What’s in a name?

To many of us, our name is important. We feel good when someone remembers our name.  Parents and families of newborn babies often spend hours researching and deliberating as to what to call their child.  This is a short story of the changing of last names or surnames.

One of the teachers at Henry High School, Patrick Pelini, recently led his ninth-grade students on a journey becoming acquainted with each other by sharing names and nicknames. Next, they sought to find out why individuals and families sometimes change their last name or surname. His class is reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X and the question arose as to why Malcolm dropped his given last name Little, changing it to X, which signified his original lost tribal name. He later changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz following a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Henry High Principal Yusuf Abdullah made a virtual visit to Pelini’s class and shared his family’s experience with their surname. His grandmother dropped her inherited name when she became a member of the Nation of Islam replacing her inherited enslavement name with Abdullah. Henry’s principal’s parents followed suit and he was born an Abdullah. Many people do not realize that the majority of African Americans have for their last name, the name of their ancestor’s slaveholder. Their original and given names were stolen as the enslaved were stolen and sold into servitude. Therefore, some African Americans have chosen to change their surname, to drop their historical oppressor’s name. My husband’s late uncle, the patriarch of the Breedlove family, Maceo Breedlove, told me that our enslavement name was dropped and replaced with Breedlove after Emancipation.  When he was “on the road” playing baseball throughout the United States, he related that Breedlove folks who he became acquainted with were most often traced to his same roots in Sylacauga, Alabama.  (See Lost Twin Cities, IV for more info regarding Maceo Breedlove of the Negro Leagues)

My father’s last name Curnow is rooted in Cornwall, considered by the English as a part of the United Kingdom. The Cornish consider themselves as independent and are insulted when referred to as English. My sister, son, and I have traversed throughout portions of Cornwall tracing our familial roots. Renowned historian of that “country” and family member, Howard Curnow, shared that England wanted the coveted copper and tin mines of Cornwall and when they succeeded in overthrowing this small county at the tip of the peninsula, they sent census takers from door-to-door. At the time, our name was Kernow, “ker” meaning horn or headland appropriate to the shape of the country, “now” referring to a group of people. The English conquerors changed our name to Curnow, “cur” meaning an undesirable dog. When you use the word cur, you’re talking about a dog that’s either a mutt, very unattractive, aggressive, or all three. The word can also be used as an insult for a person, especially a despicable man. (See the PBS series Poldark for more info regarding Cornwall history.)

Thus, you see the impact of colonization on surnames, the heritage we carry with us.

“What’s in a name?” Coming in the future: What is the origin of the name Camden? Why did Houston White of HWMR name their beverage “The Get Down Coffee Company” as told to Jason of KMSP-TV? How and when did Henry High School get assigned the name Patrick Henry?