to who you are.

And one of the things that our oppressors, that our captors had to do was erase our memory, to give us a sort of a historical amnesia so we no longer knew who we were. We left this place as one thing and then we arrived here and we became something else. So that’s been traumatic. And while here we’ve had to face the slander of Africa itself.

So now, if you wanna find yourself, you really don’t wanna be African because Africa is this place where monkeys and wild people and savages live. And we don’t want to be associated with that so we’re ashamed of Africa, we’re ashamed of who we are.

So we become things like “Asiatic Blackman” if you look at the Nation of Islam, right? We become all these other things. Some of them are products of colonialism themselves! Terms like, “Puerto Ricans,” which ain’t nothing but a Spanish-speaking African, for the most part, and “part Indians” [laughs] or anything other than African.

The brutality that went with it was something that made the name––our own identity––something that was hard to hold onto. So we want to struggle with that.

African names have meaning

Today we want to engage during this Cadre Development School that we’ve already talked about being a situation where it’s going to be a new beginning for many of us. It’s almost like a new birth, it’s almost like being born again as you would say in the church, right?

And this time it can have significance, real meaning. So we wanna look at the question of names. And there’s really the discussion of naming ceremonies and this is something we’re still in the process of developing.

Because the truth is that throughout Africa, although you see throughout Africa a stream of sameness in different places, there were all kinds of variations in how namings occurred.

In some places on the Continent, for example a person was named as soon as the umbilical cord fell off. Some places, seven days later, a person achieved a name. Sometimes a person would achieve one name and then, at eleven or twelve, would get an adult name later on. Sometimes a person would even have a secret name so the enemies wouldn’t be able to locate that person by knowing the name.

So there are variations of names and naming ceremonies. But one thing that is relatively common is that African names have meanings and that’s really important. In some places, names depend on the day one was born.

We were looking and smiling at the fact that a person who was born after four or five births of a different gender would have a name based on that. As Comrade Luwezi said, it’s like “Finally we got what we were looking for!” [laughs] Right? [audience laughter] “So we can stop.”

I have a grandson who was born prematurely. And so there’s a name for that. Comrade Luwezi gave him the name “born early”…”Mashombe”, you know from a language in Congo. I gave him that name.

And that’s one of the things that is relatively common about African names, that the grandparent or older person often is the person that would choose the name. Names also––depending on how the person is born, how the person looks, whether it was a difficult birth, or things like this––these are the things that help to define, help to say what names are going to be.

An African name gives us something to live up to

So, the thing about a name, also, is that names are something that is important because they give us a mission. They give us something that we find ourselves having to live up to.

And sometimes names vary. I have a son whose name is Mwamba. In some languages it means “strong” and in others it means “crocodile.” I love the name “crocodile” by the way. [audience laughter] I wish someone had named me “crocodile”, you understand? [audience laughter] [laughs]

And I think that in another language it means “peanut butter.” But it’s a common – when I say another language, I mean among different ethnic groups across the Continent of Africa. So you would find names having variant kinds of meaning. You want to contribute to this? [gestures at Luwezi]

Luwezi Kinshasa: What the Chairman was saying, the names are really really important because in the language I speak, they ask you what’s your name, but they use the word “kombo.”

“Kombo” usually means, “Where are you from?” That’s basically, “What’s your name?” So in the name, people can say where you are from sometimes, not all the time, because you got names that cut across ethnicity and regions.

And names are, as the Chairman said, our history. For example, there are some names I love in Africa, names like “Ngoma”, because I find that from South Africa to Senegal. If you look at a map of Africa, you can see that there are names from Senegal that are all the way down, that means almost all of African people share that name.

You know, there are other names like that––Diop is one of them too. So it tells basically, our history. And another thing the Chairman was talking about, about the name, it’s like a vocation given to you at birth.

They want you to be this person or they want to see you emulate someone in the past, in your ancestry like a century or two centuries ago. And it’s powerful because when you carry a name of somebody who was respected, who was a leader, and that tempers you.

Whenever you do something [wrong] and your grandparent calls you by that name you know it means, “That’s not how you’re supposed to behave. You carry that name!”

You heard the Chairman often say, “What’s the essence of life?” [can’t understand] And Africans believe that in everything there is some kind of a vital force. And when they give you your name, it is to give you all the vital force necessary for you to overcome any difficulties or for you to be a positive contributor in society. So the name is just of a highest significance.

And to attack African people, to take our names away is a crime against humanity. So, I just, I’m glad to be a part of this process.

As the Chairman said, this is something that is developing. And we’re going to come, you know with possibly having our own completed books. And there are many of us who would like to contribute to that.

Attaching our names to history

Chairman: I just want to say that we’ve seen a form of resistance in our communities around the name anyway. African women are naming their children they’re not naming “Judy.” They might not speak any language indigenous to Africa, but “Jevonte” laughs and you know, just a whole bunch of other names, you know they’re Africans!

You know that they’re African children because it’s a rejection of the names that have been given to us and I’m really proud. That’s the women who are doing that. I mean, this is where the culture is centered in so many ways, when naming our children, girls and boys.

What we are struggling for now is to attach the names to our history. You see, that’s, we think that’s really important. And, in many ways, it’s what Comrade Luwezi was talking about. Sort of sankofa, you know? Returning to the source.

And, and so what we want to do is there are some people who have indicated that they want to be involved in this naming ceremony and we think it’s important and we want to have those persons. We will call you, and ask you to come forward, and to come forward before your community––before your international African community––and who will witness this and who will embrace this new name and who will hold you to what it is that you become as a part of this process.

So each of these comrades who were born, whose parents were born into captivity and whose parents’ parents experienced the branding, the assault on our identity and who, themselves, lost their identity and attempted to confer upon them names of some significance but that were not rooted in our own history.

[Proceeds with naming ceremony]

Chairman: So, what we have just done is help these brothers and sisters into into a whole new era of life and struggle. We have witnessed this and our brothers and sisters have accepted these names before the people from our international village and therefore it gives us the right and responsibility to hold them to the significance of these new names in this revolutionary process to forward our history and to recapture our identity as a people, as they have begun to do themselves.

I’d just like to signal our unity with this process and with our brothers and sisters moving forward with an “Uhuru.” [audience response of “Uhuru!”]

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