|Director Nzingha Sterwart at the 17th Annual Image Awards|
“For the longest time, when I would show up places people would expect to see an Asian woman, not a black man,” says my friend Sekou, one day in conversation. It’s been argued for years that the ancient Japanese
migrated from Africa, so why not? Now I’m thinking about African
Americans with African names, and how their experience must differ from the rest of us. I do a Google search to read up on the topic and there’s nada. Guess I gotta research it myself…
“Early on, I didn’t know that my name was different,” says Sekou. “At the private black school I went to in Boston, we sang the black
national anthem, celebrated Kwanzaa and everyone had names like Nzingha
and Kumba.” His world got turned upside down when he found
himself at an all black middle school in Atlanta where teasing him was a favorite pastime.
It got so bad that he asked his teacher if she could start calling
him by his middle name. The teacher told his mom and
then it became a big deal, so the name change never happened, but it
was ultimately good because things shifted again by high school. Now at
an international school, Sekou recalls his name being a source of
fascination. He found himself explaining that it means ‘scholarly’ or
‘fighter,’ depending on the translation, and he also got to talk about
Ahmed Sekou Toure, the President of Guinea. For the first time in his
life, he felt ‘name envy’ by other students. By college, he attended the historically
black Morehouse, where there were Sekous around every corner, including a
direct relative of Ahmed Sekou Toure! Looking back though, would he give his kid an African name? I ask him.
“Yes, because it’s important to have a name that means something,” he says. “It gives the person a level of gravitas.”
If an African name can imbue someone with a certain sense of
gravitas, imagine if your name is actually Africa. Such is the case with
Africa Angel Martin, who runs the kitchen at my daughter’s preschool, and has gravitas by the ton. “My father, who was a black panther, let me know from an
early age that I’m a woman of culture, and I have an image to uphold no
matter what my age,” says Africa, now in her early 40s. Like Sekou, she
was also teased growing up. “I found that having the name Africa caused
me to be rebellious, because I was always ready to come back at anyone
who was trying to antagonize me.”
Ultimately, it did affect how she felt about the name, and even though she knew people were just being ignorant, she chose not to give an African name to her daughter.
“To get teased like that so young can cause you to feel like a little
mouse in a corner. I didn’t want her to go through that.”
So today, how does she feel about the name? “Oh, I feel special. I feel unique. I know that I’m a Queen and the name carries a lot of power,” says Africa.
Next, I reach out to a woman I met a few years ago, “Love By The 10th Date” director Nzingha Stewart. Turns out, she didn’t grow up with the name, she chose it
some 20 years ago after a trip to Senegal where she visited ‘the point of
no return’ in Goree Island.
“The tour guide explained that once you
crossed this line you were property and couldn’t have your name anymore.
If anybody called you by that name, their tongue would be cut out,”
explains Nzingha. “The fact that they took away these people’s identity
was so heart-wrenching to me that I changed my name to honor them.” She
‘from the water,’ and since I’m a water sign and from Jamaica, it felt
right. Also, there’s the story of Queen Nzingha and how she fought the
Portuguese and kept Angolans from getting taken as slaves. It’s
And how did her family react? I’m curious to know.
“My mom’s side was much better with it, my dad’s side wouldn’t call me Nzingha for a very long time, my grandmother still doesn’t, and my father calls me by a nickname. Friends learned to use Nzingha once I stopped responding to anything else,” she says. “More than anything, I love that it gives me an opportunity to educate people about how systematic the programming of slavery was.”
Ultimately, what I learned about African Americans with African names is that the saying is true, “behind every name there is a story.”