Jewish World Review March 18, 2002 / 5 Nisan, 5762

Thomas Sowell

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Naming names | Did anyone ever call Franklin D. Roosevelt a "Dutch American" or Dwight Eisenhower a "German American"? It would have been resented, not only by them and their supporters, but by Americans in general. These men were Americans -- not hyphenated Americans or half Americans.

Most black families in the United States today have been here longer than most white families. No one except the American Indians can claim to have been on American soil longer. Why then call blacks in the United States "African Americans," when not even their great-great-great-grandparents ever laid eyes on Africa?

It is certainly understandable that activists, politicians and others who wish to divide Americans for their own purposes would push the notion of "African Americans." They also push such things as the "African" holiday Kwanzaa -- which originated in Los Angeles -- and "black English" or "ebonics," which originated centuries ago in particular localities in Britain, and is wholly unknown in Africa.

Names are just part of the process of creating wholesale frauds about the past, in order to advance special agendas in the present. Personal names are also part of that fraud.

The vogue of repudiating black family names that supposedly were given by slaveowners in times past is another reflection of the widespread ignorance of history among Americans in general, as a result of our dumbed-down education. Slaves were not only not given family names, they were forbidden to have family names.

In many parts of the world, family names began with the elites, and only over the centuries moved down the social scale until ordinary people were allowed to have them. In England, common people began to have family names only after the Middle Ages, and in Japan it was the late 19th century before commoners could use family names. It was the 20th century before ordinary people in Iran were allowed -- and directed -- to have family names.

Slaveowners in the American antebellum South were especially opposed to slaves having family names because such names emphasized family ties -- and the only legally recognized tie of a slave was to his owner, who could sell him miles away from his kin.

The slaves themselves, however, used family names to create a sense of family, though they were careful not to use these names around whites. Even after Emancipation, blacks who had been raised in slavery often hesitated when some white person asked them their family name.

The so-called "slave names" that so many blacks began repudiating in the 1960s, were neither given to them by slaveowners nor were they usually the slaveowners' family names. They were names chosen despite prohibitions, in order to symbolize family ties that were often stronger than those in today's ghettoes.

The late Herbert Gutman -- a tough-minded historian -- was once on the verge of tears as he described the desperate efforts of blacks in the years after Emancipation to try to find family members who had been sold, sometimes hundreds of miles away. These poor and illiterate people would find somebody who could read and write, who would write what were called "inquiring letters" to black churches in the South. In these churches, someone would then read these letters aloud to the congregations, asking if anybody who knew anything about the person being sought would speak up, so that this family could be reunited again.

Those who try to claim that the shattered families in today's ghettoes are "a legacy of slavery" ignore the fact that, a hundred years ago, a slightly higher percentage of blacks than of whites were married and most black children were raised in two-parent families, even during the era of slavery.

As late as 1950, a higher percentage of black women than of white women were married. The broken families of today are a legacy of our own times and our own ill-advised notions and policies.

Of all the reactions against the supposed "slave names" among blacks, the most painfully ironic has been the taking of Arab names instead. The Arabs engaged in massive enslavement of Africans before the Europeans began to -- and continued long after the Europeans stopped.

One of the many reasons for studying history is to prevent history from being misused for current hidden agendas. Names are just one of the things being misused in this way.

JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, The Einstein Syndrome: Bright Children Who Talk Late.


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© 2002, Creators Syndicate