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What You Don’t Know About African Americans with African Names

July 11, 2015

“For the longest time, when I would show up places people would expect to see an Asian woman, not a black man,” says your friend Sekou. Really? you think. Because you know it to be an African name. But at the same time, your friend’s husband’s name is Kioko, and he’s African, so why not? It’s been argued for years that the ancient Japanese migrated from Africa. But anyway, it got you thinking about African Americans with African names. Who are they and what are some of the things that they go through? Surely, their experience differs from the rest of us. You do a Google search to read up on the topic and discover that there’s nothing there. Okay… Never one to miss an opportunity to explore, you reach out to a few African Americans with African names to see if they can shed some light on the topic…

Sekou says that early on he didn’t know that his name was different. “At the private black school I went to in Boston, we sang the black national anthem, celebrated Kwanzaa and everyone had names like Nzingha and Kumba.” That changed a bit in the 4th grade, when he attended a school where he was one of only two black students. But still, no one said much. His world got turned upside down when he found himself at an all black middle school in Atlanta, where the teasing and jokes never ended. A favorite among the kids was:

Knock Knock.
Who’s there?
Say Who?!

It got so bad that he asked his teacher if she could start calling him by his middle name, ‘Fort.’ The teacher ended up telling his mom and then it became a big deal, so the name change never happened, but it was ultimately good because things shifted again by high school. Now at an international school, Sekou recalls his name being a source of fascination. He found himself explaining that it means ‘scholarly’ or ‘fighter,’ depending on the translation, and he also got to talk about Ahmed Sekou Toure, the President of Guinea. For the first time in his life, he felt ‘name envy.’ By college, he attended the historically black Morehouse, where there were Sekous around every corner, including a direct relative of Ahmed Sekou Toure. Talk about coming full circle. He was right back where he started, surrounded by African names.

Given everything though, he says he would give his kid an African name, because it’s important to have a name that means something. “It gives the person a level of gravitas.”

If an African name can imbue someone with a certain sense of gravitas, imagine if your name is actually Africa. Such is the case with Africa Angel Martin, who runs the kitchen at your daughter’s preschool. To say that she has gravitas is like saying the sky is blue. Let there be no question. “My father, who was a black panther, let me know from an early age that I’m a woman of culture, and I have an image to uphold no matter what my age,” says Africa, now in her early 40s. Like Sekou, she was also teased growing up. “I found that having the name Africa caused me to be rebellious, because I was always ready to come back at anyone who was trying to antagonize me.”

Did it affect how she felt about the name?

“Early on it did. But at the same time, I knew people were just ignorant because they don’t know their bloodline.” She says it wasn’t until high school when Nelson Mandela came out of prison that people started respecting her.
She has a 25-year-old daughter to whom she didn’t give an African name because she didn’t want her to go through what she did as a little girl. “To get teased like that so young can cause you to feel like a little mouse in a corner who doesn’t want to come out and play.”
So how does she feel about her name today?
“Oh, I feel special. I feel unique. I know that the name carries a lot of power.  I feel like Queen of all.”

Next, you reach out to a filmmaker you met a few years ago named Nzingha Stewart. You never really thought about her name being African until Sekou mentioned it earlier, but now you’re curious as to what’s behind it. Turns out, she didn’t grow up with the name at all. She chose it some 20 years ago after a trip to Senegal when she visited the ‘point of no return’ in Goree Island. “The tour guide explained that once you crossed this line you were property and couldn’t have your name anymore. If anybody called you by that name, their tongue would be cut out,” explains Nzingha. “The fact that they took away these people’s identity was so heart-wrenching to me that I changed my name to honor them.”  She was just eighteen.

Why she chose the name Nzingha she honestly doesn’t remember, but she does recall really liking what it meant once she found out. “It means ‘from the water,’ and I’m a water sign and I’m from Jamaica. It felt right. Also, there’s the story of Queen Nzingha and how she fought the Portuguese and kept Angolans from getting taken as slaves. It’s awesome.” Queen Nzingha? Who knew?
But how did her family react?

She says her mom’s side was much cooler. Her dad’s side wouldn’t call her Nzingha for a very long time. Her grandmother still doesn’t, and her father calls her by a nickname. Friends learned to use Nzingha once she stopped responding to anything else.
Did it take long to get used to the new name?

“No. It felt like what I was always supposed to be called. And I love that having this name gives me the opportunity to educate people. When they ask me about it, I get to talk about how systematic the programming of slavery was and how you didn’t get to keep your own name.”

The experience of African Americans with African names is way more complex than you thought, and surely there are plenty more things left to discover, however this is a start. One thing you know for sure is these people serve as reminders of our rich history and give new meaning to the term, Behind every name there is a story.

Photo of Sekou Writes by Adama Delphine Fawundu


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