Understanding the Power of Naming and Language

© A. Lorenzo
- educators from both sides of the Atlantic at the Accra workshop on teaching slavery

Facilitate a class discussion on the power of naming and language. The discussion might include the role of power in relationships. In the post-discussion summary, the teacher should emphasize respect for personal dignity and identity.  

  • Essential questions: Is there a power in naming and language?  Why were enslaved peoples given new names? For instance: The famous African abolitionist Olaudah Equiano is referred to by at least three names in his autobiography (“The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano”, 1789, autobiography of Olaudah Equiano). Who gave him new names? How does one’s name reflect identity and belonging?  Why might enslaved people reject new names? Why was this an example of resistance?
  • Alternative essential questions: Who or what is this school named for? What is the name of our street/community/river/building? How do these names help tell the story of our community? Can you identify local objects, places, flora, fauna, events or traditions that have names which might be connected to the Transatlantic Slave Trade? Who and when were these names chosen?  Who has the power to name or rename?
  • In Marcus Rediker’s book entitled The Slave Ship (2007), the author tells us that some enslaved peoples referred to each other as ‘shipmate’. How had the enslaved peoples’ identity changed?  What do you think was their current identity and sense of belonging?


Activity: Ask learners to write a one-page essay discussing their name. The essays might include elements such as meaning, language, and naming for family members or others.

Twinning idea:  Select several of the local objects, places, events, or traditions that were identified by the class as having a name linked to the TST. Consider partnering with another school to create a journal on the power of naming and language. Gather suggestions for the journal title from the students. Using student essays, drawings, and artwork, create an e-journal or printed journal that represents concepts and history being discussed.

  • Activity with Technology
    Gather student work. Use brochure software to create an e-journal.  Publish to a collaborative web space. Include opportunities for discussion and exchange email or web-enabled chatting or conference calls.
  • Classical Activity
    Gather student work. Use a bound journal or separate pages to create a journal. Mail to your partner school. Include opportunities for discussion and exchange such as letters, cards, and drawings.


Students show how African cultures helped shape Cuba’s identity

“Legacy of language, influence of the African languages in the Cuban Spanish”, the Universidad de Alcala Central de Las Villas, Cuba 

The Alcala Central de Las Villas University (UCLV) has conducted research on the African cultural legacy of Cuba since the late 1960s. In doing so, it has paid close attention to language as a key form of cultural heritage. So far twenty-two research papers, three Masters’ degrees and one Doctoral thesis have been dedicated to the subject. Equally, UCLV currently oversees an international UNESCO project on the “Rehabilitation of the Intangible Afro-American Heritage: Bantuism in the Spanish and Portuguese of America”.  

UCVL has identified four main linguistic-cultural areas (Ewe-fon, Efik, Yoruba and Bantu) which stem from the African TST migration to Cuba: they can be traced back to over 1,500 languages spoken by around 200 million people in Africa. Their legacy is found in Cuban language in a number of ways: in cultural-religious practices; in colloquial expressions (terms commonly used in the country but not recognised by the Royal Spanish Academy Dictionary – the DRAE); and in Spanish expressions officially recognised by the DRAE as “Africanisms”. 

The investigations conducted by UCVL were the first to highlight the cultural and linguistic importance of the Bantu region in Cuba using homogenous research methods, based on the compilation and analysis of ethnological, historical and linguistic data. It has worked closely with the UNESCO Chair on Afro-Iberoamerican studies (the chair established in 1994 at the University of Alcalá de Henares, Spain) and the methodology used by the University has been replicated in academic research conducted in Africa. A Bantu Dictionary published by the UCVL in 2010 was awarded a prize by the Cuban Academy of Language. 

The UCVL presented its findings to the UNESCO Chair in the framework of the International Year for People of African Descent (2011), and used the occasion to call for further research into the cultural and linguistic legacy of Africa in Cuba.


Back to top