Historically, the naming practices within the African-American culture are highly complex and controversial. There is a predisposition in the United States of white mockery directed at the black community for their distinctive and inventive names. However, such ridicule is simply misguided, and at times racist ignorance. As with most divisive subjects, it only takes a little bit of research and open-mindedness to arrive at the true facts; facts which illuminate a culture of resistance to the very foundation upon which the African-American community was founded, which continues to be this country’s greatest shame: slavery.
As soon as an African was put on a slave ship, he or she was typically stripped of previous identity and given a new name. Once brought to the colony and sold, the slave was often renamed by the new master. Biblical influences were most common and names such as Abraham, Jacob and Solomon were used for men; and Mary, Eve or Sarah for women (for example). The usage of "classical" Greco-Roman names became the second most prevalent source, such as Marcus, Homer and Titus. Sometimes names were carried out of Africa and reflected naming traditions from that continent, such as days of the week when a child was born (Monday, Tuesday). For the most part, however, black names were not all that different from their white counterparts dating back to the settlements of the colonies (circa 1620).
Everything changed in the 1960’s onward. The civil rights movement beginning as early as the 1950’s eventually gave way to a more separatist “Black Power” movement in the 1970’s when black people were more interested in reclaiming their African roots and asserting their unique identities after centuries of oppression. This is primarily when the naming conventions within the African-American community took a distinct U-turn away from the western Judeo-Christian white naming traditions. Islam, being the primary religious tradition of the African continent, was often adopted as part of the new black tradition and also influenced naming practices. Think: Muhammad Ali.
It is interesting to note that names given to African-American girls are far more inventive than typically given to boys. Almost 30% of names given to black girls in California, for instance belong to no one else in that state. This gives new definition to the word “unique”! Today, imaginative naming has reached every socio-economic group and has become a widespread trend in the United States – but this legacy belongs most notably to the African-American community. The linguistic and musical traditions of the African-Americans are rich and multifaceted, and continue to permeate American culture at large. Naming is just another diverse example of the contributions African-Americans continue to make in our society.