There are some deeply troubled people in our midst who have unfortunately sought healing in the toxic recesses of social media. Healing is a community vocation, Fu-Kiau reminds us of this. However our communities cannot fulfill this role if they are echo chambers that merely reinforces our isolation and deepens our alienation.
Functional communities are those that affirm the dignity of our humanity while acknowledging the reality of our suffering. These communities remind us that healing can be achieved and encourage us not to desperately cling to pain as some sort of anchor. It is true that pain can shape us, but when held too longingly, it can hurt us. It can warp our humanity. In his novel, The Healers, Ayi Kwei Armah writes, “Pain too long absorbed dulls intelligence. Pain endured, channeled for energy, used for conscious work aimed at ending the source of pain, sharpens intelligence.” When we affirm the possibility of healing and loosen our grasp on pain, we open the door to healing’s actualization.
Healing then becomes our embracing the possibility of transcendence, and communities can support this work in numerous and constructive ways. Functional communities can remind us of, again, the dignity of our humanity, and that of those around us. Functional communities can remind us that our historical experience as Africans in America has been one of surviving unrelenting oppression. Healing communities can remind us that such oppression, does, as it is intended to do, warps humanity and engenders dysfunction. Communities remind us that healing is not merely a matter of healing the individual African person, but that it is, again, a community vocation. Critically conscious healing communities remind us that we must heal ourselves by eradicating the basis of our suffering–oppression.
What is meant here by critical consciousness is a degree of discernment which enables one to understand the social and historical factors which have been consequential in shaping the present. Critical consciousness demands that we consider the role of power in shaping society. The power dynamics that have animated our lives and the lives of everyone that we have ever known were firmly established during various stages of conquest and enslavement over the last five centuries. These were historical circumstances that reduced African people to objects of capital, charged with laboring to produce capital. And when that era came to an end, Africans continued to be objects of coercive control subject to debt peonage, voter suppression, containment, rape, and execution in varied forms including lynchings. This era transitioned into one where Africans exist, still as objects of coercive control and racialized containment, and who are socially constructed as a social malignancy–a violent disease, a plague for society, or in the view of some a source of terror within our own communities.
Critical consciousness demands that our analysis always consider the broader constructions of power, and central to this, the production of ideas which seeks to mask its operation in our lives. Thus, a critically conscious person must ask and seek to answer the question of whose interest are served by obscuring the source and causes of dysfunction as it exists in our community? When these sources are masked, we attack one another, rather than the real enemy. A critically conscious must ask how we might effectively address these problems in a manner that eradicates dysfunction by eliminating its structural causes–the system of oppression in which we live, the evolutionary descendant of the system of chattel slavery and colonialism that so malformed our ancestor’s humanity. A critically conscious would recognize that, among other things, we must create the social systems that enables us to be self-determining. That creating the institutions that enable us to feed, clothe, heal, house, educate, and defend ourselves are the most direct and logical response to our continued dependency upon an oppressive system. In fact, the very work of building these systems is the work of restoring community. Ultimately, we must remind ourselves that for all of the dysfunction of our communities, we are ultimately dealing with communities that are the legacy of terror, a legacy that is ever-present. Thus we are not dealing with or residing within self-determining communities, but communities that are, in many respects, the residue of colonialism.
In closing, healing is possible. It begins with us, is augmented by community, and must lead inexorably to reality transformation. For those wishing to journey further down this path Fu-Kiau’s Self-Healing, Power, and Therapy, Armah’s The Healers, and Ani’s Let the Circle Be Unbroken are good resources to consult. Each argues vociferously for the role of African culture and social structures as tools of healing, and within this, for the role of paradigmatic knowledge in healing’s conceptualization and actualization. Angel Kyodo Williams’s Being Black is also beneficial. So too is Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. These two texts discuss the mind as a site of healing, arguing that our perceptions of reality often exacerbates our suffering. That our own personal quest for greater clarity and awareness, is one that, in fact, augments everything that we do. I would also strongly recommend the deeply insightful Essential Warrior by Shaha Mfundishi Maasi as a potent discourse on healing. He argues that warriorhood and healing are entangled states of being, and that “The purpose of warriorship is to develop an enlightened being who is a human vortex of positive energy, having attained the core of perfect harmony”. He adds that to become a “true warrior one must become ‘nkwa ki moyo’ a vitalist, one who heals the ills of the people.”
This essay emerges from at least two things. Recently, I watched a rather engaging talk by Dr. Ama Mazama of Temple University, on the importance of Africans rejecting European names. In her talk, she also highlighted the work of her organization, Afrocentricity International, in renaming African people. Dr. Mazama’s talk can be viewed here: Naming Yourself: The First Act of African Agency.
Also, a while back I 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 of organizations 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 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 communities, 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 obligations.
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 and are not presently within the context of a community where such a desire might be supported.
Names as Moral Obligations
As stated, various peoples in West Africa have naming traditions wherein individuals are named, in part, based on the day or other circumstances 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 two 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 (character) 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 such culture, the Akan and their concept of suban, however Africa is replete with moral insight and knowledges which hold the promise and potential to inform our ways of being in the world if only they are applied.
Next, 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 and male Akan day names, along with the attributes associated with the person born on each of these days. The second lists other female day names. The third lists other male names. All of these names come from the Akan, Ewe, Swahili, and Hausa peoples. Also, there are variations with the spelling of the names listed below. The spellings and pronunciations of all of the Akan and Ewe, and some of the Hausa names can be found in Julia Stewart’s 1,001 African Names. Other Hausa names were obtained from Ibro Chekaraou’s Mù Zântā Dà Harshèn Hausa.
Akan day names
The born leader
The risk taker
The sweet messenger
Yaa, Yawa, Aba
The dreamer, the wanderer
The sage, the wise one
The attributes of the Akan day names affirm the basic goodness and essentiality of each of us to the community. Whether this is in the leadership of the Sunday born, the boldness of the Tuesday born, the wisdom of the Saturday born, and so forth–each of us are valued and valuable in terms of the good that we potentially represent to those around us. Thus, Akan kradin (as with African names in a very general sense) evidences a complex web of social obligations, which seek to maximize the growth, development, and capacity of both the individual and the society.
Other female names
Ladi, Ladidi, Ladiyyo
Tine, Tine, Tani, Atine, Altine
Talata, Tatu, Talatu, Tanno, Talle, Talai
Jummai, Jumma, Juma, Yar Juma
Other male names
Danladi, Ladiyyo, Lahadi
Tanimu, Danliti, Altine, Dantani
Dantala, Tatu, Talata, Dantalle
Aku, Koku, Kowu
Names for Times of the Day
Finally, I offer several names that are based on the circumstances of one’s birth, such as the time of day that one is born. These names were derived from Chekaraou (2008) and Kiswahili Lugha Yetu: Mwanzo Mpya from the Simba Tayari and the Swahili Institute of Chicago.
Born during late morning
Born at midday
Born at night
Male or Female
Born at night
Born at daylight
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.