The Name of Poetry and the Poetry of Naming


Another Black History Month season is here. For the black Diaspora it is usually a time for cultural stock-taking, for remembering the past and celebrating African- American contribution to American history particularly, and the black world’s input to world history generally.

This annual memoriam began in the USA as the “Negro History Week,” initiated by Dr. Carter G. Woodson in 1926 and celebrated during the second week of February in recognition of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglas. It has since become an event marked world-wide, even if to different degrees of pomp or solemnity. Woodson, whose parents were manumitted American slaves, rose from the suffocating hell-hole of the Kentucky coal mines to the liberating airs of Harvard lecture halls, finishing with a doctorate. In his scholarly work he realised that black contributions to American civilisation was, at best, carefully occluded from history or, at worst, discursively misrepresented. Woodson had the foresight to inaugurate an Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (now African-American Life and History) in 1915, and start a “Journal of Negro History” in 1916. The cultural ferment of the Harlem Renaissance of the 20s and 30s in the USA must have been an opportune and historical moment for the launching of what has now come to be the Black History Month.

Year after year this commemoration of black history and culture is sung loudly and deservedly. Nevertheless the recuperative project carries at its heart – or rather in its head or mind – a crippling and disturbing amnesia. History is about memory. It is ironic that even as it tries to remember, African-America seems to have lost its memory on the ocean floor of the middle passage and forgotten its name.  The rhetorical question is often asked, either cynically or in sincere bemusement, ‘what is in a name?’ There is a lot in a name. Apart from being a code announcing a referent (i.e. the individual) a name is a genealogical shorthand in most cultures, especially in African culture. It announces people and sets them apart from everyone else; it is a marker of difference. In cases where there seems to be the danger of sameness due to replications of first names, the surname, the patronym or matronym, as the case might be, sometimes qualified by middle names, restores difference. In African culture a child’s first name can tell family stories, refer to particular circumstances and aspirations. Names are usually never hollow words. Beyond these physical attributes of a name, there is also a psychological component to them. In certain cultures names are believed to be symbiotic with the bearer’s predispositions or to predispose individuals to qualities evoked by such names. Surely no one would name their children Hitler, Nebuchadnezzar, Satan or Polpot, out of fear of calling up characteristics attaching to such monikers. On the contrary people name children after cherished role models. But more important than all of this is the poetry in a name; its psychic resonance and ontological conditioning of subjects.

The word, poetry, conjures up images of the sublime, poignancy and value. As a descriptive, poetry’s name is accorded all manner of objects, in an effort to lend them characteristics of the poetic – even if such objects may sometimes not measure up to such qualities. The reason for such an appropriation of poetry would most likely be an intention to ‘announce’ what an object is, and what it is not, in other words a desire to differentiate it from other objects. The ‘naming’ of the object as poetry then gives to it, facile as that might be, the quality or tendency of being ‘poetry.’ The named object announces the name of its inner essence. It says, “I am poetry.”

African-America says it is ‘African’ and it is ‘American;’ it has a double heritage. Nevertheless in her first and last names, we do not find any African essence; American, that is, European essences are there aplenty but where is the African. True, it can be argued that a name, most likely, does not coincide with the inner reality of the person. Nevertheless it does define a tendency and announce its inner essence; more importantly, in situations of dislocation, of the search for roots and in the project of self-recovery it becomes important to lay claim to that cultural DNA – in the African-American case, to an African name.

It is hard to come across a European with an African name – except perhaps for the unusual and notable case of Adunni Olorisha, formerly Suzanne Wenger, the Austrian Orisha priestess at the Osun Grove in Oshogbo, Nigeria. She is a negligible lone number if we are to consider the several millions of Europeans in the world. Perhaps it will have more resonance if one were to ask rhetorically, “how many white Americans or (that is, Europeans) have African names?” Why then should practically all African-Americans bear European names, especially if such names defeat the whole idea of a search for roots in the idea of a ‘Study of African-American Life and History’? It is important to note that an increasing number of Africans on the continent are equally guilty of this practice. Some see European names as a modernising gambit, some excuse it on the grounds of religion; religions that were imposed with brutishness in the first place, that act as dislocating imperatives. It is true that historical forces have shaped or misshapen subjectivity, nevertheless a search for roots should begin with self-reinvention, of which strategic naming is an important and symbolic starting point.

