Wednesday, October 25, 2017

The Afrocentric Meanings Of The Terms "Slave Names" & "Free Names" In The 1960s & 1970s United States & Quotes On Distinctive African American Names

Edited by Azizi Powell

[Revised October 26, 2017]

This pancocojams post provides a definition for and comments about the afrocentric terms "slave names" and "free names" that were used by some African Americans in the 1960s and 1970s.

This post also includes a compilation of excerpts from various online articles about African American naming customs in the 1960s and 1970s on, with particular emphasis on the use of African, Arabic, or African American invented names including the re-spelling of "standard American" names.

The content of this post is presented for historical, onomastic, and cultural purposes
In the context of this post and other posts on pancocojams, "afrocentric" doesn't have a political meaning but means "being very interested in the cultures of Africa and the African Diaspora".

"Onomastics" is the study of names.

These comments are given in no particular order. I've written all of these comments. I was motivated to do so because I was somewhat surprised that I couldn't find any other information or comments online about the 1960s-1970s African American meanings of these terms.

Comment #1:
"African free names (shortened to "free names") is a term that some afrocentric African Americans used in the late 1960s and in the 1970s to refer to traditional African or Arabic given names (or much less often, also to African or Arabic last names) that were either chosen by individuals or given to individuals. "Free names" replaced those individuals' European/Hebrew birth names which were called "slave names". The replacement of a Black person's slave name publicly demonstrated her or his freedom from "slave" mentalities and allegiances, and symbolized acceptance and pride in her or his African ancestry. Note that Arabic names were also referred to as "African free names". In the late 1960s and early 1970s most of the "free names" that were chosen by or given to African Americans I knew were Arabic or Swahili names. Most of the people I've known who replaced their birth first name with an African (or Arabic) or an African sounding name retained their birth (or marriage) last name.

I'm using my experience to date these terms. It's possible that these meanings of "African free name" (free name) and slave names were used by African Americans prior to the late 1960s and after the 1970s. My sense is that the "free name"/"slave name" referent only lasted for that brief time period as people with"free names" began to raise their children and gave them African/Arabic names and other "distinctive", "cultural" names at birth. Therefore, those children didn't have "slave names" (except for their surnames).

For example, my daughter has an African sounding first name (which is a combination of a part of my Swahili first name and a part of her father's (possible made up) African first name which he was told had a specific positive meaning. My daughter also has an African sounding middle name which we were told was a "real" African name, but which I've haven't found in any name books. That name has a positive meaning and we gave a positive meaning to her combination first name that I made up. My first son has a Yoruba (Nigeria, West Africa) first name and a Yoruba middle name, and my second son has a shortened form of a Yoruba first name and a "standard American middle name" (Since he was adopted at age 3 we moved his first name to his middle name to keep a sense of name continuity).

Comment #2
From the 2011 pancocojams post "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."

Comment #3
From Comments About Distinctive African American Names (Which I Don't Call "Ghetto Names
"I was one of the African Americans in the late 1960s who were interested in finding lists of African names so that we could change our "slave names" (birth names from European languages or from Hebrew) to "free names" (names from Arabic or traditional African languages.) In those early days of the Black power movement with its interest in African cultures there was no internet and lists of African names were hard to come by. I recall people in the Committee For Unified Newark, (the cultural nationalist group that I belonged to which eventually was headed by poet, playwright, activist Amiri Baraka, formerly Le Roi Jones), sharing mimeographed (reprinted) copies of African names that we happened to come by. Many of those names were from the Arabic language and others were from KiSwahili, which is largly based on Arabic. I'm not aware of any book of African names that was published before The Book of African Names (As Told by Chief Osuntoki) was published in 1970. In 1972 another book of African names was published - Names from Africa: Their Origin, Meaning, and Pronunciation by Ogonna Chuks-orji helped introduce African Americans to names from traditional African languages. I owned both of those books, but unfortunately, The Book of African Names (As Told by Chief Osuntoki) has gone missing. Some names from that second book is included in the pancocojams post on traditional African names that begin or end with "sh" or "ch".

Comment #4
In the late 1960s and 1970s, some of my friends were Yorubas -i.e. African Americans who converted to Cuban based Santeria. I was also friends with some African Americans who had converted to Sunni Islam. All these people changed their names to African or Arabic names i.e. their given birth names (often personal names and last names) were replaced with "free names" that they were given or that they selected -or, in the case of the Yorubas, that they received by virtue of their selection by their orisa/s (orishas).

