Thursday, September 1, 2011

How I Got My African Name

Written by Azizi Powell

Note: I wrote this post on January 22, 2005 as part of this thread on the Folk & Blues discussion forum How did you choose your mudcat name? This post is presented without any corrections, additions, or updating.

In the late 1960s I was a member of a organization that focused on African culture. Like other members of that group, I wanted an African personal name. My male friend at that time, Zayd, said he would give me an African name. And because I just loved loved loved him, I said I would accept the name that he selected. So out of the kindness of his soon to be cheatin heart, Zayd gave me a choice of two names-either "Aziza": Arabic for "one who is rare & precious" or "Azizi": Kiswahili with the same meaning.

Back in those days {and now} a lot of female names given to African Americans from the Arabic language and other language sources {as well as names which are creatively 'made up'} end with the 'ah" sound, names like "Keisha", "Maisha", "Malika", "Fatimah", "Kadisha", "Aaliyah". I liked the idea of "Azizi" because it sounded more unique.

But in those days {and still today} there was also a brand of makeup called "Aziza". The REAL reason why I choose 'Azizi' instead of 'Aziza' is that I didn't want to give somebody the opportunity to look at me and say "Aziza, you forgot your make-up, girl."

So I've been 'Azizi' now for 37 years-and I try to live up to that name with or without wearing makeup.
-Azizi Powell

UPDATE 7/2/2012
Here's a response that I wrote to blogger's comment about a Nigerian man living in Poland who changed his name. (This comment is reposted with minor typographical corrections.)

From comments to

"It occurs to me that one of the reason that Chikama Onyekwere adopted the names "John" and "Godson" could be because of those English names' etymological meanings.

The meaning of the name "John" is "God is gracious" and/or "gift from God". The meaning of "Godson" is obvious.

Also, Chikama Onyekwere may have selected those English names because their etymological meanings might be similar to the meanings of his Nigerian names.

I haven't been able to find the etymological meaning for "Onyekwere" but I wonder if the element "Onye" might have something to do with the Supreme God. That element "Onye" is similar to the name of the Ghanaian/Ivory Coast Akan Supreme Deity Onyame ('Nyame). But this information may not be relevant since (if) "Onyekwere is an Igbo name or a Yoruba name, or some other Nigerian ethnic group name.

I had better luck searching online for the name "Chikama". gives this information & meaning for the name Chikaima: "Unisex; ibo; it is God we know"
and this meaning for the name Chikanma:
"Unisex; Igbo; God is the best".

Of course, this is just a guess, and doesn't address the implied question "Why isn't Chikama Onyekwere using his biological names or at least using those African names for his public persona?

In the USA, some African Americans -like me- changed our names (or, in most cases, at least our first name) to better reflect and celebrate our recognition of our African ancestry/heritage. But I think the opposite action ism't necessarily opposite.

In my opinion, if a continental African man or woman gives himself or herself non-African name/s, in addition to his or her African birth names or as a replacement for his or her African birth name/s, that doesn't necessarily mean that he or she doesn't still honor his heritage. [Of course, if an African American or other Black people from the African Diaspora doesn't change his or her name, that doesn't mean that he or she doesn't honor or celebrate his or her African ancestry/heritage. But giving those names to oneself or one's children can symbolize that recognition.]

Perhaps the reason why Chikama Onyekwere adopted English names for himself is that those names are easier for many Polish people to pronounce. I think it's interesting that he didn't choose Polish names (such as Ivan, Jan, Janusz, Janek, the Polish forms of the name John (which is an English form of a Latin form of a Hebrew male name). But I suspect that there are probably a number of people in Poland with English names, and I'm sure that English names -particularly "John" - are more widely used throughout the world than Polish names, so if a person decides to change his or her name, that factor might have also been part of the consideration."
-Azizi Powell, 7/2/2012

As a point of reference, John Godson/Chikama Onyekwere was mentioned in the above linked Afro-Europe blog post because he recently became Poland's first Black member of Parliament.

RELATED LINK Why We Call Ourselves "African American"

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  1. In the late 1960s and the 1970s, afro-centric African Americans referred to our biological personal names & biological and married surnames (last names) as "slave names" if those names were of European or Hebrew origin. And we referred to the Arabic or traditional African language names that we choose or were given as "free names". Usually people just chose or were given an African/Arabic first name, and kept their biological or married last name. That's what I did.

