“Are Mose and Minerva Less Distinctive than Lakisha and Jamal?” Mississippi State SHUR presentation

So over the past two semesters, I’ve been working on a long-term research project on black naming practices in the Alabama Black Belt during the period of slavery. As it turns out, I’ll be presenting some preliminary findings from my research later this month at the Mississippi State University Symposium for History Undergraduate Research (SHUR), April 29-30. I’ll be presenting Saturday morning, April 30, on a panel running from 8:30-9:50. Here’s what I’ll be talking about:

“Are Mose and Minerva Less Distinctive than Lakisha and Jamal? The Use and Abuse of Distinctively Black Names in Slavery and in Freedom”

Charles W. Johnson
Auburn University


Black and white Americans have different names. Names like “Keisha” or “Darnell” are widely and instantly perceived as ‘black,’ and names like “Brad,” “Meredith” and “Todd” as ‘white.’ The perception reflects a statistical reality: white and black Americans’ naming choices do systematically differ. Racialized naming differences can carry social and economic baggage for people with names that are perceived as distinctively black, including discrimination in education and during job searches. Economists such as Fryer and Levitt (2004) or Bertrand and Mullainathan (2004) devote several recent studies to possible causes and consequences of distinctively black naming patterns in the post-Civil Rights era. Yet distinctively black names, and social stigma against them, are not recent developments. In 1870 there were eight men named “Pompey,” or “Pomp” for short, living in Macon County, Alabama. All were black farm-hands, born under the Black Belt’s system of plantation slavery. Local whites included “Leonidas” and “Alexander,” but none were named after Caesar’s rival. “Pompey” was no outlier: in 1870 the Pompeys of Macon County lived alongside Livy Pinckard, Cato Brown, Romulus Dowdell and Remus Rainey – all exclusively black names, never seen among Macon County whites. Generally, the particular names marked as black or white have changed throughout American history, as the period of slavery receded and names like Mose or Minerva were replaced by Lakisha and Jamal. But divergent black and white naming systems are a long-standing, continuous phenomenon of America’s biracial culture, with their earliest roots in conflicts and negotiations between white slaveholders and black slaves over control of naming under slavery.

In this paper I offer a new analysis of quantitative data on naming patterns, based on the 1870 Census for Alabama Black Belt counties. Previous studies of slave naming practices have focused either on single plantations or on distinctive regions such as the South Carolina coast or Caribbean, with comparatively little attention to the Black Belt. Analysis of the Alabama data, using techniques from recent studies on contemporary naming practices, reveals distinctively black naming patterns in the Black Belt and a large pool of distinctively or uniquely African-American names dating back to the period of slavery. Contrary to Herbert Gutman’s suggestion that lexically distinctive black names (e.g. from classical or traditional African sources) were rare or marginal by the late antebellum period, I find that the data from the Black Belt counties demonstrate the persistence of significant, ongoing distinctively or uniquely black naming pools throughout the last decades of slavery and the first decade of emancipation.

Black Belt naming practices reveal elements both of planters’ impositions and slaves’ adaptation and resistance. Moreover, discrimination today against distinctively black names parallel the repetitive rhetorical use and abuse of ‘black’ names in antebellum writing as tropes standing for derisive or stereotyped images of blackness; but their use by freed black Alabamians also reveal the powerful personal and cultural meanings that they conveyed. Distinctively black names under slavery are like scars: visible signs of deep wounds, but also of the body’s effort to adapt and to heal.

Alabama Corrections

Shared Article from The Intercept

Alabama's Solution to Prison Riots: Build More Prisons

Alabama hopes to solve its prison crisis by building new prisons. Critics warn that more riots are likely.


In addition to its lawsuit, the SPLC issued a damning report exposing widespread neglect and denial of medical care. In particular, the SPLC found that to cut costs inmates were regularly denied medical treatment, which in several cases resulted in death. The report described requests for medical help that were ignored, derided, or met with beatings or segregation. It found that inmates were unwillingly or unknowingly signed up for “do not resuscitate” orders, that poor diabetes care led to frequent amputations, and contagious diseases like hepatitis C spread untreated. The SPLC also found that surgeries were denied for sometimes as long as a decade, broken bones were often ignored for weeks, and prisoners suffering from burns and strokes were at times denied care for days.

The inmate interviewed by The Intercept said that in one instance, a fellow prisoner repeatedly tried to gain admission to the infirmary but was turned away. When he finally saw a doctor, he was diagnosed with cancer, had five tumors removed, and died weeks later. “I felt like they killed him,” the inmate said. “We really have no value.”

. . .

Glasgow and others in close contact with prisoners told The Intercept that more protests across Alabama prisons are imminent, and they listed a long catalogue of abuses compounding prisoners’ anger over their living conditions, including rat infestations, inedible food they dubbed “road kill,” and guards forcing inmates to fight each other in laundry rooms while betting on the outcome.

