Excerpt- The African Book of Names

What’s My Name? Reintroducing African Names to the World

The purity of your name is worth more than the purity of your body. -Tunisia

A few years before I was born, heavyweight boxer Cassius Clay rejected his name, saying “Cassius Clay” lacked “divine meaning.” “Cassius Clay is a slave name,” he said. “I didn’t choose it, and I didn’t want it. I am Muhammad Ali, a free name—it means ‘beloved of God’—and I insist people use it when speaking to me and of me.’’

True to his word, Ali verbally and physically insisted on the use of his new name. When Floyd Patterson called Ali “Clay,” Ali publicly punished Patterson for twelve rounds, neglecting to knock out an obviously hurt Patterson. Then, during a 1967 pre-fight press conference, Ernie Terrell refused to call Ali by his rightful name, instead referring to the people’s champ as “Cassius Clay.” Ali told Terrell he would punish him just as he head punished Patterson. Ali beat on Terrell for fifteen rounds, hurting him badly, but not knocking him out. He even held Terrell up while battering him with punches. Ali repeatedly (and loudly) asked Terrell, “What’s my name? What’s my name, fool?”

“Get used to me,” Ali said. “Black, confident, cocky—my name, not yours. My religion, not yours. My goals, my own. Get used to me.” Shortly after the fight, Muhammad Ali apologized for taunting Terrell during the fight. He did so, Ali said, so that people would respect his beliefs and his name. Muhammad Ali was one of many who paved the way for other African-descended people to reject European names and adopt African names. Today, the name Muhammad Ali remains one of the most recognized names in the world.

In 1971, one of my favorite professional basketball players legally changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Discussing the change, Abdul- Jabbar said he was latching on to something that was part of his heritage. A French planter named Alcindor brought Abdul-Jabbar’s family to America. However, his people were Yoruba, a culture that survived slavery. “All I needed to know [was] that, hey, I was somebody, even if nobody else knew about it. When I was a kid, no one would believe anything positive that you could say about Black people. And that’s a terrible burden on Black people, because they don’t have an accurate idea of their history, which has been either suppressed or distorted,” said Abdul-Jabbar. In choosing a new name, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar indicated he intended to be generous, kind, and possess religious devotion and courage. As author Richard Moore said, “Slaves and dogs are named by their masters. Free men name themselves.”

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