By Biko Agozino
Tuesday, October 20, 2015
What Is My Name?
By Biko Agozino
When James Baldwin and Chinua Achebe met, Baldwin said that it was a miracle because when our ancestors were kidnapped and shipped away through the ‘Door of No Return’, we were never expected to survive and meet again as survivors of the slave raids and survivors of the genocidal middle passage, plantations and Jim Crow. I have just had a similar miraculous experience of speaking with a large African American family named Holland who traced their ancestry to a royal family in Cameroon. They gathered to honor their great-grandfather, Cecil Holland, after the racist Sons of the Confederacy placed a marker at his gravesite in 2002 to falsely claim that he served in the Confederate Army as a teamster hauling supplies for those who fought to keep him enslaved. The family repudiated the claim, removed the Confederate marker and replaced it with gravestones before holding an African mourning ceremony to honor him properly. The Confederacy supporters allegedly threatened to remove the gravestones and replace it with their Confederate marker in disrespect to the family.
Emphasizing the importance of self-naming, Chinua Achebe tells the Igbo folktale about Mbe, the tortoise, who begged to accompany the birds that had been invited to a feast by the king of the sky. The birds lent some of their feathers to Mbe to help him fly with them to the sky feast. But before their departure, Mbe told them that they should give themselves new names to appear more respectable at the court of the sky king. The birds agreed and named themselves things like Sun, Moon, Thunder, Lightning, etc. Mbe said that his new name was All Of You. When they were served at the feast, Mbe would ask whom the food and drinks were meant for and the servants told them that everything was for All Of You. So Mbe ate and drank everything while the birds starved. When it was time for them to return, the birds were angry with Mr. All Of You and asked everyone to take back his or her feather, forcing Mbe to fall from the sky and crash his shell which was patched with uneven surface remaining to remind all that there is enough for our needs but not for our greed.
The Holland family gathered from far and wide, with many wearing African garments, to sit in front of the family log cabin house. The sitting arrangement was in a semi-circle that is similar to the indigenous town planning design common in Africa. The African garments some of them wore and even the walking stick they gave to me as a gift were all adorned with the scaled, recursive, self-similar, infinite, fractional, and interconnected designs known as African Fractals, as documented by Ron Eglash and theorized by Abdul Bangura.
After a traditional prayer and the pouring of libations, William Holland, Cecil’s great-grand son, shared how he researched the family roots for years until he got conclusive proof that they originated from Cameroon. He and his brother wore traditional gowns that were given to them when they visited the area of Cameroon where they originated. William read out the family tree on his late father’s side and then on his living mother’s side. A medical doctor from Atlanta, Georgia, made a short presentation on how genetic traces of ancestry could be found in the mother’s line and in the father’s line. He cautioned that DNA results are still open to interpretation like any scientific data and that the more tests an individual does, the more specific the ancestry could be narrowed to a particular place where comparable DNA can be found.
Then it was my turn to talk about the importance of naming ceremonies in African culture. I started by making reference to the work of Kimani Nehusi who was initially named after a notorious slave trader, Francis Drake, because a white doctor in Guyana convinced his father that the brigand was a great man. He eventually recovered his African name and has authored a book manuscript on the meanings of African names in which he argues that the earliest known tradition of origin was that of ancient Kemet or Egypt where it was believed that the creator, Ra, spoke the names of every creature to bring the creature into being. Thus every creature has a name and anything without a name is considered a nonentity. Cheikh Anta Diop earlier made a general point in The Cultural Unity of Black Africa about the ‘disturbing’ similarities between certain African root words such as Barbarian, Gen or Gente that mean exactly the same in Indo-European languages to show ancient linkages among the people of the world who originated in Africa to such an extent that linguists consider it foolish to attempt to prove that there is no linkage between one language and any others in the world.
The Dogon of Mali have an ancient tradition of origin according to which the earliest created being was Nommo, an amphibious four-legged creature that was believed to have arrived on earth from the star, Sirius, which appears every 50 years to coincide with the Dogon celebration of the Totemic Nommo. Some European writers have disputed this astronomical knowledge of the Dogon and suggest that knowledge of the Sirius must have been revealed to them by visiting Europeans. But the Dogon insist that they have always known about Sirius and another smaller star that they call the White Dwarf that appears with Sirius.
The Igbo, my own ethnic group, believe that we are the children of Chineke, the procreator, whose wife gave birth to our ancestors. Thus we are the children of Mr. and Mrs. God whereas the Abrahamic religions appear to see God as a Bachelor who made human beings from clay. The very name, Ndi Igbo, literally means – early people or Ndi Gboo. The late Catherine Acholonu applied her linguistics skills to suggest that since human life originated in Africa, it is most likely that the language of creation was an African language with surprising correspondence between words like Adam (meaning literally, I have fallen, in Igbo) and places like Adamawa in Nigeria and Cameroon and in Ethiopia. Acholonu suggested that human beings evolved from dwarfs, our distant ancestors whose existence predates the time-line of the creation narratives in the scriptures of Abrahamic religions. Thus, according to her, Africans and the Igbo in particular, were the ancestors of Adam.
Mohamed Ali dramatized the significance of self-naming when he dropped his slave name, Cassius Clay. But his opponent, Ernie Terrell insisted on calling him by the slave name. Ali taunted him as Uncle Tom and threatened to beat him senseless in the ring to teach him to call him by his real name. Terrell said that his team thought that the name was a touchy issue with which to make Ali mad in the ring and thereby beat him. But it proved to be a bad strategy because if someone is out to whoop your behind, the last thing you want to do is to make the person mad at you. So Ali jabbed away at Terrell and asked him with every jab, ‘What is my name?’ If Terrell was wiser, he could have jabbed him right back with the retort, ‘What do you mean, what’s your name?’ Jab-jab. ‘Go ask your mama!’ Jab. Vivien Gordon argues that self-naming is an essential form of freedom and personal autonomy that must be respected by all.
Human beings are not the only ones who sign their names to differentiate them from other individuals – plants also have signs of their nature or signatures and it is from plants that we derive our own ‘doctrine’ of signatures. Human beings recognize this affinity with nature indirectly by naming their children after plants, animals, mountains, the sun, moon, the sea, the sky, especially in Africa. But Europeans tend to see it as their duty to name others – nigger, negro, kaffir, fella, colored, black, coolly, jap, con, and when others return the favor with names like redneck, cracker or hunkey, it does not stick, according to Randall Kennedy. African Americans have finally chosen to name themselves as people of African decent but some entertainers like Smokey Robinson say that they love being called Black Americans, Raven Symone does not identify as African American while many rappers prefer being called Nigga and Bill Cosby said that African names may make it difficult to get jobs as we battle with the ‘warring’ double consciousness of W.E.B. Du Bois.
The theft of the original names of Africans forced the Jamaican poet, Mutabaruka, to wail about the pain he feels every time he hears the sound that is not his name…. The New York Metropolitan Museum exhibited sculptures from a Nigerian community called Mbembe (suggesting the Mbe of Mbe, trickster of tricksters, in Igbo) and categorized the sculptures as representing male ‘killers’ and female ‘nurturers’ without realizing that Mbembe communities can also be found across the border in Cameroon, that men are not simply killers and not nurturers and that women are not simply nurturers and not also warriors in Africa. Naming African men as killers may be an ideological justification for the genocidal killing of Africans by Europeans and their African agents for a long time in history and naming the women nurturers simply justifies the history of wet nursing and the forced breeding of children for sale during the great destruction or Maafa slavery.
