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Finding Our History: African-American Names

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Minting New Names

What's in a Name

African-Americans are not the only ones with a passion for fashioning unusual names. Many Mormons also do it, and quite possibly for the same reason: a desire to create a distinct identity for themselves. Another reason given for the popularity of this naming fashion among Mormons is the small number of surnames found in this particular population.

Name Dropping

Created names are currently very popular for both African-Americans and Mormons, and some people immediately equate the name fashion with these groups. This prejudice may turn you away from this fashion, but it really shouldn't. Newly fashioned names are part of every naming tradition, and you shouldn't shy away from creating one of your own if the idea appeals to you.

Names created by African-Americans began showing up on naming records soon after the Civil War came to an end. Some of the earliest followed a popular naming fashion of the day that added the -inda suffix to names that were commonly in use. Clara, for example, became Clarinda; Flora turned into Florinda; Lucretta or Lucretia into Lucinda. Names given to boys, however, followed the naming patterns favored by whites, with the most popular names continuing to be such old favorites as John, James, George, Henry, Samuel, Charles, Isaac, Robert, and Peter. The practice of creating names became more popular for both sexes in the years following World War II as the civil rights movement began to gain momentum and the African-American community was striving to create its own identity. There still wasn't much good information available on naming styles and fashions from the land of their forefathers, so growing numbers of African-Americans created their own cultural identity by combining popular names with sounds they found pleasing, including:

Suffixes such as -on, -won, -quon, -el, and -ell, which were used to create boys names such as Davon from David and Marquon from Mark. To give these names even a more distinctive twist, the suffix is stressed when pronounced.

  • Prefixes including Chan-, Shan-, Ka-, and La-, as well as the suffixes -isha, -el, and -ell, which were used to create such names as Danell, LaTasha, Shandra, and Monisha.
  • The prefixes De-, Ja-, Tri-, Ni-, Wa- and Sha-, which were used to create names for both sexes.

Combined names, often taking elements from the names of both parents, and creative spellings are also very much a part of this naming fashion.

A Heritage Reborn

What's in a Name

Legendary boxer Muhammad Ali was one of the first and most famous African-Americans to change his name, dropping Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr. in 1964 in favor of the name he now bears. The much-publicized name change was made, Ali said, because he felt that his given name was a slave name and he didn't want to be identified by it any longer.

As the civil rights movement continued to build, greater efforts were made to resurrect the cultural history that African-Americans had been deprived of for so long. As this heritage was reconstructed, some African-Americans were inspired to replace the names that had nothing to do with their culture with ones that did.

Traditional African names and names from the Muslim faith—which has played a strong role in Africa for centuries—started appearing with greater frequency on vital statistics records. This name fashion was also spurred on by the civil rights activists who underscored their actions by changing their names, including:

  • Malcolm Little, who became Malcolm X and then El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.
  • Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase “black power,” eventually changed his name to Kwame Touré. The two names are those of African-American leaders who had a great influence on his life: Sékou Touré, who served as the first head of state of Guinea when the country became independent, and Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of independent Ghana.

  • Louis Eugene Walcott, now known as the Nation of Islam leader, Louis Abdul Farrakhan.
  • Activist and writer Hubert Gerold “H. Rap” Brown, who is now known as Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin. His name means “beautiful servant of Allah, the trustworthy one.”

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Baby Names © 1999 by Sonia Weiss. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.


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