There is a crisis of values and a clash of value orientations in our community. Too many of us seem incapable of overcoming the seductions of amorality to understand the social consequences of this conflict. Unaddressed, this will undermine the viability of our community long-term.
Let us not engage the world hurriedly.
Let us not grasp at the rope of wealth impatiently.
That which should be treated with mature judgement,
Let us not deal with in a state of uncontrolled passion.
When we arrive at a cool place,
Let us rest fully.
Let us give continuous attention to the future.
Let us give deep consideration to the consequences of things.
And this because of our eventual passing.
While Buddhism is often central to the discourse on the cultivation of mindfulness, I propose that such insights are also present in African thought. The above text is one such example. The Odù Ifá is the sacred text of the Yorùbá people. It is a text that distills their wisdom and ethics. Below I will offer a succinct analysis of this text, seeking to explicate its implications for practice.
The first line compels us to approach the world from a standpoint which seeks to value the present. To engage the world hurriedly is to rush headlong into the future. While the future is our inevitable destination, striving for it at the expense of the present robs us of the beauty or insights of the present moment, which must be fully conjoined by our minds/hearts in order to be fully realized.
The second line seeks to temper the urge for avarice. In the US, the pursuit of wealth has been all-consuming throughout all of its history. While material wealth provides material comfort, it does not necessarily ensure the cultivation of good character or the perpetuation of the good condition in the world. Thus, while wealth is not decried, one is not encouraged to neglect other necessary endeavors (such as the cultivation of “mature judgement”) in its pursuit.
Mature judgement and the regulation of passion, or more specifically anger is a critical issue. As the text instructs, we should give due attention to the critical matters of our lives. Anger compromises clarity of the mind, and if indulged corrupts one’s being. Having mature judgement then begins with a temperance of passion, and this requires the practice of both awareness and restraint, awareness of one’s mental/emotional states and the practice of self-control. Mature judgement and the regulation of passion cannot be present absent these two types of practice.
Coolness is a notable theme in the Yorùbá wisdom literature, as coolness represents a place of mature judgement and intelligent discernment. It means to be in a place (both spatially and mentally/emotionally) where one is unperturbed by things which might cause imbalance. Further, one is compelled to rest fully in such a place, to imbibe its essence, and to refresh oneself at such an occasion. This is a replenishment that prepares one to, yet again, face the challenges of life and living, but not from a standpoint of fatigue or fury, but one of coolness or centeredness.
Lastly, one is encouraged to look to the future, that is to see one’s actions in the present as being inextricably linked to the future. The future is not merely the moment that has yet to arrive. It is the inevitable consequence of the present. Thus, we are forever the architects of the future, the authors of its history. This power lies within our purview, and our degree of awareness of the temporal linkages between that which is now and that which is yet to come, provides a basis for sound and intelligent judgement. Therefore we are, again, reminded of the necessity of mature judgement, not as an abstraction, but as a matter of practice.
Karenga, Maulana. Odu Ifa: The Ethical Teachings. Los Angeles: University of Sankore Press, 1999.
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.
Chekaraou, Ibro. 2008. Mù Zântā Dà Harshèn Hausa. Madison, WI: NALRC Press.
Gyekye, Kwame. 1995. African Philosophical Thought. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.
Stewart, Julia. 1996. 1,001 African Names. New York, NY: Citadel Press.
Thompson, Anderson. 1999. The African Principle Essay Series. Chicago: African World Community Press.
Tayari, Simba. 1994. Lugha Yetu: Mwanzo Mpya. Chicago: Swahili Institute of Chicago.
This essay was updated on June 9, 2018.
I gave a short (5 min) lecture at a Kwanzaa program on Kujichagulia on the importance of symbols and celebrations. One thing that I said, that I was prompted to revisit after seeing the numerous posts about…well, I’ll simply say nonsense unworthy of further attention or discussion, is that we live in a society where we are compelled to operate at a superficial level of understanding of all things. Thus we are often encouraged to focus on individuals, things, and events that can only distract us from deepening our knowledge about ourselves and the world, as well as our practice of the values and behaviors that have the potential to make it one that is truly livable.
I like to remind myself that our minds are somewhat akin to an input-output system. The quality of my consciousness (meaning awareness) is proportional to the degree to which I invest in cultivating said awareness. Thus if I engage in activities that stimulate my ability to critically interrogate reality, then I naturally habituate and strengthen those abilities. The same is true regarding our ethical practices. If I engage in activities that reinforce my ethical reasoning and practice, then I further the internalization and augmentation of those abilities. This is why I try to pay relatively little attention to foolishness. I do pay some attention to it, enough to know where it is, where it is coming from, what it looks like, how it seduces the mind and degrades the spirit, and so forth. But to go beyond this, I fear, would give too much power to things that, in the final analysis, will fail to help me to manifest as the person that I choose to be in the world.
I consider this degree of discernment to be the foundation of what it means to live purposefully. To be ensnared by false notions is perhaps the greatest form of enslavement.