I’ve lived a long time, at least it seems like a long time. I was born while Truman was serving out poor, dead FDR’s fourth term. I’ve lived long enough to see chickens fly (I didn’t expect that one, they obviously keep it a close secret). During this long existence I have developed opinions about many things, usually, but not always, after careful consideration. One thing though, I have lived long enough to know that my opinions regarding certain things are next to worthless. Like my opinions concerning Black American culture.
“We Are Respectable Negroes” is a blog that I really like. The subject of the family names of the ex-slaves came up recently, along with the whole idea of changing names to something African or Islamic. I have an opinion on the subject, of course, and I shared it at length. The reactions ranged from a firm “wrong!” to a gentle reminder that considering my point of view I’ll never really get it.
Two of our regular visitors were in each other’s hair about one having a European name, as in what do you know? with your slave names? This is a guy that I’ve gotten pretty friendly with, we regularly exchange e-mails, and he told the guy, “my parents gave me my names.” So I chimed in. My opinion about the whole thing revolves around honoring the ancestors. My understanding is that the ex-slaves chose family names, and it’s certainly true that one’s own parents chose a child’s name.
“Wrong,” said the naysayer, who suggested that the ex-slaves were just stuck with the name of their last owner and that any European name was a slave name. This actually drove me to do something that I almost never do: research. It turns out that in the slavery days the slaves were not allowed to use family names and were carried on the registers under the owner’s last name, but in reality most of them did know what their real family name was and upon achieving release from slavery most of them resumed using those names. I saw many examples of this from testimony. Otherwise they were allowed to chose a family name for themselves. I read a great story about a guy nicknamed “Cuffy” who chose to become “Paul” and re-Christened himself Paul Cuffy. Many chose the family name of perceived benefactors or great Americans, like Washington.
Through this my friend and I exchanged e-mails on the topic. We were in basic agreement about the honoring the forbearers thing, be proud of your heritage and all that. I got some good schooling though on the whole idea of European names being just too heavy a cross for some American Blacks to bear. Those names, along with any other aspect of White culture, are just anathema to some guys and girls. The total Black experience in America is tied up together, and it leaves some people with a real need to separate themselves from the entire White world. This was a great lesson, and I received it as a gift of love. I was coming at it from a cool-headed, intellectualized, compartmentalized angle, but really the issue is comprehensive, and it is mostly emotional and heartfelt.
That whole experience, you know the one I mean, cut so deep that the wound still oozes. That’s the take-away, that’s the great message for the outsider to remember. It is not an opportunity for intellectual inquiry or opinion mongering. It’s a little bit like when someone loses a loved one unexpectedly. Don’t even try to come up with something clever to say, don’t even try to be helpful. A simple, “that shit is fucked up” will suffice.