The AFLANG Project | Africa and the Subculture of Western Names
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Africa and the Subculture of Western Names

Africa and the Subculture of Western Names

Sitting in a coffee shop a few weeks back, I was less than halfway through one of my favourite books; The Autobiography of Malcolm X, written by Alex Haley. The book pictures a young Malcolm Little, upon correspondence and eventual conversion with The Nation of Islam through its progenitor Elijah Mohammed, strive to shake off the built-in slave and colonial identity by changing his name to Malcolm X, and later on El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Malcolm wasn’t the only African American engaged in this identity makeover. “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name – it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me” world’s greatest boxing legend Muhammad Ali, and a bosom friend of Malcolm’s famously announced on changing his name from Cassius Clay, in a bid to shed the identity of slavery and affirm his African heritage and pride. Other renowned Africans, both at home and in diaspora underwent such Afrocentric identity changes; Jomo Kenyatta (John Peter), Mobutu Sese Seko (Joseph Mobutu), Afeni Shakur (Alice Williams) to name a few.

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm x

Embroiled in these thoughts, I reflected in the gloom, the contemporaneous lack of admiration and patronage of our native names for more “trendy” or “hip” foreign names threatening the indigenous African naming tradition. I decided on exploring some of the factors responsible for this cultural digression.

Contact points between Africa and the West preceded the now infamous transatlantic slave trade. These contacts included trade interactions between Saharan Africa and the Arab world, leading to the introduction of Islam in some parts of the continent. Newly converted Muslims were stripped of their native identities in allegiance to their newly found faith and this would perpetually alter the naming tradition in these regions. Enter names such as “Muhammad”, “Abu-Bakr”, “Umar”, “Usman”, “Ali” and several others. However, a more monumental event was set to take place that would alter the course of the continent for eternity.

Overview of the slave trade out of Africa, 1500-1900

During the Atlantic slave trade period which lasted for about four centuries and a half, Africans no longer enjoyed their inherent human rights as they were invaded, traded and used as properties of their slave masters. The African middlemen who helped the Whites raid and capture their fellow African men as slaves for sale onshore, as well as local Kings and Chiefs, established good relationships with the Whites and were bestowed with tangible gifts, and on other occasions, conferred with White names and titles as a symbol of friendship. Enter Pepple, Briggs, Archibong, Henshaw and several others. These were slave trading household names responsible for the export of over 2 million slaves within the Bight of Biafra region.

Sold into slavery, slaves were given Anglicized names. African names were never recorded on records due to the difficulty in pronouncing them. They were mostly given diminutive names such as “John”, “Tom”, “Betty”, etc. African slave parents were also forbidden to name their new-borns as they the children were properties of their masters. The abolition of slave trade and the repatriation saw most of the ex-African slaves adopting surnames belonging to their former masters and famous white political leaders like “Washington”, “Jackson”, “Smith”, “Da Silva”, “Brown” and several others. Through reproduction and cultural diffusion, these names were able to spread wide into the continent.

The period of colonization in Africa, which came with the promise to acculturate Africa with ideas of the West witnessed the bastardization of African indigenous culture and belief system. After the system of colonization was set up, the missionaries and the colonial authorities developed a symbiotic working relationship. Schools and Churches were leveraged upon by the colonial governments and missionaries as a vehicle to drive social reorientation of the blacks. The idea was to ensure minimal education to meet the required skills needed in the colonial bureaucracies. The missionaries had complete control over the curriculum and imparted upon the students the idea that European presence was intended to benefit the African people and uplift them from an uncivilized state. They discouraged African customs and banned indigenous languages from schools with the aim of giving Africans a new identity by requiring them to adopt new, Christian names. There were several instances where an African student who was proud of his African name and insisted on using it, was severely punished or even expelled.

60 baptismal candidates from the Nigerian village of Ikot Eyo lined up waiting for baptism in a nearby stream.

Baptism was seen as a process of washing off the old and odd African nature and receiving the noble Western orientation and its attendant benefits. Popular biblical names such as “Paul”, “Timothy”, “Thomas”, “Joseph”, “David”, “Daniel”, “Samuel”, “Stephen”, “Peter”, “Deborah”, “Esther”, “Mary”, “Martha” and the likes were given during christening.

In recent times, popular culture coupled with globalization and rapid technological advancements including social media has drastically contributed to the widespread of European names in Africa for several reasons. First, social taste and the quest for public appeal has deluded Africans into the belief that bearing and conferring upon their children European names would put them in a unique social standing and as such, show no hesitation to do so. Secondly, there is the illusion of superstitious forces being attached to native surnames that drive people away from them. This stigma can be easily traced to the false picture painted in the minds of Africans by her colonial masters. Third, with the world being condensed into a global village, the internet and social media networks, there is an increased likelihood of social contact with familiar names and as such, there is the increased tendency for Africans to ditch their polysyllabic native names for monosyllabic Western names.

With Africa still struggling to break free from the mental shackles of slavery and colonization, the influx of Western names into mainstream African society further threatens the pristine and rich cultural heritage of the continent, particularly with the ever-expanding sway globalization has on popular culture. With the modern sociopolitical clime tilting towards the affirmation of indigenous culture and traditions, as exemplified in Brexit and Donald Trump’s MAGA campaigns, Africans should, in the same way, embrace their unique cultural identities with pride or witness the cultural extermination of a vibrant culture.

  • Ethan
    Posted at 10:22h, 12 March Reply

    Your internet site has superb material. I bookmarked the site

  • Michael
    Posted at 01:55h, 13 March Reply

    Hi there! Such a good short article, thank you!

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