    Most of the people I know don't know my "real" first name (I'm not tellin' lol). The name "Azizi" is very real to me, but I've never legally changed it. I introduce myself using that name, and friends have sometimes shortened it to "Z". I'm retired now, but when I worked I asked people to call me "Azizi", saying that that is my "nickname". I just found that it was easier to do that then to get into this explanation (for White people). Sometimes I'm asked if I am Muslim, and I respond that I'm not nor have I ever been (not that there's anything wrong with being Muslim).

    My former husband & I named our children African frst and middle names. One son's first name is Yoruba, the other son's first name is a shortened form of a Yoruba name, and my daughter's first name is a blend of part of my name and part of my then husband's "free name". I consider her name to be African too, although it's not traditional African. I'm basing that on the position that African Americans are an African people]

    I'm curious about the experiences of other African Americans who changed their names during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. (or after those dates, but it seems to me that after the 1980s a number of African Americans were routinely naming their children Arabic/African names at birth rather than those children changing their names when they got older.

    I think that more African Americans have traditional Arabic names (and African American variants of those names) in part because we know more Arabic names than names from traditional African languages besides Swahili. The other reason why Arabic/Swahili names are more often found among African Americans is that those names are relatively easy for us to pronounce as they generally conform to our (American) English pronunciation & gender "rules".

    Visit this Cocojams page for more examples and information about the origins & meanings of of "non-traditional" American names Names & Nicknames

  2. “Of course, if an African American or other Black people from the African Diaspora doesn't change his or her name, that doesn't mean that he or she doesn't honor or celebrate his or her African ancestry/heritage. But giving those names to oneself or one's children can symbolize that recognition….I'm basing that on the position that African Americans are an African people.”

    Hi Azizi. Would you consider yourself to be Afrocentric?

  3. Greetings, NewYorkMan.

    My response to the question "Do I consider myself to be Afrocentric?" depends on the definition of "afrocentric".

    I definitely believe that "the contributions of various African people have been downplayed or discredited as part of the legacy of colonialism and slavery's pathology of "writing Africans out of history" to quote

    However, I don't believe that everything good originated in Africa and/or from people of African descent as some people think that people who are afrocentic believe.

    I hope for and work toward a time when race, ethnicity, skin color have no positive or negative valuation.

    Instead of being centered on race & ethnicity, I consider myself to be striving to express "aspects"of my Sagittarius Sun, Aquarius Moon, Virgo Ascendant etc.
    soul in this incarnation through my online activities and otherwise.

    1. I should have added that I still believe one way for people of [some] African descent to honor their African heritage is to give themselves and/or their children a name from a traditional African language (including Arabic since that language has been in Africa for centuries).

      Furthermore, given the racism against Black people that still exist in the world, learning about and celebrating the achievements of Black people -in the arts and otherwise) are important to the developing and reinforcing of Black self-esteem and group esteem. And learning about & celebrating those achievements are also important for non-Black people.

      In addition, with reference to this pancocojams blog and my other online website (only one of which I devote any attention to) - I get a sense of accomplishment from my online postings. I love learning new things from the research that I do for many of my posts and I like sharing the information and videos etc that I find.

      All of that which I have mentioned are the reasons why I post online on this blog and on my other cultural blogs.

    2. One more thing I should have mentioned is that I like learning from people who share information regarding the songs or dances or customs etc. that are the subjects of my posts.

      I wish that there were more people who use the Internet to share and consider folkloric aspects of cultures.

  4. Hi Azizi. When you said your answer “depends on the definition of ‘Afrocentric’" I know what you mean. The “Afrocentrists” I usually encounter tend to be racist and more about rewriting history to their liking and less about pursuing truth.

    I believe that “the contributions of various African people have been downplayed or discredited” may have merit. If information can be substantiated with evidence that stands up to scrutiny, I would want the truth to be known.

    Just as those Afrocentrists want to believe “that everything good originated in Africa and/or from people of African descent,” they would also want to believe nothing good originated from Europe or people of European descent, which is absurd. No doubt about it that there are unpleasant aspects (including racism) to the history of Europeans and people of European descent. But for them to disregard the positive aspects and characterize the whole lot as racist imperialists is racist and hypocritical. I don’t want to replace one racist ideology with another.

    I think it is fine to learn about and celebrate achievements of African Americans, but I think we should avoid conflating it with self-esteem. I think that does more harm than good. I think we would be better off if we approach history with more objectivity and avoid personalizing it.

    But I agree with what you said here: “I hope for and work toward a time when race, ethnicity, skin color have no positive or negative valuation.”

    1. New York Man, while I had no problem answering your question about whether I am an Afrocentrist, I don't go around asking Black people online or offline are they "Afrocentrists", and I've not had any Black people I know use that descriptor for themselves or for other Black people. I don't know how many Black people you encounter who are Afrocentrists, but I don't think your descriptor is accurate for all or even for most Afrocentrists. I've read that some Afrocentrists believe that every thing good came from Africa or people of African descent and/or nothing good originated from Europe or people of European descent. But I guess unless there is a quality survey of Black people or even of African Americans-who are a portion of Black people-we'll never know what percentage of Black folks are actually Afrocentrists and how many of those Afrocentrists actually believe what you wrote they believe.

      I'm not White, but it seems to me that many if not most White people conflate the historical and present day achievements of White people throughout the world with their own self-esteem, After all, group esteem is an important component of self-esteem. For that reason, I have no problem with the fact that the historical and present day accomplishments of Black people throughout the world are used to help Black people develop and reinforce our self-esteem and our group esteem.

      And with those points, I choose to decline to respond to any other questions on this comment thread about race, racism, and afrocentricity.

    2. The term “Afro-centric” can be subjective and that is why I asked if you considered yourself to be. It was partially prompted by your earlier comment making reference to “Afro-centric African Americans.” I believe this was the first time I asked anyone that question.

      I don’t personally know anyone who either I would describe or he or she would self-describe that way. When I am talking about those I “encounter” it is not people I personally know (that I am aware of), but those who I have read or heard on the internet, radio or other media.

      As far as my comment regarding self-esteem, perhaps I didn’t make it clear that my comment would apply to all ethnicities. I don’t want white people to conflate history with self-esteem any more than any other group.

      Although we have a disagreement on the above matter and I sense you may misunderstand where I am coming from, I still think you are a reasonable woman. If I didn’t think so, I would have not engaged in this discussion.

  5. Thank you for the article. You were wondering about the meaning of my Igbo names and why I changed them.

    My given names from birth were Godson Chikama Onyekwere.
    Chikama: God knows the best or God is omniscient. (Chi= God, k' ama = knowing the most or best)
    Onyekwere: Believer or literarily One who believes

    As to the reason why we changed, it is simple. People in Poland had problems with our surname and made many mistakes in correspondences and documents. Moreover they simply called us Godson family. So in 2006, we decided to officially change our surname. So my first name "Godson" became our surname while I adapted 2 Bible names - John- the beloved disciple of Jesus and Abraham - the immigrant, father of nations to become my chosen names.

    Thank you again for your interest. I hope this is helpful.

    John Abraham Godson

    1. John Godson, I appreciate you sharing this interesting information.

      It's wonderful that people throughout the world can learn from and communicate with each other on the internet.

      God bless you and your family!

  6. NewYorkMan,

    I'm just reading your December 21, 2013 at 9:34 AM comment.

    I appreciate your taking the time to write that comment, and want you to know that I didn't purposely fail to respond to it.

    As to your comment that you "don’t want white people to conflate history with self-esteem any more than any other group.", I believe that group esteem influences a person's self-esteem. And history helps influence group esteem. Therefore, the history of a person's group (race, ethnicity, nationality etc) can influence how he or she feels about himself or herself.

    For example, if Black children only learn in depth European history and not in depth African history, they may mistakenly believe that only White people can be kings or queens. And, one result of that belief, is likely to be a heightened appreciation for White people and a lessened appreciation for non-White people...

    I hope this helps clarify what I wrote years ago.

    Best wishes!

    1. Thanks for your comment, Azizi. I understand your point. I think this dialogue is constructive. It was nice to get your feedback.