African American Names


By Joseph E. Holloway

Names are of great importance in West and Central Africa.  Names are given at stages in an individual’s life and, as among all people for whom magic is important, the identification of a real name with the personality of its bearer is held to be so complete that this real name, usually the one given at birth by a particular relative must be kept secret lest it come into the hands of someone might use it in working evil magic against the person.  That is why, among Africans, a person’s name may in so many instances change with time, a new designation being assumed on the occasion of some striking occurrence in that person’s life.  When the person goes through one of the rites marking a new stage in his or her development, a name change also occurs to note the event.

Stuckey, in Slave Culture: Nationalist Theory and the Foundations of Black Culture (1987), noted that black naming practices were African in origin, in that African Americans changed their names just as Africans did, corresponding to major changes in the life of the individual.  This name shifting is clearly demonstrated by the experience of Frederick Douglass, who soon after escaping slavery began a series of name changes.

On the morning after our arrival at New Bedford, while at the breakfast-table, the question arose as to what name I should be called by.  The name given me by my mother was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.  I, however, had dispensed with the two middle names long before I left Maryland so that I was generally known by the name Frederick Bailey. I started from Baltimore; I found it necessary again to change my name. . . .I gave Mr. Johnson, Mr. Nathan Johnson of New Bedford, the privilege of choosing me a name, but told him he must not take from me the name “Frederick,” I must hold on to that a sense of identity.

Sojourner Truth, a crusader for black emancipation and feminine equality, was known as Isabella until about age twenty, when she was freed and left her master’s plantation.  She had a vision in a dream that told her about her new name and her mission to free her people.  And Malcolm X, through various stages of his life, was known as Malcolm Little, Homeboy, Detroit Red, Big Red, Satan, Malcolm, El-hajji, and Mali El Shabazz.

Such name shifting is common throughout West and particularly Central Africa.  In many parts of Africa every man who leaves his traditional setting and family is given or takes a new name when he turns or walks away from home.  This situation parallels that of enslaved Africans who were brought to the Americas, away from their ethnic group, but who remained in contact with others who shared a similar ethnic background.

Nowhere is this tradition as vivid as in the jazz world, where name shifting is common, signaling a major event in the life of the musician: Jelly Roll Morton (Ferdinand La Menthe), Satchmo (Louis Armstrong), Yardbird (Charles Parker), Lady (Billie Holiday).  The story of these name changes follows the African pattern of using a new name to adapt to new circumstances and changes in the person’s new life.


A more direct African survival is the use of nicknames.  Almost every black person is known by two names: a given name and a name used only within the family circle.  Lorenzo Dow Turner found a dual naming system among the Gullahs in the Sea Islands of South Carolina.  This system consists of an English (American) name give at birth and a more intimate name used exclusively by the family and community.   Turner was surprised that previous scholarship had failed to note this practice or the importance of Africanisms in Gullah nomenclature.  Slave holders recognized this dual naming practice among enslaved Africans in the eighteenth century.  In their advertisements of runaways in the South Carolina Gazette, owners always included “proper” (given) names and “country names,” the African names retained.

This naming practice still exists among the Gullahs and in the general black population.  In African American naming practices every child receives a given name at birth and a nickname that generally follows the individual throughout life.  Some examples of these nicknames are Jo Jo, June Tiny Baby, O.K., John-John, Mercy-Mercy, Baby Sister, Sister, “T,” Sunny Main, Bo, Boo, Bad Boy, Playboy, and Fats.

Among enslaved Africans this practice was also evident in names used by slaves, such as Pie Ya, Puddin’-tame, Frog, Tennie C., Monkey, Mush, Cooter, John De Baptist, Fat-Man, Preacher, Jack Rabbit, Sixty, Pop Corn, Old Gold, Dootes, Angle-eye, Bad Luck, Sky-up-de Greek, Cracker, Jabbo, Cat-Fish, Bear, Tip, Odessa, Pig-Lasses, Rattler, Pearly, Luck, Buffalo, Old Blue, Red Fox, Coon, and Jewsharp.

Turner found that Gullah-speaking people preserved their language and nicknames by what they called basket names or day names.  Their children always had two distinct names, an English one for public use and an authentic African name for private use by the extended family alone.  Here are a few examples of Gullah basket names which are also straight, unchanged, present-day Tshiluba names.

Ndomba is the name given a Gullah child whose hand protrudes first at birth.  It means “I am begging (with my outstretched hand).”  Mviluki has a Gullah meaning of “a penitent.”  Its Luba source word is Mvuluki, a remembered, one who doesn’t forget his sins.  The basket names Sungila means “to save, help, deliever,” while Kamba, a very common Luba name, comes from Munkamba, meaning “ancestor.”  The Gullah meaning of Kamba is “a grave,” Anyika, a Gullah name meaning “she is beautiful,” is related to a Luba word, spelled exactly the same, meaning “to praise the beauty of.”  Seba, a Gullah name meaning “a leather ornament,” comes from the Luba word for hide or leather, tshisebe.  Tulu (sleep), Tuma (send), Pita (pass by), Mesu (eyes), Kudima (to work or hoe), and Kudiya (to eat) are all Gullah day names, exactly the same in Gullah and Luba.

