Culture  /  Explainer

What’s In a Black Name? 400 Years of Context.

From Phillis Wheatley to Lil Uzi Vert, Black names and their evolution tell the story of America.

Changing one’s name might be one of the most American things a Black person can do, emblematic of one of the country’s most enduring, if elusive, promises: that where you begin isn’t necessarily where you must end.

One can find themselves introduced to the world as Chloe Anthony Wofford and exit it as Toni Morrison, or begin life as Gloria Jean Watkins and conclude it as bell hooks.

Behind a name lies an expanse of motivations, possibilities and intentions. A name, chosen, repeated and stubbornly asserted, can point to reclamation, remembrance and self-determination, as it did for many kidnapped and enslaved Africans who fought to hold fast to their homelands. For enslaved Americans running away to emancipate themselves, a name change could be just as much about security as self-possession.

But changing what we call ourselves can also be rooted in serendipity, frivolity, decadence, braggadocio and, yeah, capitalism. It can be an artistic identity. A way of affirming — or rejecting — gender identities. It can simultaneously be an embrace of Blackness and a rejection of white supremacy, a way of establishing community or political identity. Today, The Undefeated joins in this long tradition as we change our name to Andscape. The throughline across all these name changes, almost always, is power.

Let’s begin with slavery and the story of poet Phillis Wheatley, one of the nation’s first Black celebrities. Author of the 1773 collection Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Wheatley was born in West Africa around 1753. Her first name, Phillis, comes from the name of the ship that brought her as chattel to the American colonies. Her surname, like that of many enslaved people, came from the white family who bought her and taught her to read, write and speak English. She was, horrifically, almost a pet to the Wheatleys, who were regarded as beneficent enslavers. Wheatley was raised to suit their tastes and beliefs. After her eventual manumission, she married a free Black Bostonian named John Peters. She died penniless in a Boston boarding house at age 31.

As the country grew and enslaved Black people began to seek liberty, their choices in names began to reflect their agency. Take, for instance, the Africans who arrived at the port of Charleston, South Carolina, were sold at its slave market, and later ran away. Newspaper notices placed by white slaveholders often included an Anglo name and a “country” name, according to research published by the Charleston County Public Library: