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Bloodlines: Branding With Another Iron

Updated Monday, 25th July 2005
Many descendants of slaves carry the surnames of the masters that owned their ancestors. Among them is Dr Robert Beckford, of Birmingham University, who considers the psychological and social implications of an imposed identity.

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Slave driver portrayed by an actor

If the personal is political, is this also true of the names we have? My name is Robert Beckford - may not sound like much at a first glance, but for those ‘in the know’ my surname is prevalent in the Jamaican and British telephone directories. All of which suggests I could be Jamaican, British or both. Well, as part of the African Caribbean diasporan in Britain, I occupy the ‘or both’ category. This is not an easy space to occupy because, like many other African Caribbean British, my name symbolises a historical and ideological battleground. Let me explain.

My name is a slave name, a physical, material and psychological ‘brand’ given to my slave ancestors by their owners. The white Beckford family was a major slaveholding family. At their height they owned 22 plantations and some 1600 African slaves in Jamaica. As J.Lees-Milne points out in his publication William Beckford, the first Beckford began slave trading and planting as early as the later part of the 1660s. For almost 200 years as a result of the huge profits from their plantations in Jamaica, a plethora of Beckford descendants lived lives of luxury and influence in Jamaica and England. Their annual income was between £30,000 – £150,000 per annum back in the 19th century! Even at the end of Slavery in 1834, the white family, like other slave owners, received a lump sum for their losses - over £200,000 in compensation. In contrast the black Beckfords, as in the case of other slaves received nothing. There are descendants of both the slave owning and enslaved Beckfords living in Britain today of which I am one.

As is the case with my name, surnames and forenames are important in African diasporan communities. They tell our history and as a dimension of culture represent a cultural journey from Africa to post-colonial Britain. This kind of cultural journeying is expressed in Stuart Hall’s analysis of cultural identities in his book Cultural Identity and Diaspora:

“Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories ....identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past.”

In Black British communities the relationship between historical journey and social positioning are central to the process of naming. For instance, many of my parents’ generation were named after famous English people. Hence names such as Winston, Leonard, Mary, Elizabeth all featured in some way in the naming process. (You can find out more about such names in D.Hiro’s book Black, British, White British: A Story of Race Relations in Britain). This Windrush generation were also named after biblical characters such as Naomi, Samson or Joseph due to the influence of English Christianity on Caribbean societies. However, a radical shift took place amongst second and third generation African Caribbean British. Faced with a “two souls” consciousness, a sense of African history and also the persistent forces of oppression in the domestic locale, they choose to name their children in more creative ways.

Some went back to Africa to find forenames from African places, tribes and names in order to reconnect their offspring to their African past. For example, I have friends who named their child ‘Ashanti,’ and another family with a child called ‘Kush’ to name but a few. Other friends changed their English forenames for African ones. I know of people, who were named by their Jamaican parents with banal names like 'Jennifer', 'Mary ' and 'Sam' but opted to change these names to the likes of 'Assata', 'Kembe' and 'Kwame'. Intriguingly, the present third and fourth generations ‘create’ names through a creative play on orality. One only needs to look at the register from any school in the black community to see a plethora of creative, and beautiful sounding names designating African Caribbean children. ‘Kai, ’ ‘Ashay’ and ‘Tinay’ are a few of the names of children in my local primary school. However, despite our willingness to find new ‘Christian names’ we have generally been unwilling to investigate the legacy of our surnames, namely the ‘brand’ that we carry as a reminder of our slave past. African Caribbean surname investigation is of great importance because how we describe ourselves, and our ‘names’ have power in defining who we are and how we understand ourselves.


Slave driver portrayed by an actor

For me, the issue of my surname became apparent after watching the first episode of Alex Haley’s Roots in the late 70s. Even at 13, I had never before thought much about the significance of surnames. I had wrongly assumed that African Caribbean names, like those of other ethnic groups, were the product of a natural course of history far removed from slavery and ownership. But Roots put an end to this myth in my young mind. Watching for the first time on television slaves being brought from Africa to the New World and having their names changed as part of a process of subjugation was a life-transforming event. I will never forget Kunta Kinti being beaten until he called himself by his new slave name, ‘Toby’. The programme made me realise two things about my surname ‘Beckford’. First that it signified a brutal history of subjugation, in particular, the dehumanisation of African people. Second, the name tied me not only to a problematic past but also to a White English family of which I knew nothing about.

In other words: a part of my heritage was to be found somewhere in England. Once I began to question its status and utility, I began to feel a sense of alienation and estrangement from my surname. I began to experience a sense of diasporan longing for reconnection to an African identity and surname, which had been stolen from my ancestors. For the first time, I began to imagine myself in exile. One of my favourite Black feminist writers, Bell Hooks summaries this sense of being away from home in Art on my mind, when she states:

“Everyone forgets that when we talk about Black people living in the diaspora, we’re talking about a people who live in exile, and that in some ways, like all other exiles, we imagine home, we imagine journeys of return. We embark on such journeys by first looking for traces – by engaging the palimpsest that reveals the multilayered nature of our experience.”

I wanted to discover my real surname but I was cognisant of the fact that tracing histories is not a guarantee of resurrecting the past because as Anthony Pinn has so rightly deciphered in his book Varieties of African American Religious Experience:

“With each articulation of . . . cultural memories, they are moved that much further from the moment of their conception and their cultural context.”

Historical distance and historical perspective make recovering the history of my and other African Caribbean non-slave names difficult. There are no clear-cut historical records connecting me with a direct and transparent genealogy. Historical distance makes the construction of the past very difficult and a fragile process. Even the use of DNA testing can never truly reconnect us with the past, as the ruptures and fissures have estranged us from our African families. Hence, all we can hope to do is to seek insight into an already loose historical and cultural history. Even so, the longing that I have to redeem this situation is something that neither distance nor social location could wipe out.

How do I redeem the white family name, this “slave brand” that has stayed with me from slavery? There are two considerations. First, it is important that the broader history of the Beckford family is known. This is why I went to the BBC in 2003 with the idea of developing a story on the Beckford family, which was subsequently made as "The Slavery Business".

Second, another consideration is whether there is anything worth redeeming at all? For me, one of the most positive expressions of my surname was located in the discovery of a slave called Robert Beckford who was a part of a Christian-led rebellion in Jamaica in 1831. In this case the Beckford name signifies positive resistance to oppression. Bell Hooks provides a model for redeeming my family name based on these sorts of discoveries. Hooks' real name is Gloria Watkins. She writes in the name of her grandmother, Bell Hooks. Writing with someone else’s name occurs for a variety of reasons but here it is not to obscure the real writer but to promote the history and politics of the adopted name. By writing with her grandmother’s name, Watkins is giving voice to black women who, like many of her generation were silenced by race, class and gender politics in nineteenth and early twentieth century America. Could this process work for me?

Finding the slave rebel ‘Robert Beckford’ provides me with a similar avenue of expression. However, on this occasion there is no need for a literal name change although a change in orientation and consciousness occurs. By retaining the name, I can make a conscious effort to connect myself in a powerful and redemptive way with my namesake slave ancestor. That is to say, I make an effort to give voice to the hidden millions captured and brutalised on slave plantations, like the other ‘Robert Beckford’ from 1831 and thereby overturn the limitations of the brand or ‘slave name’ so that it signifies resistance and overcoming.


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