In the Sea Islands, children sometimes have not only their given names and basket names but also community names.  The community gives the child a name that characterizes or is characteristic of the individual, i.e., Smart Child, Shanty (show off).  This practice parallels Bantu naming practices in Zaire.  Philadelphia Seventy Sixers basketball center Dikenibo Mutombo from Zaire illustrates this point.  His full name is Dikenibo Mutombo Mpolondo Munkamba Diken Jean-Jean-Jacque wa Mutombo.  In order, these names are his uncle’s name, his family surname, his grandfather’s name, his nickname given by his village, his name given at birth, and his hometown village, wa Mutombo (which means “from the village Mutombo”).

Other creolized Gullah pet names (nicknames) so typical of Bantu naming practices are names of animals or fish: De Dog, Doggie, kitty, Fish, Yellowtail, Croker, Frog, Spider, Boy, Gal, Jumper, Tooti, Crocki, Don, Cuffy, Akebee, Dr. Buzzer, and Dr. Eagle.

An integral part of Bantu culture is the unchanging secret “spirit name,” something that the individual has which is uniquely his or her own from the past and is carried on to the next generation, given to a new baby so that it may remain incarnate.  Thus by a strange interweaving of religion and language, the “inner soul” of the speech of a cultural group is preserved.  As Munday reported,

Investigation brings to light the fact that the Africans of these parts, whether man or woman, have two classes of names: (a) spirit-names and (b) names of manhood or womanhood.  Each has one (a few have two) of the names of the first class. And one or more names from the second class.  It is by these names of manhood or womanhood that they prefer to be called: some are traditional African names of these parts, some are debased European words, some are European given or family nicknames, some are nick names, given owing to some peculiarity, some are names given at baptism.  All of these names of manhood and womanhood (except the last) can be, and are, changed for any and no reason, and according to who is changed, once it is finally given.  It is this spirit-name that the Lala aphorism says: The name is the Spirit.

African officials now prefer the African to be registered under his spirit-name, owing to its never being changed, but there are two practical disadvantages which weight against its being used for registration purposes: An African of tribes with which we are concerned is very shy of using it for himself or another, and in some parts, the spirit names are so few in number that the majority of persons in one area may share half a dozen names.  However, as has been said, the spirit name is never changed from the mother’s back to the grave.


1. The author noted that the African American custom of having two names—a given name and a pet name---originated in Africa, where people are know by several public names as well as a secret “spirit” name.  Consider the significance of your own names and those of others in your class, including family and school nick-names.  Working in groups, discuss how your naming practice are similar to or different from those described by the author.

2. You probably have been called by more than one name at some point in your life.  Friends, family members, teachers, or co-workers may use a shortened or lengthened version of your birth name or a nickname.  You may even have changed hour name informally or legally when your marital status changed.  Brainstorm a list of all the names you can remember being used to identify you.  For example, you might group them according to who gave you each name (your family, friend, enemies, yourself, community, etc.)  Or you might group the names according to the phases of you life when they were used (in childhood, at school).  Or you might find some other organizing principle.  After grouping the names, free write about the significance of each category, telling what the names in each one reveal about you, your life, and your relationship with others.  Write a paper entitled “My Names,” explaining what you have learned through this activity about the names you have used in your life.

3. Imagine that you live in a culture that expects each person to choose a secret “spirit” name.   What name would you choose for yourself and why:  Write a reflective essay explaining the name and describing the qualities it signifies that make it a good representation of you spirit.  Then, working in a group, share your spirit name.  Discuss the members’ choices and the significance of naming you own spirit.  Finally, write a brief memo to your instructor, reflecting on the role and importance of naming.

4. Have one group member record some of the conversation among the other members as you are talking.  Then look at what was transcribed; do you notice any dialectical features of the language? Write a report to your instructor about your group’s discussion.  Describe the language that group members grew up speaking, as well as the dialectical features of the language used in your group discussion Can you come to some conclusions about the dialect of group members?

5. Expectant parents are faced with a major decision in naming their new baby.  Quite a few books listing names are available.  With your class, research baby name books.  Do some books target specific ethnic or other groups? Which names appear in some books but not in others? Why?  Which names routinely appear in all the books?  If possible, find name books from ten to their years ago to see which names have come in our gone out of fashion.  Are there any non-Anglo names on the lists?  What do baby names tell us about our culture?  Write a paper explaining your findings, giving some vivid examples and reaching some conclusions about your research.

6. Two prominent African American athletes changed their names at the height of their popularity: Cassius Clay, a heavyweight boxer, became Muhammad Ali in the 1960s; and Lew Alcindor, a basketball player, became Kareem Abdul Jabbar in the 1970s.  Consult biographies or autobiographies of both men to see how they explain the name changes and the public’s response.  Write a paper reporting your findings.

7. In paragraph 3, the author quote Frederick Douglass, who “after escaping slavery” changed his name several times.  Consult one or two recent anthologies of American literature in which Douglass’s work is represented.  Read a few of his writings as well as the biographical descriptions of him in the anthologies.  After reading about Douglass, write a paper that briefly reports on his life and writings, and use the information the author provide about African naming practices as a context for profiling Douglass.