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Are Names Really That Important? For Black People, the Answer Is a Resounding ‘Yes!’

The effects of the transatlantic slave trade still resonate within the Black community in America. Slavery was the total dehumanization of Black people through exploitation and brutality. One aspect of this was the stripping away of Black culture and identity. Black people were not only branded physically, we were branded culturally with the insignia of our slave masters — our names.

By names, I am not only talking about the names that we sign documents with but also our collective identity. We were called slaves, niggers, savages and other dehumanizing names. Those who don’t want to be obvious with their racism call us “thugs” and “criminals.”

For Black people in America, we have gone through many different names. African, colored, Negro, Black, Afro-American, African-American are all names we have collectively gone by. Does it really matter at the end of the day?

Self-identity for an oppressed people is an important part of the liberation process. It often is more than just semantics. In the post-colonial period, many free Black folk designated themselves as “African,” signifying their connection to the continent while recognizing their present sojourn in America. Organizations like the Free African Society and places like Africatown and Little Africa demonstrate this.

Post-Reconstruction, the name “Negro” began to be more predominant. Negro was a more militant reaction to the word “colored.” Even the capitalization of the “n” in Negro was of significant importance. From the NAACP to Booker T Washington and Marcus Garvey, Negro was not something to be ashamed of. The New Negro was the Negro who had racial and cultural pride expressing a resurrection of the rebellious spirit in Black America post-Reconstruction.

The next period for Black radicalism was the 1960s. Many youths became dissatisfied with the “progress” made through civil rights and began to take a more radical approach that went beyond simple integration into America. Activists saw their struggle as international and a part of a worldwide anti-colonial revolution. People not only changed their personal names but began to refer to themselves as “Black” and/or “African.” Malcolm X best explained the contrast between the “Negro” revolution and the “Black” revolution, declaring, “The only revolution based on loving your enemy is the Negro revolution.”

In the most literal sense, Negro and Black mean the same thing, but they convey vastly different meanings. The transformation of the word “Black” from being insulting to being a militant stance of Black self-determination signified a change in the culture in Black America. Black radicals and nationalists sought to incorporate values into “Blackness.” Many cultural nationalists adopted the seven values of Blackness. More commonly known as the principles of Kwanzaa. Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity);
Imani (Faith): Black is a direct opposite of white and this contrast was useful for conceptualizing identity in the 1960s.

If “Black” was a challenge to the U.S. racial order and a juxtaposition to white supremacy, the term “African-american” popularized by Jesse Jackson was a way of making peace with our Americanism.  The idea behind the concept is that there are different types of Americans. Just as there are “Asian-Americans” and “Native-Americans,” there also are “African-Americans.” “African-American” was simultaneously an assertion of equality and a seat at the table, while also respecting cultural heritage.

For some, “Black” lacks a cultural identifier and it doesn’t identify a land base like “African” does. For others, people don’t identify with African or African-American because they feel no connection to the continent. Pan-Africanist and historian John Henrik Clarke proclaimed, “A more proper word for our people, African, relates us to land, history and culture.”

For many activists in the 1960s and 1970s, “African” proclaimed not only a connection to the continent but signified their Pan-Africanist politics and their claim to self-determination here in America. Being an “African” meant you were independent of white control, anti-racist, anti-colonial and that the struggle was international in nature.

Revolutionaries like Robert Williams, Assata Shakur and the late Chokwe Lumumba all declared themselves “New Afrikans.” For many, a collective name indicates not just a nationalist orientation but an internationalist one. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement says  “The term ‘New Afrika‘ reflects our Pan African identity, our purpose and our direction. Although we come from distinct ethnolinguistic groups in Africa and the African diaspora, our shared oppression and the interdependence of our liberation redefines our borders.” The right to self-determination, land and reparations are integral for New Afrikans.

In the movie “Roots,” Kunta Kinte defies white authority by not accepting his slave name “Toby” until he is beaten into submission. We as Black people have sought to do the same thing. The act of naming one’s self is an act of asserting agency. It is also an act of asserting one’s own humanity and self-determination.


Jonathan Ellis is a Black activist with an interest in Pan-Africanism, socialism, and anti-imperialism. He has a bachelor’s degree in History with a concentration in African-American history. Follow him on twitter @jellis1snv.

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