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The African Book of Names

By: Askhari Hodari
Reviewed by: Colin Crews
Health Communication, Inc., 2009
$14.95, Paperback

Early civil rights activist and author Richard Moore said, “Free men name themselves.” This idea is embodied in Askhari Hodari’s The African Book of Names. The four-part work contains an overview of African culture and history, a guide to traditional naming ceremonies, and more than five thousand African names. Hodari infuses the historical facts with her own story of renaming and self-discovery.

Part One covers many topics quickly and effectively. These early chapters chronicle the colonization of Africa and the ensuing slave trade that stripped millions of their African names. Hodari moves deftly from slaves forced to take the names of their masters to the reemergence of African names that continues today. The naming policies of various African governments are also examined in Part One. For example, to be eligible for basic rights in apartheid-era South Africa, citizens were required to have European or “Christian” names. Alternatively, in 1972 the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) spearheaded a national initiative to “resist and reverse the impact of colonization.” All newborns were to have African names and adults or places with “foreign names” were to be changed. Elizabethville became Lubumbashi and President Joseph Mobutu renamed himself Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga.

The movement that started in the DRC has spread and continued as African Americans employ more culturally relevant names, many of which are virtually exclusive to their community. A century ago in the United States the most popular names for African Americans and Caucasians largely came from the same European-originated pool.

Part Two is the list of African names. The author efficiently organizes the names by broad themes such as Power, Survival, or Prophecy and narrower categories such as Geography or Birth Order. Finding names with a specific meaning is logical and easy. To locate a name signifying liberty, check the Freedom and Liberation section. The names within the theme are listed alphabetically, followed by pronunciation, meaning, gender specification, and country of origin.

Part Three is an explanation of pronunciation and phonetics, while Part Four is a brief guide to naming ceremonies and traditions.

The election of President Barack Obama makes Hodari’s work not only timely but also accessible to a diverse audience. The African Book of Names is an excellent resource for those naming a child, seeking a new name for themselves, or discovering the origin and meaning of their own names. More than just a clearinghouse, Askhari Hodari has crafted a personal look at African names, history, and traditions. Aug 2009

Colin Crews is a freelance writer in Irondale, Ala.

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