Archive for February 5th, 2012

"Frederick Douglass"

by B. W. Harwell

Why did Frederick Douglass take this as his name?


Definition – Names
Gale Encyclopedia of US History:Naming offers a history of given names as well as information on last names.

Selecting a name for a child is a task for parents. Often friends and family contribute ideas. The decision needs to be made by the time of birth to satisfy Social Security.

Some cultures name a baby after a relative or a deceased child. Middle names are sometimes the maiden name of the mother. Unlike other societies, American wives usually take the husband’s last name and this is passed down to the children.

It is a more recent trend for wives to keep their maiden names and hyphenate the children’s last names.

And so the question of who am I? is both a name and an identity issue. Are girls the only ones who look for a new name and identity between 14 and 16 years old? Do boys have nicknames earlier than girls? Nicknames can be a badge of honor for some outstanding skill, or be negative tags.

African Americans and immigrants share some naming issues. Early European immigrants came to this country by way of Ellis Island. They spoke little or no English. The people who assisted them in filling out required forms could not understand the spelling or sound of their names. Some immigrants knew to suggest an Americanized name to blend in or took the spelling that was put on their papers. Later, many assumed new names for work (movie stars) and to help their children become accepted by their peers. This can be a nightmarefor families trying to trace their histories.

Africans and African Americans were given only a first name by slave traders and owners. Some of the records show that their owners were not well-educated so that spelling was phonetic. The first census in the United States was taken in 1790 and only a few free people of color were listed and were listed by only one name. It was not untilthe census of 1880 that last names and family groupings were listed.

Where did these last names come from? Some were taken from a slave owner. Some were made up to make a statement: Freeman, Washington, or Carpenter and other choices. The ability to name oneself must have given a feeling of power to an individual. During the Civil War aliases were used when a soldier, black or white, served under someone else’s name. (See Fold3 for documents where alias is used.)

The next generations used the middle name as a repository for the mother’s family name as a record and identity marker. More recently African Americans have taken names that identify a relationship to Africa. Children who had only letters for names by school-age made their choices of a full name.One uncle of mine said proudly that his name was Andrew David when responding to the teacher taking attendance. Martin Luther King was M. L. many of his young years.

Naming and other cultural activities in dress and music have become more broadly accented across ethnic lines.  Lou Alcinder took a Muslim name to match his religious affiliation. The most famousis, perhaps, the change from Cassius Clay to Mohammad Ali.

Who knew?

Who you are starts with your name. Families caution you not to embarrass the family name. It is given to you to protect and value. It carries all of the cultural dictates about how you should act as you maneuver through life.


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