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From Slave Capture to Renaming

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Picture yourself walking along enjoying life when suddenly a fishnet is thrown over you and renders you completely helpless. Your mind immediately goes into a survival mode -- a place far deeper than your self-esteem or your mental sanity -- a place where your self-identity lies -- a place to which an Ancient African’s birth name referred.

What are you going to do now? This is the situation Africans were in when captured by fellow Africans and forever enslaved. A significant number of slaves came out of highly cultured societies, including the Moslem empires of the Western Sudan.

They and slaves from the western interior and from along the old Ivory Coast (Gulf of Guinea), the Gold Coast (Ghana, home of the Ashanti), and remaining Slave Coast (Nigeria, Benin, Togo) ranged from being quite educated, intelligent, cultured, and in possession of pride and noble character down to a “normal” level. Nevertheless, from the moment of their capture they experienced every conceivable mental, spiritual, and physical trauma.

First there was the physical torment of the long march, perhaps a1000 miles, from the point of capture (particularly in interior Africa) to the sea. Tied together by their necks (using wood or iron coffles), the slaves walked barefoot for weeks through steaming deserts and jungles. Those unable to keep up were abandoned to die a slow death from a lack of water or food.

They left a trail of skeletons. Arriving at a coastal trading port, the slaves experienced the personal emotional shock of being displayed naked for sale to the European slave traders. Once bought, they were branded like cattle and herded into barracoons or onto ships. The trauma which most threatened even their mental and physical survival was the horrible Middle Passage -- a trip so brutal that it has never been equaled in history before or since.

About a third died on their walk to the coast and another third died during the trip to the Americas or from the “seasoning” that followed. Most slaves landed first in the West Indies (especially Jamaica) where they were “seasoned” or “broken-in” to their new roles as slaves. Those not dropped off in the islands were shipped to the USA. Once at their destinations, “registration” involved being put through all sorts of indignities, including animal type inspections while naked.

Then the slaves experienced a spiritual impact -- being marked with a number. This number symbolized the loss of each individual’s name and hence his/her self-identity symbol. Eventually, the slaves were given new names -- either by traders or by their new masters.

New names were even more spiritually devastating because that went past removing who they were as an individual. Since an African name held the course of things in train and changes in one’s life and transformed the one so named, the new name made each who he/she was not.
This created great confusion: “Am I my new name or am I still my old name? Is this the work of the evil spirits or by my bad karma?”

To worsen matters, a given new label applied only to one aspect of a slave’s nature (whereas his/her original name referred to a total identity). This was an effective way to fragment a slave’s sanity. Then the captors turned their attention to working on the slaves’ self-esteem.

For the male, this was done by removing his honorific attachment to fatherhood and manhood by being addressed as “boy” The master became the “father.” Once the vigorous years of his prime were passed, he was allowed to assume the title of “uncle.”

Females were called “gal,” girl, or the name of some animal. It was against plantation etiquette to use titles for the slaves. Today, so as to help a Black person fashion a “real” identity, Black Muslims have insisted on discarding any “slave name” and returning to African names.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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