My Last Name Doesn’t Belong To Me, It Belongs To The White Man Who Owned My Family

One afternoon I walked into a thrift shop I’d been eyeing while having lunch next door. The many patterns, vintage clothing, and the shop’s overall curation felt like my vibe. I saw a stylish woman I thought might own the shop putting clothing on a rack, so I introduced myself and we exchanged names.

Our conversation started light, sharing details about where we were from and what we planned to do the rest of the day. Like a dance, we’d begin talking, stopping when I’d leave to try a piece on in the dressing room, and then picking up when I’d come back to the floor. I learned Sarah wasn’t the owner and didn’t go to school for fashion. She developed her passion from being around people in the fashion industry.

She told me growing up her mom was a famous runway model for a major fashion house, she loved analog photography, and always trusted her gut feeling to direct her life. She shared her passion for giving tarot card readings to people using what she referred to as “her feeling guides” to help others find peace in their past, present, and future.

I told her I grew up very conservative Christian, and although I was taught to see Ouija boards, tarot reading, and any sort of divination as witchcraft that was a part of the occult, I was still open to acknowledging that extra sensory perception is a gift some people may have. Sarah agreed, telling me she could intuit a lot about a person just by knowing their name and talked about her strong ancestral line that could be traced back to Europe.

She asked if I knew what my last name meant. Surprisingly, I’d never looked up the meaning of my last name, so I let her do a Google search. She read that Henderson meant “son of Henry.” I learned that the given name “Henry” means “home ruler” or “ruler of the home,” derived from the Germanic name Heimirich, which is composed of the elements heim, meaning “home” and rich, meaning “power, ruler.” What began as a fun name search got interesting when Sarah paused after reading and said, “I don’t like the way that name makes me feel.”

After leaving the store, I thought about what Sarah said about my last name all day. While I was tempted to take her words personally, oddly enough they resonated with me. As a Black man living in America, I wondered if on some cosmic level, she felt the estrangement I often experience when I view my last name through the historical lens of U.S. slavery. Which is to say, my last name and the last names of more than 30 million peoples of African descent are not our own. They are the last names of former slave owners passed on to us. If I’m honest, sometimes I don’t like the way my name makes me feel either. It’s hard to feel like a ruler when you don’t know where you come from.

The first time I started thinking critically about the complicated past connected to my last name was in 7th grade when my English teacher Ms. Schneider made our class watch Roots by Alex Haley. Roots is a story about Kunta Kinte, an 18th-century African, captured as an adolescent, sold into slavery in Africa, and transported to North America. It follows his life and the lives of his descendants in the United States down to Haley.

Later, I’d be forced again to confront the effects of U.S. slavery on my identity when Ms. Schneider gave our class an assignment asking us to trace our family history. As the only Black kid in my class, I was excited to learn about my heritage, but the feeling slowly turned into frustration when I asked my parents about my ancestry and they were unable to tell me who any of my ancestors were past my grandma on my mom’s side and great-grandfather on my dad’s side. When we were asked to present our findings to the class, I was fascinated by how many white kids were able to trace their families last name over hundreds of years all the way to Europe.

My questions about my last name would continue into high school. In my Advanced Placement European History Class, slavery was covered briefly and talked about so matter-of-fact that you’d think the enslavement of other human beings was just a necessary part of human progress. After graduating college in the Summer of 2012, I traveled to London and quickly noticed all the people I met of African descent didn’t identify as English, they were citizens of the UK who were able to identity with their country of origin. This observation made me grieve not knowing my history and all the ancestral knowledge that was lost to American chattel slavery and left me wondering if other African Americans felt this same emptiness inside. The hole that comes from not knowing where you come from and the trauma that comes from feeling like you have no place in the world, no reference point.

Since the 1400s, English surnames have been used to identify certain aspects of an individual, such as trade, father’s name, and location of birth, but for the slave, the English surname was used to mark them as property. In his book The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin says, “It is a fact that every American Negro bears a name that originally belonged to a white man whose chattel he was.”

According to the US Census taken every 10 years, of the 12.6% of United States residents who identified as Black, around 10.3% were “native Black American” or ethnic African Americans who are direct descendants of West/Central Africans brought to the U.S. as slaves. These individuals make up well over 80% of all Blacks in the country. Muslims like civil rights leader Malcolm X, react to this fact by substituting the names inherited from slavery with the letter “X.”

As for my last name, for now I’m choosing to keep it as a reminder that although I feel faceless at times, I share a common bond with so many others whose lineage has been marked by trauma and questions that may be answered. I’m keeping my last name as a reminder that I have as much claim to the American ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as anyone since my ancestors, many nameless, have already paid the cost.