  A handful of African-Americans have adopted names different from their European names, even if sometimes they are not really African names. We have the famous example of Cassius Clay, who became Mohammed Ali. In reproach of Ernie Terrel, a 1967 opponent in the ring, Ali says: “Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name - it means beloved of God - and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.”  ‘It is a slave name’ – that, then, is the crux of the matter. Malcolm, in a very clear rejection of the slave heritage added X to his name and became Malcolm X. Why should African-America continue to burden itself with slave names when they are free? Ali defines and re-invents himself and even explains what the adopted name means. There are other examples: Leroy Jones becomes Amiri Baraka. These three are only token famous examples. There are surely many more but too few considering the millions of African-Americans who live still in the prison-houses of Master’s name, those monikers of ownership; a branding with odious words on the psychic body, as with hot irons on the physical body. Surely there can be no clear reason other than habit for retaining such names as ‘ Jimmy Winterbottom’ or ‘Calvin James’ – habit and laziness, complacency or an ignorance of a name’s psychic import; and of course amnesia, loss of memory.

Retention of plantation names is sometimes linked to their ‘Christian’ resonance; It is a strange irony that that religion, Christianity, which enabled slavery for hundred of years with its Hamitic ideology, should becomes a reason to keep a serf’s name. Ali linked his new self-image to Islam. This is another irony considering that Islam was the harbinger of external slavery in Africa. Islam started the slave trade in Africa in the 7th century BC, long before Portuguese raids on the coast of Africa in the 1400s – with the blessing of the Holy See. Of course there was slavery in Africa too before the external incursions into its hinterland. Unpardonable as that domestic form of slavery was, it was not anything like the bestiality attached to European and Arab slavery in Africa. The idea of a slave in Africa is benign indeed in comparison. They were usually prisoners of warfare between the old African Kingdoms; sometimes they were debtors or criminals punished by being sent off into a domestic kind of slavery. But they were not branded with hot irons; they did not live in deplorable slave quarters. They had as much rights as any other human being, except that they owed allegiance to a king, courtly official, a warrior or liege lord. African slavery was rather similar to the feudal system in medieval Europe but different in that slaves in ancient Africa could become kings in their new communities; their position was not much different from that of the domestic servant or a butler in some cases. They often became members of the family to which they were indebted.

 Some African-Americans sometimes conflate that benign kind of servitude to the barbarism of classic European slavery and accuse Africa of being involved in their enslavement, forgetting that the superior logic of the European Maxim gun was involved. The close-knit filial arrangement within the African Ecumene (which includes the serf) abhors the kind of inhumanity visited on those taken away in the middle passage. Surely those African chiefs who took part willingly or not in the slave trade, where not aware of the horrors awaiting the slave across the oceans; it is very doubtful that they had any inkling of it. They presumed such ‘slaves’ were going to be members of other households elsewhere, even if as servants but not as slaves in the modern European sense of it. When they did come to suspect the true situation, they resisted but had guns put to their heads, and people were still forcibly carted off as slaves across the waters.

Having lost the knowledge, or being ignorant, of the organic structure of the African Ecumene, some Neocon African-American thinkers lay the blame of slavery fully at Africa’s doorstep. One such effort is the PBS documentary, “Wonders of the African World”. If for argument’s sake, we even agree that Africa had an ill-intent and sold its own into classic European slavery, is this not reasons enough for African-America to cast away such slave names as has been inherited from their European Masters? Retaining these names jeopardise the project of self-reinvention inaugurated by the Black History Month and emphasised by the Pan-Africanist work of Du Bois, Alain Locke, Marcus Garvey  and by the cultural self-assertion of the Harlem Renaissance and the Civil rights and Black Arts movements.

As the Black History Month is celebrated year after year, it is time it tread the path towards complete self-knowledge, and insist on renouncing names originally designed to make of free human beings mere property. The poetry of a name is in its connection to the inner life-world of the bearer. When a name is emptied of genealogical, patro- or matronymical descent it rings empty; the named is hollowed out as descent is broken, truncated by some border zones of anonymity and alienation. It is worse still when such names can only be traced back as far as the brutality of some plantation in Virginia.  This is indeed a mis-history. It is time African-America begins to say to itself, like the poet-persona in Gerard Manly Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”: What I speak is me; myself I speak and spell!



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Amatoritsero Ede

Sentinel Poetry (Online) #51    ISSN 1479-425X


Editor-in-Chief: Amatoritsero Ede

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