Unfortunately, many African Americans continue to debate over the use of the term “African American” or Black. I’ve heard some folk say thoughtlessly, “I’ve never been to Africa, so I’m not African American”, as if all people in America who proudly claim to be Asian have been to Asia (or Russian to Russia, European to Europe, etc.). We, descendants of enslaved Africans who were disembarked on American shores, are culturally European for the most part because of how America was shaped. The continuity of African social and cultural patterns was greatly discouraged, demeaned, and outlawed. However, in-depth genealogy research brought to light for me that our enslaved ancestors did not fully allow western society to annihilate all aspects of their rich African heritages. I am very proud of this fact, hence my personal embracement of the term “African American”.
Remnants of Africa are very evident in our music, the expressive way we worship in church, in our dances, in our arts, in our foods, etc. In the last chapter of Mississippi to Africa: A Journey of Discovery, which I entitled “Bridging the Gap Between America and West Africa”, I detailed how my own ancestors retained aspects of their African culture. Many things were not lucid at first glance, but a deeper analysis revealed Africanisms in my family that had been inconspicuous for many years. You will have to read the book to see how these remarkable cultural features were uncovered through genealogy research.
Nevertheless, for this blog post, I want to briefly show four examples of how names and naming patterns exposed undeniable links to West Africa in my family. Many folk who trace African-American families will undoubtedly encounter some or all of the same instances.
Some family members were named after a notable profession, a high position, or a famous person. Lawyer, President, Prince, George Washington, Doctor Rogers, Judge, Queen, Colonel, King, etc. were all first names that I encountered in my family trees. One of my maternal grandmother’s brothers was named Frederick Douglas Davis.
African Cultural Element: Many African children, especially in Ghanaian cultures, were often named for prominent individuals. More specifically, a belief of the Akan people of Ghana is that to be named after a distinguished person invests the child with the responsibility to emulate the character of the individual whose name he/she bears.
Some family members were named after days of the week or even a holiday. I’m not kidding! I have family members who bore the first names Easter, Tuesday, and Thursday. Even in Zora Neale Hurston’s The Sanctified Church, she introduces readers to the extraordinary character, Uncle Monday.
African Cultural Element: In many West African cultures, many children were given names that reflected the day, month or season, and even the holiday for when they were born. Even in the Akan culture of Ghana, many children were given “day names.” The day of the week on which a child was born determined what name the child was given. For example, Kwasi is a day name given to a male child who was born on a Sunday. If I had been born in Ghana, this probably would have been my first name since I was born on Sunday, August 6, just a few years ago. Abena is the name given to a female child born on a Tuesday. Each day of the week has a specific female and male name.
In my research, I’ve encountered many households in which my ancestors had not named their infant children, even though the children’s ages were noted in the census records as 2 months, 4 months, or even 11 months. Terms like “not named” or “unnamed” were recorded.
African Cultural Element: Delayed naming was very common in a number of African cultures. A child is not considered a person until he/she has been named, and a name is not given to a child until the parents are confident that the child will survive. Our African ancestors resided in communities in West Africa where high infant mortality rates were common. Consequently, their delayed naming beliefs were transplanted into communities in America where high infant mortality rates also prevailed during and after slavery. Several slave narratives verify this cultural transmission.
In six generations of my mother’s maternal grandmother’s family, many females were given the name Annie. The frequency was so high that my head would often spin trying to figure out which Annie belonged to whom. Imagine my surprise when, after over a decade, I traced that family branch back to a great-great-great-great-great-grandmother who was named Anika (born c. 1760). The name was recorded as “Anakah” in Captain John Turner’s 1807 will (Fairfield County, S.C.) and is pronounced “Annie – Kah”. It can be traced back to Africa, which represented another cultural link to West Africa. Annie was undoubtedly the Americanized version of the name Anika. Additionally, the names of Anika’s children were also passed down in the family for several generations. I was quite amazed at how my ancestors had ingeniously recorded their family history by the names that they gave to their children.
African Cultural Element: In his book The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750-1925, historian Herbert Gutman asserted that naming children for blood kin hinted that enslaved people incorporated elements of the traditional lineal orientation of their West African forebears into their new belief systems in America (pp. 197-198). Many African cultures, like the Igbo people of Nigeria and the Fulani people of West Africa, carry a tradition of naming children after deceased relatives. Many African Americans are direct descendants of the Igbo and Fulani peoples, as well as many other ethnic groups.
Although inconspicuous, names and naming patterns can clearly show that enslaved Africans in America inculcated in their children some aspects of their West African cultures which prevailed down through the generations. American culture did not entirely annihilate West African customs. Unquestionably, our ancestors desired to retain some semblance of “home”, which is why I have no problem whatsoever referring to myself as an “African-American”. (Side note: this blog post is not meant to start another debate over the usage of African American vs. Black. Comments regarding your position on this debate will be subject to deletion. This post was meant to expound on African retentions and genealogy.)
During the Penn Center Heritage Day Festival Parade, St. Helena Island, South Carolina, flags of the West African nations where many of the ancestors of the Gullah people hailed from were displayed. The Gullah and Geechee people of coastal South Carolina and Georgia descend primarily from African captives taken from the rice-growing region of West Africa, as well as the Angola-Congo region of West-Central Africa. African retentions among the Gullah/Geechee people were the strongest than anywhere else in America. Africans were able to preserve their culture because of the sea islands' isolation from the mainland.