If you are considering a name change, there is much more to it than the legal forms. The process is straightforward if the change is due to marriage. Selecting an African name, however, adds some cultural flavoring and traditions to the decision. I changed my full name in 2003 to an African name and it marked an important turning point for me. Expressing the benefits are extensive and are captured in part from the title of the song, "Free" by Denise Williams. "I just want to be free..., and I've just got to be me..." beautifully reflect the sentiments of the reasons many decide on an African name. In this post I will attempt to share some of the key reasons to consider changing to an African name and where to turn to get started with it.
I'm a firm believer in defining your own process. The second principle of Kwanzaa is "Kujichagulia." Maulana Karenga's book, "Kwanzaa - A Celebration of Family, Community, and Culture" expands on the principle, "to define ourselves, name ourselves, create for ourselves, and speak for ourselves." In other words, your experience and reasoning are as valid as anyone else's. I would just suggest that you think it through so that it has meaning for you. No need to rush this, take your time and ponder it over.
Haste and hurry can only bear children with many regrets. - African Proverb
When I started considering whether I should change my name, the first people I thought of were my parents. I respect Irving and Ragina Bunton greatly. They worked hard to bring five children into the world and provide for us. I never wanted them to think that I had decided to run away from the family legacy. I wanted them to understand that I still respected them tremendously, and I was going through a cultural metamorphosis on the inside. After learning more about our history as a people, I felt that it was time to honor that in every aspect of my life. And I mean literally ALL aspects. Understanding and appreciating the contributions of my African ancestry was cause for celebration and I chose to mark the occasion with a name change.
There are many reasons people decide to change to an African name. I felt that after reading the rich history of our Ancestors my former name "Jill Patrice Bunton" no longer fit with where I was heading in the world. Here are some reasons notable figures in our history decided to make the change:
Step 1. Why are you changing your name?
Self reflection is key. Whatever your reason for the change, please understand that you will be asked repeatedly WHY, why why. Some will make fun of you, some will not honor your decision and constantly call you by your former name. Some may just forget to call you the new name out of habit and may have made an honest slip. Either way, you should be ready with a response, even if it's to ignore it. I'm so thankful I took my time in making the change. I thought through many of the scenarios that came up, and I was already being called by my African name long before I filled out the paperwork. I wanted to "try it on" so to speak before going all the way.
Here are the steps I took to change to an African name:
1. Asked trusted friends, community members and Africans from the continent that I knew if they had any suggestions.
2. Read and browsed books on African heritage and African names
3. Selected a name that resonated with me.
4. Asked permission from my parents
5. Scheduled Naming Ceremony and invited Community members
6. Filled out paperwork for legal name change
Step 2. Name Selection
African traditional naming ceremonies ask an elder to select a name to suit the child. If you have a relative or community member who you are comfortable with, feel free to go this route. I knew as soon as I read my African name for the very first time that it was the one though I hadn't made a decision on who I would ask to name me. It was so clear and unmistakable. The name of the book I was reading was, "African Women in Antiquity" by Ivan Van Sertima. The essay was by Dr. John Henrik Clarke, the great. I'm not sure exactly why I knew at that specific day back in 2002. Of course I remember exactly where and what I was doing. I was seated in a large waiting room for jury selection. It was the most boring place to be, but thankfully I'd prepared myself by bringing a literary classic in with me. And for the younger generation reading this, that was when they didn't even allow computers into the waiting room. It was tough to sit there waiting for your number to be called with a bunch of strangers and a lone television playing soap operas. Nonetheless, while waiting and reading, reading that name was like hearing a bell chime amidst the low-key chatter in the room. I knew my search for a name had ended. Nzingha Mbande (1582–1663 ) was a great Queen of the Congo who fought to save her people from enslavement by the Portugese in the 17th century. I was mesmerized by her story and imagined the strength it took to survive the blood thirsty fangs of slavery. Her story gave me bigger dreams to strive for. Also, her nickname was "Jinga." The significance of this for me was monumental. When I first started asking Africans for their input, I also asked if there was a name in their native language that meant "quiet storm." I felt this term best described my personality and thought it would be appropriate. After I didn't receive any response over weeks time, I dropped it thinking the name would come by another means. And when I least suspected it, the ultimate happened. Days later, I was reading a tourism book on Uganda which spoke about Victoria Falls. I learned that the native people from the area called the Falls, "Jinga" which translated to "smoke that thunders," which for me was a close enough relative to the meaning behind "quiet storm." It was then that I felt I'd received confirmation that Nzingha would be my name.
Step 3. Legalize it
As you can see, the last step on my list was the legal paperwork. By the time I got to that step, it felt like old news to tell the "authorities" about my decision. I went downtown to fill out the paperwork at the Daley Center with the new name. That part was quick. The fee was about $300 in 2003. The steps I took were: 1. Fill out Change Name forms, 2. Advertise in newspaper's classified section. This part took about 3 months. Please check your state and county. Forms vary by region. Here is a link for Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
The other reason I think it's important to take this last step is it makes the strongest statement to the world of the importance of the decision. I have a new social security card and everything. It is almost like a rite of passage all by itself to do this part. Your checks have to be updated, your lease, etc. It's a big deal and each step along the way empowers your resolve and clarifies your decision. I've noticed that some people stop short of this last step which I'll liken to baseball in that you hit a home run when you went up to bat, got around to third base and never crossed the home plate. It is incomplete and why go so far to stop just before completion. Yes, it is a financial commitment that you may have to budget for that will earn interest long after you've made the investment.
Some may say, why "ask your parents permission," since I was a grown woman at 38 years of age. Though I'd heard many stories about families who never honored the decision of a name change, I wanted to at least attempt to gain acceptance. I wanted no regrets. I respect my parents greatly and thought I'd do it even if they didn't accept, but I felt that since I was making the decision whole-heartedly and shared all the reasons with them, that they'd understand and support my decision. Skipping over this step would have been disrespectful in my eyes. I never wanted them to feel that I didn't care how they felt about it, and thought it was a true test of fate to find out if I could humble myself to ask even though I was "grown." I was so happy when AFTER ONE YEAR, they agreed. Perhaps they thought I may change my mind in that time, but I didn't and felt even more fortified to move forward. By this time, I'd already quit my job, started a business (Afriware Books, Co), got rid of my perm and changed my diet, perhaps it felt like a minor formality. Though I knew that taking on a new name would make it more difficult to connect me to my family if someone was tracing my history, I felt the benefits outweighed this challenge. Whenever and wherever I can, I'm honored to profess my LOVE-to-the-bone for them. And, in today's technologically astute world, you can google everything to find the connection.
The naming ceremony was a grand occasion. I held it at my store, Afriware Books, Co when it was located on Lake Street in the heart of Oak Park. We had libations, music, testimonies from friends and family, and I shared my reason behind the selection.
I'll close by saying I wish you the best on your journey in learning about our African Heritage. It you decide to change your name to an African name, may it hold deep meaning and inspiration for you. Each time you hear it may you be reminded of our heritage and the tall shoulders on which we stand. May you be reminded that there's much work to be done. May you be reminded of our history of excellence. Be empowered, inspired and uplifted.
The books mentioned in this post are: