A Good Name is As Good As Gold, by B.B. Robinson, Ph.D.

We can all agree that gold has been a valuable commodity throughout history. So what is the rationale behind the statement “a good name is as good as gold?”

Even if you comprehend its value, why link names to gold? A more direct question is “Is your name valuable?”

Although you may not be an etymologist, you know that “words make people.” Reinforce in the mind of a child that he or she is intelligent, and there is a strong probability that child will exhibit intelligence. Likewise, being recognized and reinforced by an unpleasant name – one that describes a lowly task – or by a name that has no apparent meaning at all may prove to be a barrier to achievement.

This may be particularly true of African-Americans who carry surnames that may represent their forefathers’ functions as slaves. Clearly, having the last name Cook does not automatically relegate one to a life with pots and pans and stoves. Nevertheless, such a name may carry negative overtones for the bearer, and even affect one’s actions and outlook on life.

African-American History Month is often viewed as a time to research and celebrate the achievements of great African-Americans. Indeed, these are important functions of the month. However, is it not also important to research and celebrate the history of those most important to us – our forefathers?

Without our grandparents and great grandparents and so on back through history, we would not be alive to celebrate at all. It seems uppermost, then, to know details about those responsible for bringing us into the world. In the process of researching our family histories – a process made popular by Alex Hailey with his book Roots – we may come to know the history of our names and, most likely, something about our personalities.

Even if you assume that a despised surname is the result of a forefather’s station in slavery, is it not best to confirm it through research? Historical research may reveal that the name was not the result of slavery at all, but an artifact of some other historical phenomenon of which you were not aware.

In either case, knowing your history is integral to knowing yourself. Knowing yourself is paramount to having a truly successful life.

Consequently, we should view African-American History Month not only as a time for celebrating the lives of well-known giants in African-American History, but also a time for expanding our knowledge about those giants in our personal past. It’s a very appropriate time for consulting with family griots who have a wealth of knowledge about our families. Also, it is an opportune time to visit historical societies or archives and perform formal research to identify details about our families – particularly information on the origin of our families’ names.

Having historical knowledge of your name can be valuable. Why? It’s because knowing your family history allows you to place yourself in historical context. It gives you roots. Just as most plants cannot flourish without strong roots, your human psyche functions best when the context in which you operate is complete.

Knowledge of your name and history may also be valuable in very practical ways. It may turn out that you have a shared interest in certain assets because of your family lineage.

But most important, knowledge of your name and your history will enable you to pass on this valuable gift to your heirs. I challenge you to begin your family research this year. I guarantee you that your research will make your good name as good as gold to your offspring in the world of tomorrow.

(B.B. Robinson, Ph.D. is a member of the National Advisory Council of the African-American leadership network Project 21 and an economist. He can be reached at [email protected].)

Note: New Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not necessarily those of Project 21.

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