I got this idea from the filmmaker Ava DuVernay. Not directly. She didn’t tell me this. In fact, she’s never said anything like this (as far as I know). Yet, in that funny way the world works I got the idea from her. Well, Ava and Game of Thrones. In the hours just before the premiere of the 7th season she tweeted out what her GoT name and house and sigil and house motto would be if she were on the show. She asked her followers to share what their names and houses would be. Normally, I don’t play along much on Twitter, but I love Game of Thrones and Ava, so I did. When I typed the first words of the tweet I couldn’t get past “I am Zaron of House Burnett…” I paused.
A century-and-a-half after the end of slavery and I’m still identifying with the name of the slave-owner who once owned my family. That’s my house. Their house. That sucks. That’s a bone deep pain, one hidden and held in the letters of my last name. And after I posted my response tweet to Ava, that pain of slavery got me thinking of one question.
What if Black Americans ditched our slaves names? What if we cut that psychic chain that binds us to slavery in name and deed?
We could do it. I was thinking we could do it on the next Juneteenth. It’s the day Black America marks the end of slavery. It’s an exceedingly special day for us. So, what if we commemorate it next year by all Black Americans going down to their county courthouses and applying for a name change? Can you imagine that? It would be one of the greatest protests in the history of America. And y’all know we could have some fun coming up with new last names.
But most importantly it would sever that everlasting connection to our slave past. It would be a massive act of freedom for Black America. It would force the nation to confront the legacy of slavery. Most white people in America have never considered what it means to walk around with the name of the family that once owned your family. Just imagine if all Black America changed their names on the same day.
If you’re black you may be reading this and thinking, “baby bruh, why the hell would I want to do that? Then I’d have to go and change my name on all my credit cards, my driver’s license, all my official paperwork, subscriptions, prescriptions, medical records, legal documents, all sorts of shit.” Yes, you would. But think about this. Married women do that every day. Nearly every time a woman gets married in America, she changes her name. If most all of the married women in America can change their names, it’s not impossible for all of Black America to change their names.
Thinking back on its genesis, this idea really has two parents — both of them are tweets. Other than Ava’s GoT tweet, there was another tweet, one that was about a photo of a Native American woman. In all of human history, few peoples have created such beautiful and strangely poetic names as certain tribes of Native Americans. That’s not to fetishize them. It’s just aesthetically true. (Well, at least to me it is.) The tweet I’m referencing focused on a woman named: Baaitchilappeesh. She was a Crow. Her husband’s name translated as Rides A White Hipped Horse. Her name translates as Kills Pretty Ones.
How fucking dope is that? Imagine being able to legit roll into a party and be like, “Thanks for having us, have you met my wife, Kills Pretty Ones?” So badass. That silly little daydream––fun as it was––made me hate my slave name all the more. And, more precisely, it made me question why I keep it.
Malcolm X: “During slavery, the same slave master who owned us put his last name on us to denote that we were his property. So when you see a negro today who’s named Johnson, if you go back in his history you will find that his grandfather, or one of his forefathers, was owned by a white man who was named Johnson. If his name was Bunch, his grandfather was owned by a white man that was named Bunch.”
Interviewer: “I get your point. Would you mind telling me what your father’s name was?”
Malcolm X: “My father didn’t know his last name. My father got his last name from his grandfather, and his grandfather got it from his grandfather, who got it from the slave master. The real names of our people were destroyed during slavery.”
Think about that. No, for real. Think about that. If you aren’t black, you may have never considered what it means to walk around carrying the mark of your family’s slave master. If you think about it too much and too deeply and it’ll fuck you up. That’s probably why many, if not most, Black Americans never think about it. Not really. It’s just too dark and too visceral and too real to consciously remember that every day when you put your name on something you’re extending the reach of your former slave master.
Every time a black athlete is celebrated––unless it’s someone supremely woke like Muhammad Ali or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar or even Metta World Peace, who consciously changed their name to suit themselves––that world famous athlete makes their family’s former slave master more famous. Same for every black CEO, every actress or actor, every black politician, and every black activist. When their name shows up in the press they honor and extend their family’s former slave master’s memory. That’s fucked up. Which is why Muhammad Ali said this of his birth name:
“Cassius Clay is a slave name. I didn’t choose it and I don’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name — it means beloved of God, and I insist people use it when people speak to me.”
You know where you also find this same power of self-applied names? Hip-hop. Think about it. Jay Z just changed his name back to Jay-Z. This may seem like nothing new. But it’s important because it’s about the fact he made Jay-Z famous. It’s his name and he could do with it whatever he wants. And sure, we all know his real name is Shawn Carter. But it’s also not. His real name is Jay-Z. That’s who the world honors. And it’s true for Bey, too. She may be Beyoncé Knowles. But we all know and think of her as Beyoncé. A singular phenomenon. Which is what all Black Americans should feel like. A singular phenomenon, a person unto themselves, free from the painful and horrific history of slavery. Free people.
So, with all that in mind, Black America, what will your new name be?