I recently read an article advocating that Africans in the U.S. should, en masse, abandon the names of their slave owners. Though the article failed to clarify this, this is an old notion. The Black Power era saw a flowering of this kind of thinking and is evident in the cultural nationalist formations like Us, the Congress of African People, and the Council of Independent Black Institutions. This sentiment was also visible among various parties within the New African Independence Movement and the Black Panther Party, particularly the New York chapter.
We would also do well to remember that certain African naming traditions survived for a time in the diaspora. It is not uncommon to discover 18th and 19th Century Africans with names that are derivatives of Kofi (such as Paul Cuffee) or Kwadwo (as in Kojo or Cudjoe), each of which emerged out of the tradition of the Akan peoples, who would name children based on the day of the week that they were born. In some instances, other African names from other cultures were retained, such as Mingo, Juba, and so forth (Stewart 1996).
The Black Power Movement represented the emergence an explicit discourse around re-Africanization, that is the paradigm and practice of African Americans seeking to reclaim aspects of their ancestral traditions that had been lost under the savage duress of enslavement. It also entailed, the exploration of African American cultural productivity as distinctly expressive of various Africanisms.
Early on, these naming practices drew upon the cultures of various groups such as the Swahili, Akan, Yoruba, and various West African ethnicities. Arabic names were often adopted as well, given both the extensive presence of Islam in Africa, in addition to the fact that Islam was a potent ideological force for those seeking to break with Western culture, including Christianity in the U.S. In the 1980s and 1990s, other cultures became prominently represented in these naming practices including Kemet, or ancient Egypt.
One particular tradition which emerged within the Black Power movement and its various formations, was the practice of names being given to members by elders, to youth, or other members of the community. For instance, in Chicago’s Shule ya Watoto and related formations founded or co-founded by Baba Hannibal Afrik, names would be bestowed upon youths and other community members who had demonstrated their commitment to African self-determination. This was a practice that persisted from the early 1970s until the 2000s. In fact, the author of this post was named by Baba Hannibal in the year 2000.
Baba Hannibal’s process consisted of consulting with family members and friends who were familiar with the would-be recipient, reflecting upon his own observations of the individual, and then searching for names that were both descriptive of the person’s character and nature, in addition to names that articulated aspirations that would both distinguish their character and express their potential impact on the family and community. He would draw upon names from throughout the continent, employing the type of Pan-African approach to naming that was typical from the Black Power era.
Baba Hannibal’s method demonstrated a core concern expressed by many people within this community of those engaged in a re-emergent practice of African culture, what some have simply called a New African culture, which is that names should be bestowed within community, by elders or persons of authority who can speak to the integrity and character of those named. The name was not meant to merely replace a European (or other non-African) name, but to express as clearly as possible the true nature of the person named, and to illuminate as best as possible, the path to which they should aspire. In this way, these advocates of re-Africanization reflected the Swahili proverb which states, “Mpe mwana jina akue”, which translates to “Give the child a name to grow up to.”
I agree with this position. The process of re-Africanization emerged in the context of community, more specifically within the context of formations committed to African self-determination. More than just a theoretical orientation, this was also conceived as a body of practice, one that cannot be fully actualized by isolated, atomized individuals, unmoored from collective values and obligation.
However, while I would consider the above necessary in the adoption of most names, there is at least one tradition that has relevance for those seeking to adopt a name who are not presently within the context of community where such a desire might be supported—the tradition of kradin or “day names”.
Names as Moral Obligations
As stated, various peoples in West Africa have naming traditions wherein individuals are named, in part, based on the day of their birth. This is present among the Akan, Ewe (which has been borrowed from the Akan), and others. The Akan tradition is, however, most well-known. Other traditions, such as that among the Bambara, Hausa, or Swahili are quite notable.
In many respects, I have considered these names, especially the Akan names, given their popularity among African Americans, as names to which one is already entitled to utilize. Each of us was born on a day of the week, and in that way, each of us already has a kradin (literally “soul name”), should we choose to embrace it.
However, while I think that these names exist as resources that African people in the Americas can draw upon in their quest for re-Africanization, I maintain that these names carry with them moral obligations. That is, the name is not merely a signifier of the individual, it also represents a connection to a particular cultural tradition. This connection is not a one-way conduit, where one receives that which one desires without any reciprocal commitment. I maintain that this reciprocal commitment necessitates that one aspires to exemplify the highest ideals of culture. In the simplest terms possible, this means that one should not engage in behavior which is injurious to the community, reflective of bad character, or otherwise reflective of a lack of intellectual maturity. This is not to suggest that traditional African societies were moral utopias, places where no wrong was ever committed. We know that this was not true. However, we are also aware that the moral discourse of traditional African societies is one of the most compelling, rigorous, and communally-focused available to us. These attributes are especially notable given that these are also our ancestral traditions.
The Akan culture, like all other African culture, holds certain core values to be sacred. What I will offer below is a very succinct treatment of these concerns. For those wanting further guidance, consult Gyekye’s African Philosophical Thought.
