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Evening And The African American Name

Jan 20, 2008
A few years ago, the authors of Freakonomics published a list of the most popular names for African American children from the previous decade. I read the list, laughed along with the other readers at the multiple spellings of Jasmine (Jazmin, Jasmeen, Yasmin, etc.), and nodded knowingly at the differences between our names and those of mainstream America.

However, soon after reading the book, my predilection for etymology got the best of me and I started researching the histories of the names most strongly associated with African Americans. The results that I found, the interconnectedness of "our" names with names from Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, led me to rethink the whole concept of race, identity, and the true meaning of a name. I would like you to join me on a trek through the history of several "African American names": Terrell, Aaliyah, and Jasmine. Let us examine them, and wonder together on what those histories should mean to black America today.

Terrell

In the modern US, it takes investigative muscle to find a non-African American with the first name Terrell. However, the name itself traces back to the British house of Terrell, which dates back further than 1086AD. Interestingly, back in the days when the name first appeared, the English language was not standardized so the name enjoyed as many written flavors as it does today: "Terrell", "Tyrell", "Tirell", and "Turrell" all referred to the same family.

Now, at some point in the 17th century, the first Terrells traveled from England to the New World, settling all along the east coast: Boston, Virginia, and Barbados. Centuries later, in Alabama, a white descendant, John Dabney Terrell, interfaced with his many black slaves who eventually adopted the name either forcibly or by choice. There, within the black community, this name transitioned from surname to a first name for males, finding it on the social subconscious of the US by 2005, and fifth in the US Census list of popular African American male names. Today the first name Terrell occurs with higher frequency in the United States than even its parent English surname.

Aaliyah

It is difficult to mention the name Aaliyah in the United States without salting the raw wound of loss for the bright African American R&B star in the 1990s. However, since that singer's death, the name has become so strongly associated with African America that it ranks fourth among the African American names in the US census list.

However, the name was not created by the black community, nor does its history involve any sort of "ghetto" fascination, as some would spit. Aaliyah is the feminization of the Arabic "Ali", which means "high", "lofty", or "sublime". The original Ali himself was both cousin and son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad, and led the fourth caliphate of the Muslim world. His followers gave rise to today's Shiite Muslims.

What we find is that the name Aaliyah, though associated with US black culture, keeps its roots deep in the Arabian peninsula, intimate with the birth of a major contemporary religion.

Jasmine

The final name we delve into today has traveled the whole world over to find its place on the tongues of African American mothers around the nation. "Jasmine", "Jazmin", "Yasmin", "Yasmeen", all of which whirl back to arid ancient Persia, where the fragrant Yasmin bush was first named. The jasmine bush has had a place in the royal courts of Arabia, the halls of Chinese medicine, and the annals of western literature:

"In the long summer evenings we went up to the terrace. On the moss-covered bricks, between the railings and the white-washed walls, there was the jasmine bush, its dark branches covered with little white corollas, next to the moonflower vine, which at that hour was opening its little blue bells."

-Luis Cernuda (Transl. Stephen Kessler), Evening.

The Meaning For Today

Whenever I read that poem by Cernuda, I can never help but think that African America is synonymous with the moonflower vine, and that each little blue bell represents an individual being born, growing, or dying in this country. I think of those million small bells, each one ignorant of the vine that ties its fate to the fate of the rest, and even to the fate of this vast arid world that gives our many-flowered vine sunlight and water.

Dear Terrell, you are black, but also an extended member of former royalty. Aaliyah, your fate is linked to another young girl, Aaliyah, who cowers between fear and gunshots in a dark house in Baghdad. Jasmine, your fragrance has influenced the civilizations of the earth; be proud and strong in this one evening of many evenings to come.

My brothers, my family, connected to me by green ties of blood and culture, let us recognize not only our place in the world, but also the place of our names that have traveled great distances to lie down in our hearts and share with us this wind-tossed existence.
About the Author
Ian Spellfield explores the most frequently used African American names through the lens of history in his blog, Black Ghetto Baby Names.
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