My former husband who was a Jazz musician and I (who often told adapted West African folktales) were "in to the African dance and theater performing arts" and most of the people we "hung" with were very active in those circles. Almost all of these people had African/Arabic given names-although over time, a few of them have reverted back to their birth names. That said, my former husband usually "goes by" either his birth name or his African name depending on which crowd he was hanging with, and I still use by given birth name when I go home to New Jersey to visit my family. Neither my former husband or I legally changed our birth first name- and I believe that most of my friends with "African free names" also haven't legally changed their names. I'm retired now, but when I was working (in social services), I applied under my birth name and married name, and received my checks under that name. However, when I started a new job (most of which were with mostly White folks), I shared that "Azizi" was my nickname, and requested that I be called that name. I considered this easier than going into the "slave name"/"free name" explanation- which I admit may have been an excuse to bring racial subjects up when I didn't/ don't have to. I still use this excuse when I sign up with my legal name (birth first name/married last name) at doctor's offices. Because I ask to be called "Azizi", that's the name that the doctors and staff at those offices use for me. In my everyday life, people call me "Azizi" or "Zi" and may think that "Azizi" was my birth name. If I receive a compliment about my name or if asked, I share information about that name's origin and meaning and how I got it. But I seldom share my birth name. I don't think that name is really me anymore.

On reflection, it's interesting that our best friends during those years and since who were leaders of the African dance and theater movement in Pittsburgh (Bob & Stephanie Johnson) never changed their names, but they still gave their children African names at birth.

These quotes are presented in somewhat random order. They are numbered for referencing purposes only. I also added a brief editorial comment regarding quote #1 & #2.

Quote #1:
The Quarterly Journal Of Economics "The Causes and Consequences of Distinctive Black Names"
Ronld G. Fyrer, Jr. and Steven D. Levitt
Vol CXIX August 2004, Issue 3
“In the 1960s Blacks and Whites choose relatively similar first names for their children. Over a short period of time in the early 1970s, that pattern changed dramatically with most Blacks (particularly those living in racially isolated neighborhoods) adopting increasingly distinctive names, but a subset of Blacks actually moving toward more assimilating names. The patterns in this data appear most consistent with a model in which the rise of the Black power movement influenced how Blacks perceived their identities. Among Blacks born in the last two decades, names provide a strong signal of socioeconomic status, which was not previously the case. We find, however, no negative relationship between having a distinctive Black name and later life outcomes after controlling for a child’s circumstances at birth.”
[The researchers] used data that covered every child born in California in the past four decades. “We first document the stark differences between Black and White name choices in recent years. For example, more than 40% of the Black girls born in California in recent years received a name that not one of the roughly 100,000 White girls born in California that year was given. Even among popular names, racial patterns are pronounced. Names such as DeShawn, Tyrone, Reginald, Shanice, Precious, Kiara, and Deja are quite popular among Blacks but virtually unheard of for Whites. The opposite is true for names such as Connor, Cody, Jake, Molly, Emily, Abigail, and Caitlin. Each of these names appear in at least 2,000 cases (between 1989- 2000) with less than two percent of the recipients Black. Overall, Black choices of first names differ substantially more from Whites than do the names chosen by native born Hispanics and Asians."...

Quote #2

"Question: Ethnic and Cultural Differences: It is relatively common for African-Americans to have given names that appear to have been coined by their mothers, whereas it is very uncommon for others. What is the explanation?"

Jon Pennington
"Answer: In his book A Matter of Taste: How Names, Fashion, and Culture Change, the sociologist Stanley Lieberson attributes the increase in unique African-American names during the 1960s to greater black cultural pride in the context of the U.S. civil rights and black power movements:
Throughout the twentieth century, black parents were somewhat more disposed than white parents to give their children names they had invented. The gaps, however, were modest. Beginning in the 1960s, there is an unprecedented rise in invented names for African-American children (daughters more than sons). Among African Americans in 1989, for example, 29 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys born in Illinois were given unique names (fig. 3.2; source: Lieberson and Mikelson 1995, 930). By contrast, 5 percent of white girls and 3 percent of white boys have such names.

This change in Illinois is not caused by the migration of blacks from south to north. And there is evidence to show that this taste for invented names is not a historic one—at least to this extent. In fact, as we shall see, the timing of this development suggests an influence stemming from the broad and intense social and political changes beginning in the 1960s, a period marked by intensified social protest, a renewed emphasis on a distinctive and valued African-American culture, and black separatism (Lieberson and Mikelson 1995).

Lieberson gives several examples of how black pride and black culture influenced naming practices among African-Americans after the 1960s, not just for invented names.... Marcus was the 164th most popular name for black boys in 1956, but became the 13th most popular name for black boys in 1970, as a result of increasing interest in the early 20th century pan-Africanist and black separatist, Marcus Garvey. Islamic names previously popular in the Arabic-speaking world also became popular among African-Americans, due to the increasing prominence of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam. Finally, another factor was the publication of baby name books that encouraged African-American parents to choose distinctive names for their children, such as this book on African names originally published in 1970: [picture of the cover of The Book Of African Names As Told by Chief Osuntoki]."
Pancocojams Editor's Note:
While I agree that there has been a huge increase in the selection of what mainstream America views as "non-standard American" names since the 1ate 1960s/early 1970s, long before those decades African Americans had personal names that were different than the names that Anglo-Americans gave their children. Documentation of that is found in Eliza Dinwiddle-Boyd’s 1994 book: Proud Heritage: 11,001 Names For Your African American Baby (New York, Avon Books). In that book Dinwiddle-Boyd cites names from Newbell Niles Puckett's Names of American Negro Slaves (1937).

Quote #3
From "What’s up with black names, anyway?"

From Tayshaun to Rau’shee, Olympic athletes have been a reminder of distinctive African-American names. Before you poke fun, here’s a history lesson.

DAVID ZAX, 08.25.2008
..."That African-Americans have a tendency to buck more common names is obvious. Take a quick glance down the Olympic roster. It is the black names that disproportionately stand out: Tayshaun, Deron, Rau'shee, Raynell, Deontay, Taraje, Jozy, Kerron, Hyleas, Chaunte, Bershawn, Lashawn, Sanya, Trevell, Sheena, Ogonna, Dremiel. You can safely bet that NBC's commentators practiced these a few more times in the mirror than the name "Michael Phelps." And, indeed, black Americans have spearheaded and continue to lead the trend of creative naming in this country, even if they haven't garnered as many headlines as Gwyneth Paltrow. Creative naming has reached every race and class, but "it is largely and profoundly the legacy of African-Americans," writes Eliza Dinwiddie-Boyd in her baby-naming book "Proud Heritage." Shalondra and Shaday, Jenneta and Jonelle, Michandra and Milika -- in some parts of the country today, nearly a third of African-American girls are given a name belonging to no one else in the state (boys' names tend to be somewhat more conservative).


Distinctive black naming persisted through the centuries; the folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett turned up thousands of such names culling records from 1619 to the mid-1940s, names like Electa, Valantine and Zebedee. But by and large, it remained a minority practice within black culture, and most black names weren't all that different from those given to whites. Then, in the 1960s, something changed, resulting in an unprecedented spike in black creative names, to the point where just a few years ago, "Freakonomics" authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner noted that "nearly 30 percent of the black girls are given a name that is unique among the names of every baby, white and black, born that year in California."

What happened? The dates, of course, are suggestive. The '60s were a time of massive black protest from which emerged an accentuated separatist strain in black thought, epitomized in the Black Power movement. Blacks became increasingly interested in Africa and eager to show pride in their roots. (Indeed, "Roots" -- Alex Haley's book as well as the TV miniseries based upon it -- itself had a remarkable effect on naming practices. According to Harvard sociologist Stanley Lieberson, the name Kizzy, which belonged to a "Roots" character, skyrocketed from oblivion to become the 17th most popular name for black girls in Illinois in 1977.) Islam began in these years to have a clear influence, too, most visibly with Cassius Clay adopting the name Muhammad Ali in 1964. Others followed suit, including two fellows named Lew Alcindor and LeRoi Jones, whom you know as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Amiri Baraka. Around this time, an American boy named Barack Hussein Obama would be born. His given names, of Semitic origin, mean "blessed" and "good." Soon, out of these more political traditions grew a new one of creating names whose sounds the parents merely found pleasing.


Of course, the vast majority of unusual black names are nothing like Clitoria or Tanqueray. They are names like -- to page at random through "Proud Heritage" -- the catchy Maneesha and Tavonda, the magisterial Orencio and Percelle, or the evocative Lakazia and Swanzetta. They are names emerging from a tradition of linguistic and musical invention much like those that gave us jazz and rap. And they are names that have paved the way for Americans of all classes and colors to begin to loosen up a stodgy culture of traditional name giving. The census data show that whites, too, are increasingly looking for distinctive names. (To their credit, it seems like the Mormons, like blacks, were also ahead of the curve on this one, if this amazing list* is to be believed.)”...

* The Utah Baby Namer

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1 comment:

  1. It occurs to me that maybe the reason why I haven't found any information online about the afrocentric use of the terms "slave names" and "African free names" (or "free names") is because those terms may not of been used by any other people but the members of the Black power organization called "CFUN" (the Committee for Unified Newark).

    I was a member of that organization from around the end of 1966 until the summer of 1969. Imamu Amiri Baraka (formerly known as Le Roi Jones) was the leader of CFUN for much of that time.

    Another term that probably was unique to members of that organization was "house" meaning the person who a woman is romantically attached to (i.e. a woman's man or husband).

    For example, a woman might be asked "Who is your House?" If she was attached to a man, she would say "My House is Jamal." And if the woman wasn't attached, she would say "I don't have any House".

    I think that this use of the word "house" came from the view that the man was the head of the household (i.e. "the Lord of the manor").

    I don't recall men referring to women as anyone "house", which demonstrates the way that males had a higher status in that organization - although the view was that the roles of males and females were "different" and not either higher or lower.

    By the way, in contrast to the Black Power organization, the Oakland California organization "US" that I believe served as a model for that Newark, New Jersey organization, males who were members of CFUN were supposed to have only one House (i.e. weren't supposed to be involved with more than one woman at a time), while males who were members of US were "allowed" to be polygamous.

    I lost touch with members of CFUN when I left Newark in 1969 and eventually moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I often wondered what happened to certain members of that organization, particularly certain sisters (women members) of that organization. I hope that life has been as good to them (or better) as it has been to me.