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Another interesting paper from this week’s NBER dump is titled “Distinctively Black Names in the American Past” by Lisa Cook et al.
According to the authors, previous research like that of Roland Fryer and Steven Levitt pegged the rise of “black names” to the Civil Rights era and the subsequent emergence of the Black Panthers and black militantism. Cook et al. argue that no research has looked into systemic naming patterns that existed in the black community before the 1960s (though a Salon article did look at the uniqueness of black and slave names stretching back into ancient history). The researchers found that blacks took on unique naming patterns in the late 19th century which would suggest that once they were freed from slavery and took control of their own naming they moved away from the naming patterns of whites. The difference between then and the 1960s is that black naming became a political act.
An interesting question the researchers raise focuses on the foundations of the different naming behaviors. Whereas blacks in the late 19th and early 20th century took on names which actually existed either in Biblical history (Moses or Isaiah, for example) or in African tradition, the naming habits of modern blacks seem to have no historical foundations. Fryer and Levitt found that modern black names are typically given by low-income, low education single mothers. The implication is that modern black naming patterns are less deeply rooted than historical black naming patterns. One wonders what are the differences in life experiences between blacks with traditionally black names versus those with traditionally white names versus those with contemporary black names.
Some other background info on the topic:
Handler and Jacoby looked at slave naming in Barbados from 1650 to 1830:
Observing that nicknames are used in the contemporary British West Indies to the exclusion of formal baptismal names, Frank Manning postulates that they distinguish people in a small, insular society who share a small number of surnames and a small repertoire of first names and have a high incidence of namesakes; “formal names are nonfunctional from the standpoint of individuating persons; alternate designations are needed.”71 These conditions also existed in West Indian slave communities, including Barbados plantations where, as discussed above, small sets of English first names were shared by large numbers of individuals, almost none of whom had differentiating surnames.
Within the context of enslavement, the plantation names slaves used among themselves were more than just a means of “individuating persons.” Melville J. Herskovits has suggested that “names given by the slaveowners were most likely regarded as but an added designation to which one responded. . . . being accepted with the reservation that different, ‘real’ names were to be used in the cabin or on other occasions when none but fellow slaves were present.” This pattern of using different names among outsiders and community members may have grown out of the slave experience wherein African naming practices, which had been tied to ritual and identity, took on a more practical adaptive function in a situation of subjugation.
Calling names “strong metaphors for power relations,” especially in the context of slavery, Richard and Sally Price argue that, “in this adaptive use of the naming system, motives such as fear and deception, which play little part in patterns of name use within communities, become relevant.”72 In multiple names, both African-born and creole slaves found a means of maintaining self-esteem and establishing an identity that transcended enslavement. By retaining features of African naming systems, slaves were “often successful,” as Hall phrases it for French Louisiana (where African names regularly appear in official records), in their “resistance to socialization” to the slave system.73
As Lisa Cook et al found, black Americans with African oriented names tended to live longer than black Americans with “white names”.
The matrilineality of historical black naming is also interesting given the modern practice acknowledged by Fryer and Levitt of single black mothers hanging oddly-punctuated names on their fatherless children:
Further, many slaves, particularly the African-born in the ear-lier periods, were likely to have reckoned descent through the maternal line. In the early eighteenth century, children on the Codrington plantations, for example, “quite often kept” as surnames their mothers’ names, a practice that may have reflected the African system of double naming with an emphasis on descent and genealogical relationship to a parent. Similarly, evidence from the United States and Jamaica indicates that slave surnames may have been matronyms, although at Worthy Park in Jamaica in the decade before emancipation a shift occurred and children “were normally iven their father’s adopted surname, in line with English custom. “102 Using the mother’s surname is also common in the modern West Indies when the parents are unmarried.103 This practice may have been at least partially influenced by West African matrilineal traditions and naming patterns that emphasized descent. Whether or not African practices played a role in this naming pattern, the conditions of enslavement in the British Caribbean would certainly help account for them. For example, when children were fathered by men from other plantations, paternity might be recognized by slave masters, but, because slave status descended through the other’s line, a child belonged to the mother’s owner; slave children were thus more likely to live among their mother’s kin than their father’s, further heightening the importance of the maternal line.
In a different direction on the same topic, analysis of the names of Jamaican slaves found that male slaves with African names were given a market premium whereas female slaves with African names were discounted on the slave market.