Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Slave Names and Identity

I haven't posted lately; I've been up to here [waves at eyeballs] with research and fieldwork and teaching, oh my!

I stumbled across this during research for a project I'm working on. It directly contradicts the chestnut that freed slaves necessarily retained the surnames of their last owner. If this idea of agency is extended, perhaps there is no reason to believe that slaves retained their last white-bestowed given names, either.

"At that conference, C.C.Gaines, a Hudson River Valley college president, recalled that slave surnames sometimes revealed a 'mark peculiar to the person or incident to his history.' Forexample, sold slaves 'often were known by the surname of an original master who might then be dead.' Gaines commented: 'You will find many negroes to-day who do not retain the surname of their last owner, but are known by that of a remote ancestor who years ago came out of another estate. [Ex-slaves] chose such names as they pleased, and many of them observed such reasonable rules as to ancestry as naturally applied.' Gutman's research showed that 'ex-slaves put aside a final owner's surname and replaced it with either the surname of an earlier owner or the surname of a parent's or a grandparent's owner.... Sale or separation for other reasons, from a slave family of origin encouraged slaves to retain different surnames from their newowners."

Quinn, Edythe Ann (2003) The Kinship System in The Hills, An African American Community inWestchester, New York, in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. IN Myra B. Young Armstead, Mighty Change, Tall Within: Black Identity in the Hudson Valley, State University of New York Press, Albany, New York, pp. 95-120. Worldcat Link.

Certainly, this makes it more challenging to trace individuals in their transition from slave to free using census data, etc. And this is something I've run into in the work I'm doing right now; earlier research assumed the family's surname was that of the patriarch's last owner. Beyond that, though, I am intrigued about the opportunity by people who are generally seen to have little control in their lives (owned, then free, but perhaps indentured; poor; etc.) to create their own identity, and by extension, that of their future families. Sure, I can go change my name at the DMV, but this was an entire group of people over a long period of time. Are there other examples where entire classes of people have the opportunity to select their own, legal names? I have more to think about this, but I find it very interesting.

I also have a post brewing about Native American slavery that you just don't hear about...

1 comment:

Digger said...

Follow-up. In answer to my own question re: Is there another class of people who have the opportunity to choose their own names.

Yes. Immigrants. Part of my recent Immigration Interview (wherein I became a freshly-minted American Citizen) was "Do you want to change your name." For a millisecond, I toyed with the idea of becoming anyone at all. Then I kept my own name. But, every single immigrant is, at their interview, asked this question.