Opposition leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar incited controversy in Trinidad recently when he referred to Camille Robinson-Regis’ name as that of a slave master. The opposition leader stated:
Stop calling my name! What you so vex about my name for? This lady went on a platform last week and three or four times ‘Kamla Susheila Persad-Bissessar.’ Isn’t that a beautiful name? What problem you have with my name? Camille, at least I have a name from my ancestors, where you got yours from? Your name is that of a slave master.
UNC’s public relations officer Kirk Meighoo defended the statement by suggesting it was not racist and that Persad-Bissessar was merely expressing her love for her heritage. The statement was made in poor judgement. Trinidad and Tobago is a nation that has had its racial tensions. Statements such as this only help to further fuel the racial division in the country. It’s also expressed insensitivity to just how brutal slavery was. Olaudah Equiano was renamed Gustavus Vassa after he was enslaved. He refused to acknowledge his new name, so he was beaten until he submitted. It was not as though Africans asked to be given these slave names.
Persad-Bissessar’s remarks were ill-advised, but she did raise an interesting point about Africans having slave names. There is a very fascinating history behind the efforts which Africans have made over the decades to reject these slave names in favor of names which connect us with our roots. An early example of this was that of the Trinidadian Emmanuel Lazare, who took the name Mzumbo in honor of his African roots. Marcus Garvey did not change his name, but he pointed out that Garvey was the name inherited from slavery, stating:
Garvey is not an African name; it is an Irish name, as Johnston is not an African name, Garcia is not an African name, Thompson and Tobias are not African names. Where did we get those names from? We inherited them from our own slave masters, English, French, Irish or Scotch.
The rejection of slave names in favor of African names became a central feature of the African liberation struggle in the 1960s. In the United States. Members of the Nation of Islam dropped their European surnames for an “X” and replaced their European names with Arabic names. Malcolm X explained:
X is not my real name, but if you study history you’ll find why no black man in the western hemisphere knows his real name. Some of his ancestors kidnapped our ancestors from Africa, and took us into the western hemisphere and sold us there. And our names were stripped from us and so today we don’t know who we really are. I am one of those who admit it and so I just put X up there to keep from wearing his name.
Cassius Clay very famously adopted the name Muhammad Ali after he joined the Nation of Islam. He was given that name by Elijah Muhammad, who was formerly Elijah Poole. Muhammad Ali was not an African name per se, but, as Malcolm had pointed out, there were Islamic civilizations which existed in West Africa. Some African Americans do trace their lineage to those civilizations, so in rejecting European names in favor of Arabic names, members of the Nation of Islam were connecting with a part of their history which predated slavery.
There were other organizations which embraced African names. This included the Republic of New Afrika, whose founders were two brothers who changed their names to Imari and Gaidi Obadele. Chokwe Lumumba was another prominent member of the Republic of New Afrika. He was born Edwin Finley Taliaferro. Many prominent members of the Black Panther Party also changed their names such as Assata Shakur (formerly JoAnne Chesimard), Mumia Abu-Jamal (formerly Wesley Cook), and Sundiata Acoli (formerly Clarke Edward Squire). Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) also changed their names. Carmichael became Kwame Ture in honor of Kwame Nkrumah and Sekou Toure. Brown became Jamil Abdullah al-Amin after he converted to Islam. The poet LeRoi Jones became Amiri Baraka.
There was also a shift towards embracing African names in the Caribbean as well. Organizations such as the African Society for Cultural Relations with Independent Africa (ASCRIA) and the National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) held African naming ceremonies. ASCRIA was co-founded by Sydney King, who became Eusi Kwayana. Geddes Granger and David Darbeau of NJAC became Makandal Daaga and Khafra Kambon respectively. In “Say Thanks to Granger,” Chalkdust credited Daaga with the number of Trinidadians who began taking African names. The calypsonian Maestro composed a song titled “Black Identity” in which he urged black people to embrace African names. The Jamaican artist Pablo Moses made a similar point in his song “Give I Fi I Name.”
I myself decided to adopt the name Omowale as a way to reconnect to my African roots. The name itself invokes a reconnection to Africa. Omowale is Yoruba for the child returns home. I decided on Omowale because when I began studying African history, I started with the Yoruba people. Omowale also represented my psychological and cultural journey back home, long before my physical return to Africa. The name Omowale is one of significance in the Diaspora given the number of Omowales that have made prominent contributions to our struggle. Omowale was the name which was given to Malcolm X when he traveled to Nigeria. This name was also given to the calypsonian the Mighty Gabby when he traveled to Nigeria. The calypsonian Sparrow was also given the name Omowale as well. In Guyana, Dr. Omowale was among the members of the Working People’s Alliance who struggled against the regime of Forbes Burnham and in Trinidad the Lidj Yasu Omowale Emancipation Village where celebrations take place during Emancipation Day is named after Lidj Yasu Omowale.
Dwayne is the author of several books on the history and experiences of African people, both on the continent and in the diaspora. His books are available through Amazon. You can also follow Dwayne on Facebook and Twitter.