One value of the Akan culture, which is perhaps most significant as a basic moral framework, is their ideal suban, which translates as character. Like many others, character is a central cultural element. The significance of this lies in that character and its refinement is firmly situated in the realm of the social, that is that one is ultimately judged or assessed by one’s community. Moreover, it is understood that one’s community would require that one exemplify the moral obligations considered necessary to the collective welfare, which can be easily synthesized by what Dr. Anderson Thompson calls the African principle, which is “The greatest good for the greatest number” (Thompson 1999). Therefore, one must query if one’s actions represents that which is best or optimal for the health and functioning of the community as a whole? Does it engender that which contributes to the community’s maintenance and advancement? Does it provide the proper template whereby others might emulate in the creation of a truly enlightened condition?
We can see the expression of the Akan people’s concern with character in several places—their didactic literature and their iconography. With regards to the former, there are two notable proverbs that juxtaposes suban (character) to beauty. One proverb states, “Ahoɔfɛ ntua ka, suban na ɛhia”, which translates as, “Beauty does not pay debts: good character is what is necessary.” Another states, “W’ahoɔfɛ de wo bɛkɔ, na wo suban de wo bɛba”, which translates as, “It is your beauty that takes you there, but your character that brings you back.” What both of these proverbs expresses, is that while beauty is not without some merit, it is not the ultimate signifier of one’s value to the community. Beauty here refers to that which makes us appealing and attractive to others. Thus, beauty is something which often attracts others to us, and in this way, its value can be said to be external to the human being, that is something that is projected by society upon the individual. This contrasts with the nature of suban, as this is what the individual projects outwardly, it is the manifestation of their true nature, that which reveals who they truly are. Whereas superficial beauty may mask one’s inner nature, suban is always revealing. This is why what matters most, according to the Akan tradition was character.
Another example of this is the Adinkra symbol sesa wo suban, which literally translates as transform your character. This symbol reminds us of our capacity to perfect our character, to change it, and in so doing, to truly change ourselves. Sesa wo suban reminds us that we are, as ever, unfinished, still becoming. It compels us to strive to be that which we desire to be, knowing that the will to transform ourselves is potentially limitless.
I maintain that to take on an African name, is to also embrace the personal challenge to exemplify the loftiest ideals of African cultures. Here I have offered a brief treatment of one, which emerges from the culture of the Akan—suban, however Africa is replete with moral insight, knowledges which hold the promise and potential to inform our ways of being in the world if only they are applied.
Finally, I offer a brief list of African naming traditions based on days of the week. These are detailed in the tables below. The first lists female names based on days of the week. The second lists male names. All of these names come from the Akan and Ewe. Please note that the Ewe tradition of using day names, derives from the Akan. Also, there are variations with the spelling of the names listed below. These spellings and pronunciations can be found in Julia Stewart’s 1,001 African Names.
||Akosua (ah-ko-soo-wa), Akosia (ah-ko-see-ah)
||Adwowa (ah-joo-wah), Ajua (ah-joo-ah)
||Abena (ah-bin-ah), Abla (ah-blah)
||Akua (ah-koo-wah), Aku (ah-koo)
||Ya (yah), Yawa (yah-wah), Aba (ah-bah)
||Afua (ah-foo-ah), Afia (ah-fee-ah)
||Ama (ah-mah), Amma
||Kwasi (kwah-see), Kwesi (kway-see)
||Kwadwo (kwah-joh), Kojo (koh-joh)
||Kwabena (kwah-bay-nah), Kobina (koh-bee-nah)
||Kweku (kway-koo), Kwaku (kwah-koo)
||Aku (ah-koo), Koku (koh-koo), Kowu (koh-woo)
||Yao (yah-oh(, Kwao (kwah-oh)
In closing, while it is commendable for Africans in America to want to divest themselves of the culture of their oppressors, it should also be recognized that such a process is on-going. Decolonzing one’s consciousness means more than simply adopting an African name or wearing African attire. It also means seeking and operating from an African worldview—a way of seeing and being in the world consanguine with the values, norms, ethics, and knowledge of African societies as they existed from classical antiquity and prior to their cultural penetration by the emissaries of Eurasian empires. Moreover, such a mission is not something that can be separate from reality transformation. We must accept that our minds cannot be free, as long as our bodies remain oppressed. Jacob H. Carruthers has addressed this quite clearly:
The process of Africanization and transformation cannot be separated neatly into two stages-they overlap. To transform the world according to an African-centered worldview means establishing a new African culture and a new African world civilization. We have to restore the African value system. Rather than continually struggling to make European-centered value systems more humane, we have to replace those value systems with one that is African-centered. We have been dealing with the alligators, we must now face the possibility that the solution to our problems may require that the swamp be drained. Too few of us have prepared ourselves to deal with this possibility. (Carruthers 1994)
Carruthers, Jacob H. 1994. “Black Intellectuals and the Crisis in Black Education.” In Too Much Schooling, Too Little Education: A Paradox of Black Life In White Societies, edited by Mwalimu J. Shujaa, 37-55. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Gyekye, Kwame. 1995. African Philosophical Thought. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Stewart, Julia. 1996. 1,001 African Names. New York, NY: Citadel Press.
Thompson, Anderson. 1999. The African Principle Essay Series. Chicago: African World Community Press.