Director Nzingha Sterwart at the 17th Annual Image Awards
By Erickka Sy Savané

 “For the longest time, when I would show up places people would expect to see an Asian woman, not a black man,” says my friend Sekou, one day in conversation. It's been argued for years that the ancient Japanese migrated from Africa, so why not? Now I'm thinking about African Americans with African names, and how their experience must differ from the rest of us. I do a Google search to read up on the topic and there's nada. Guess I gotta research it myself...


"Early on, I didn't know that my name was different," says Sekou. “At the private black school I went to in Boston, we sang the black national anthem, celebrated Kwanzaa and everyone had names like Nzingha and Kumba.” His world got turned upside down when he found himself at an all black middle school in Atlanta where teasing him was a favorite pastime.
Knock Knock.
Who’s there?
Say Who?!
It got so bad that he asked his teacher if she could start calling him by his middle name. The teacher told his mom and then it became a big deal, so the name change never happened, but it was ultimately good because things shifted again by high school. Now at an international school, Sekou recalls his name being a source of fascination. He found himself explaining that it means ‘scholarly’ or ‘fighter,’ depending on the translation, and he also got to talk about Ahmed Sekou Toure, the President of Guinea. For the first time in his life, he felt ‘name envy’ by other students. By college, he attended the historically black Morehouse, where there were Sekous around every corner, including a direct relative of Ahmed Sekou Toure! Looking back though, would he give his kid an African name? I ask him.

"Yes, because it's important to have a name that means something," he says. "It gives the person a level of gravitas." 

If an African name can imbue someone with a certain sense of gravitas, imagine if your name is actually Africa. Such is the case with Africa Angel Martin, who runs the kitchen at my daughter’s preschool, and has gravitas by the ton. “My father, who was a black panther, let me know from an early age that I’m a woman of culture, and I have an image to uphold no matter what my age,” says Africa, now in her early 40s. Like Sekou, she was also teased growing up. “I found that having the name Africa caused me to be rebellious, because I was always ready to come back at anyone who was trying to antagonize me.”

Ultimately, it did affect how she felt about the name, and even though she knew people were just being ignorant, she chose not to give an African name to her daughter. “To get teased like that so young can cause you to feel like a little mouse in a corner. I didn't want her to go through that.”

So today, how does she feel about the name? “Oh, I feel special. I feel unique. I know that I'm a Queen and the name carries a lot of power,” says Africa.

Next, I reach out to a woman I met a few years ago, "Love By The 10th Date" director Nzingha Stewart. Turns out, she didn’t grow up with the name, she chose it some 20 years ago after a trip to Senegal where she visited 'the point of no return’ in Goree Island.

“The tour guide explained that once you crossed this line you were property and couldn’t have your name anymore. If anybody called you by that name, their tongue would be cut out,” explains Nzingha. “The fact that they took away these people’s identity was so heart-wrenching to me that I changed my name to honor them.” She was eighteen.

“It means ‘from the water,’ and since I’m a water sign and from Jamaica, it felt right. Also, there’s the story of Queen Nzingha and how she fought the Portuguese and kept Angolans from getting taken as slaves. It’s awesome!”

And how did her family react? I'm curious to know.

"My mom’s side was much better with it, my dad’s side wouldn’t call me Nzingha for a very long time, my grandmother still doesn't, and my father calls me by a nickname. Friends learned to use Nzingha once I stopped responding to anything else," she says. "More than anything, I love that it gives me an opportunity to educate people about how systematic the programming of slavery was."

Ultimately, what I learned about African Americans with African names is that the saying is true, "behind every name there is a story."

Are you an African American with an African name?

Erickka Sy Savané is managing editor of, a wife, mom, and freelance writer based in Jersey, City, NJ. Her work has appeared in,,, and more. When she’s not writing...wait, she’s always writing! Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or  

Erickka Sy Savané
I was on the phone the other day with a receptionist. The woman was having me spell my daughter’s name for what had to be the 100th time. I try to be patient when this happens because I know her first name is a doozy–11 letters–and African. It’s like nothing most of us Americans have ever heard before. So when I begin to detect this woman’s tone changing, I make sure to chill. We’ll get there eventually.

 And when we do, she lets out an exasperated sigh and says, “Why’d you give that child that name?”

“Excuse me?” I say, not sure if I heard her correctly.

“Why’d you give her a name that she’d be lucky if she can pronounce, let alone spell?”

I put the phone down and start taking off my earrings. Had this woman lost her mind? Of all the rude comments! And to think that she was representing someone’s business. I’m a second away from reaching into the phone to grab her neck when I remind myself that I knew this would happen. In fact, I almost didn’t give my daughter her name because of people like that receptionist.

“You can’t name her that!” said just about everyone when I told them the name I had chosen for my unborn child. Others would just start singing, ‘Mama Say Mama Sa Mama Coosa’ from Michael Jackson’s “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin.’” They said it reminded them of that song. At one point, I stopped telling people because I didn’t want to hear it anymore.

What they failed to see was that I loved the name from the moment I first heard it. Ever fall in love with a sound? For some it’s the sweet cackle of a baby’s giggle, for me it was the rhythm of this name. Like music to my ears. The fact that it was African made it even better. Not just because my husband is African, but because I wanted a name that my child could live in to, a name that whenever spoken would create images of gold lit skies, and blackness, like the continent itself.

Yet, it’s funny how I still had doubts.

“Do you have a name?” asked the doctor who delivered my daughter as she placed her on top of me, still wet and slippery like a fish freshly out of the water. I was tired. Exhausted from a natural birth that had me laboring for 24 hours. Finally, I told her the short version because in that moment, I was no longer sure. Would I dare give her a name with 11 letters and five syllables? Would she be able to get a job? What if she was a gentle soul incapable of handling the teasing and insults that might come her way? Heck, what if she didn’t like it?!

“Okay,” said the doctor, letting the name roll off of her tongue. “What’s the long version?” I spit it out. Every. Last. Syllable. There. Say what you want. “Girl, you betta give that child all that name!”

We both laughed and in that moment I knew that I couldn’t go halfway. Why? To make it easy? To please other people? I’d been doing that my whole life and where had it gotten me? If I couldn’t stand for the name I wanted to give my child when would I ever stand for anything? This name was for both my child and me.

I think about the receptionist on the other end of the phone. Right now she represents all the ignorance and prejudice that will likely be a part of my daughter’s future.
How would I want her or anyone for that matter to respond?
Patience? Tried that.
Maybe I’d meet fire with fire.
I pick up the phone, and this time it is my tone that has changed. “Listen, Ma’am, I’m sorry if this name isn’t convenient for you, but you’re a receptionist not the name police. Mind your business.”

How do you respond to name shaming?

Erickka Sy Savané is managing editor of, a wife, mom, and freelance writer based in Jersey, City, NJ. Her work has appeared in,,, and more. When she’s not writing...wait, she’s always writing! Follow her on Twitter, Instagram or