The European way of naming is hierarchical and divisive, always in search for evidence of the superiority of Europeans over all others but they have failed to find any evidence of white superiority unchallenged. They finally settled on the naming of literacy as something that Europeans have while Africans, being ‘headless people’ without chiefs, supposedly only have oral traditions. This was challenged by Jacques Derrida who was born in Africa and who had his French citizenship stripped from him because the Nazis said that he looked too dark and too Jewish to be French at the age of 12. He said that such a trauma of having his identity stolen laid the foundation of his philosophy and a lifelong effort to deconstruct all systems of white-supremacy to expose the fact that, for example, writing in general is found not only in Europe but in every culture that has the ability to name itself, not to mention the fact that Africans invented writing as a pharmakon to be used with care for healing the world, according to Plato.
The African tradition of naming is consistently that of recognizing that we are all members of the human nature known as Ubuntu or the bundle of humanity, according to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. This philosophy of naming is recognized by African Americans with the saying, I am because we are. On the contrary, the European will to conquer, kill and plunder all others is justified with the Cartesian dogma, I think therefore I am, a suspect individualism that is even uncertain of itself (I think, not really sure). Ubuntu is expressed in my Igbo culture as Mbari, a miniature house that the whole community gathers to build with clay and with figurines representing every race, gender, class and generation to be left to the elements until dust returns to dust and the community gathers again to rebuild the Mbari. Martin Luther King Jr, recognized this wisdom of community with the analogy of a family that inherited a World House from their ancestor and have to share the house or fight and kill each other and burn it down. He gave the same speech three times with reference to segregation in America during his Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, apartheid South Africa, and the Vietnam War to emphasize that we all should share as brothers and sisters.
What is my name? According to Alex Haley, it was the father of Kunta Kinte who held him high under the full moon and named him. But in my Igbo culture, a father does not perform masculinity in the naming of sons in isolation. Rather, it is the whole community that gathers for a naming ceremony with up to ten names being given to one child and I have my many names from which I chose the most common one, Onwubiko or ‘Death Please’ spare this one, since my mother lost many babies in infancy. My own family name, Agozino, means “I Bless The Enemy”. Such a name would be strange to cultures that perceive enemies as people to be wiped out with genocide but the name makes sense to those who understand the core teaching of Jesus Christ that we should love our enemies. That message must have been confusing to the Jews who believed that Jehovah was exclusively their own tribal God. But Jesus was taken to Egypt as a baby and he was educated there before returning to Palestine as a 12 year old with the message of ancient Egyptians that there is only one God for all. The ancient Egyptians arrived at this revelation by observing that the sun that shines for them also shines for their enemies, it shines for men and for women, for whites and for blacks, for the rich and for the poor, and so we should love all and hate no one as Rasatafarians preach with One Love.
People of African descent appear to be the ones who have practiced the love of the enemy more than any other group of people. Only people of African descent name their children after their enemies and since naming of children is a supreme form of honor and love for the ancestors, the naming ironies of Africans with European names symbolize the love of the enemy brothers and sisters, perhaps to win them over and help to end racial, gender and class hatred. However, those people of African descent who have recovered their stolen African names are not haters of others but lovers of their own ancestors too.
We may need to go beyond personal names and wonder why it remains difficult to accept that some of the place names in America came from people of African descent who must have named a few places after living here for hundreds of years. One such place is Kanawa in West Virginia which simply means, Let Us Go Home, exactly like Calabar in Nigeria. Next door to Kanawa is Shenandoah, a place where the Virginia Frontier Museum established an Igbo village to acknowledge that the majority of enslaved Africans in Virginia were people of Igbo descent, according to Douglas Chambers, author of Murder in Montpellier: The Igbo of Virginia. Coincidentally, the name Shenandoah literally means, ‘Say Sorry To This Land’ in Igbo language. If you are wondering why anyone would name a place that as the young people building the Igbo village museum asked me, I ended my talk by performing my poem in Igbo and English urging the audience to say sorry to the land because there was bloodshed on the land, tear drops on the land, sweat drops on the land, rape on the land, warfare on the land, slavery on the land, sorry land.
Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech.