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From Kunta Kinte to Barack Obama: What's in a Name, Anyway?

By       Message Dinesh Sharma     Permalink
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Shortly after I arrived in this country, as part of the first wave of immigrants from India, Roots by Alex Haley was a popular TV show. A new African name, Kunta Kinte, which later acquired a mythic stature in African American literature, was added to my vocabulary. My memory of Kunta Kinte played by LeVar Burton is as fresh as the enactment of the battle of Trenton I witnessed on July 4th, 2008. Now, whenever I see LeVar Burton on PBS teaching kids how to read and write, I get a flashback to the winter of 1977 when as new immigrants we huddled together around the TV set to watch the saga of an American family.

Recently, the campaign signs have been cropping up in our neighborhood. My kids have been recognizing and reading aloud the names of the various candidates while riding in the backseat of the car. They have gotten especially animated about the name "Obama."

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"How do you say that name,"--both my son and daughter have asked me?

"Buh-Rock oh-Bah-Ma. It's an African name, from Kenya,"- I explained.

Mainly because the name sounds different my kids are fascinated by it. As one of the children's books on Obama describes, "Not long ago people would say, Barack Who? They called him Baruch Yo Mama, Barack Alabama. Now the young Senator from Illinois is running to become the first African-American president of the US."

Anthropologists, while studying different cultures, are like little children learning a new language, who spend a great deal of time studying different naming conventions. How are names acquired? What does a name signify? Among other things a name may signify the name of a family, a place, a village, a tribe or a clan. Historically, naming of course signifies continuity of a tradition or radical break with a tradition, especially, in a country like America, which is a nation of immigrants. Almost all cultures have elaborate naming rituals involving newborns and their families.

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Slaves when they came to this country from Africa and West Indies went through a "name change" and acquired a "slave name," signifying an owner and a place. While the factual bases of the life of Kunta Kinte may still be debated, given the African DNA project led by Henry Gates Jr., his biographical outline was as follows: Slave name: Toby; Born c. 1750; Birthplace: Gambia, West Africa; Tribe: Mandinka; Owner: John Waller; County: Annapolis, MD.

After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many African-Americans changed their names to the name of their owner, to names like Freeman, and to the names of Presidents like Washington and Jefferson. Through the civil rights movement in the 1960's, many more African-Americans changed their names due to a religious conversion to the Brotherhood of Islam and other African religions.

In the current political season, even political pundits are behaving a bit like naïve anthropologists, trying to trace the roots of Barack Obama's African name. What does the name "Barack" mean? What is the origin of the name "Obama"? What about the middle name, "Hussein," which is never or rarely mentioned?

"Barack" is a Swahilli word, derivative of Arabic "Mubarack,'"which means "blessing." "Baruch" in Hebrew has the same meaning, while "Mubarak" in Hindi, Urdu or Persian has the same meaning. The surname "Obama" belongs to the Luo tribe of Kisumu, Kenya. Barack's father was named Barack Obama Sr., who presented himself as "Barry" when in 1959 he landed at the University of Hawaii as a student. Barry was also a nick-name Barack used during his college years. Barack Obama's grandfather, Hussein Onyango, converted to Islam when working for the British as a colonial civil servant. While his father was an atheist, Barack has been a practicing Christian. All of this has now become fodder for children's books.

However, the middle name "Hussein" seems to have touched a raw nerve, creating a "tempest in a teapot," suggesting that Obama is a "closet Muslim." Some of the conservative media outlets that have regularly rhymed "Obama" with "Osama" as a deliberate "slip of the tongue" have suggested that the country is being overtaken by our enemies, the Islamo-fascists, that there is a sinister plot behind Obama's candidacy and it spells the end of Western civilization as we know it. The recent satirical cartoon by the New Yorker magazine about the Obamas in the Oval office dressed as terrorists underscores this general fear.

Clearly, a President with an African or a "foreign sounding" name has never been elected in this country, which is likely to create great unease and discomfort in the general population, especially, in the post-9/11 world. Yet, a group of young Obama supporters, representing the You-Tube generation, have converted their middle name to "Hussein" on the Facebook as a sign of solidarity with their candidate, who according to them truly represents generational change. So Dan O'Maley of Columbus, Ohio, has now become Dan Hussein O'Maley and Alex Enderle has become Alex Hussein Enderle and so on. What's in a name anyway?

Many African-American bloggers, in stark contrast, have labeled Obama the "Kunta Kinte of 2008" or "Barack Toby Obama" in light of his break with the Trinity church due to increasing media and political pressures. Jesse Jackson's recent off-air comments that "I want to cut his nuts out"--because he is talking down to black people--are consistent with this theme. Shelby Steele, who has claimed that Obama is "a bound man" and cannot win by accommodating to the majority, may not disagree with most of these comments.

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When asked about his conversion from "Barry" to "Barack," Obama has said it was "a conscious decision to grow-up,"--to fully identify with the name of his father. It was when he got to Columbia University as a transfer student that he began to use the name Barack more regularly: "It was much more of an assertion that I was coming of age. An assertion of being comfortable with the fact that I was different and that I didn't need to try to fit in in a certain way."

Thus, in this generational election another African name has been added to "the mountain of names'" that make up the American experience. From Kunta Kinte to Barack Obama, we have come a long way baby!Notwithstanding the prevailing post-racial mood in America, even a chasm of centuries can not erase the underlying symbolic and cultural logic connecting these two African-American names from the history of the nation.


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Dinesh Sharma is a marketing science consultant with a Doctorate in Psychology from Harvard. He is a senior fellow at Institute for International and Cross-Cultural Research, St Francis College, NYC, and a regular columnist for Asia Times Online. (more...)

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