“When we look at how our prisons run, it’s really not a criminal justice system. It’s a criminal enterprise. A legal, criminal, enterprise,” the Holman inmate said. “If you make a felon out of a man, you take away his rights as a human being.”

. . .

Alabama’s new prison plan, if enacted, will add approximately 3,000 beds to the system, reducing overcrowding to 125 percent. In order to pay for it, the state will authorize an $800 million bond, which will be serviced by up to $50 million a year redirected from what the state already spends to maintain its decrepit prisons. “We were already solving this problem long before this took place,” Alabama’s governor, Robert Bentley, said in a press conference following the riots. He called the proposal “transformational thinking.”

Prisoner advocates were less impressed. “That would just move the problem,” said Watson. “In Alabama, we have a history: If we build them, then we overfill them.” Morrison, of EJI, said the state consulted several experts about its prison problems, and none had recommended building new prisons as a solution. “A multi-year prison construction does not address the immediate crisis they have,” she said.

Prisoners and their advocates say the only way to make incarceration humane — and legal — is to drastically cut the population of prisons, not build new prisons.

— Alice Speri, Alabama’s Solution to Prison Riots: Build More Prisons
The Intercept, 8 April 2016.

Auburn police killed a woman yesterday

Auburn police shot and killed a woman yesterday afternoon just off of I-85. Her name was Melissa Boarts; she was a 36 year old woman from Montgomery. They were chasing her because they got vague reports over the wire that she might be suicidal. So they chased her car for miles, followed her out into Macon County. Then when she stopped they got out and confonted her, and then they killed her.

Auburn police disclosed today that two cops shot at her; they claim that she had a gun and she charged the officers in a threatening manner when the cops came out to confront her.

Shared Article from OANow.com

UPDATE: Victim identified in Sunday officer-involved shooting

The victim of an officer-involved shooting off Interstate 85 involving two Auburn Police Division officers Sunday has been identified.


See also.

Rad Geek, to-day:

Making plans to attend the Auburn Philosophy Conference (8th annual! Aristotle and Kant in conversation! Talks by Karen Stohr, Jennifer Whiting, Michael Thompson….!). This Thursday, starting at 9am, at Pebble Hill in Auburn.

Shared Article from Auburn University Department of Philosophy

Auburn Philosophy Conference | 8th Annual Conference: Aristotle …

March 24-25, 2016. Aristotle and Kant in Conversation. With Julian Wuerth, Erica Holberg, Tamar Schapiro, Agnes Callard, Jennifer Whiting, Talbot Brew…


Tyrannicide Day MMLIX

Happy Tyrannicide Day (observed)! To-day, March 15th, commemorates the assassination of two notorious tyrants.

On the Ides of March in 2016 CE, we mark the 2,059th anniversary — give or take the relevant calendar adjustments — of the death of Gaius Julius Caesar, the ruthless usurper, war-monger, mass murderer, slave-trader and military dictator, who rose to power in the midst of Rome’s most violent civil wars, who boasted of butchering and enslaving two million Gauls, who set fire to Alexandria, who battered and broke through every remaining restraint that Roman politics and civil society had left against unilateral military rule and executive power. Driving his enemies before him in triumphs, having himself proclaimed Father of His Country, dictator perpetuo, censor, supreme pontiff, imperator, the King of Rome in all but name, taking unilateral command of all political power in Rome and having his images placed among the statues of the kings of old and even the gods themselves, he met his fate at the hands of a group of republican conspirators. Led by Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus, calling themselves the Liberators, on 15 March 44 BCE, they surrounded Caesar and put an end to his reign of terror by stabbing him to death on the floor of the Senate.

Here's a painting of

Die Ermordung Cäsars, Karl von Piloty (1865)

By a coincidence of fate, March 13th also marks the anniversary (the 135th this year) of the assassination of Alexander II Nikolaevitch Romanov, the self-styled Imperator, Caesar and Autocrat of All the Russias. A group of Narodnik conspirators, acting in self-defense against ongoing repression and violence that they faced at the hands of the autocratic state, put an end to the Czar’s reign by throwing grenades underneath his carriage on March 13th, 1881 CE, in an act of propaganda by the deed.

Here's a color drawing of

Das Attentat auf Zar Alexander II. am 13. März 1881 in St. Petersburg. Anonymous.

In honor of the coinciding events, the Ministry of Culture in this secessionist republic of one, together with fellow republics and federations of the free world, proclaims the 15th of March Tyrannicide Day (observed), a commemoration of the death of two tyrants at the hands of their enraged victims, people choosing to defend themselves even against the violence and oppression exercised by men wrapped in the bloody cloak of the State, with the sword of the Law and in the name of their fraudulent claims to higher authority. It’s a two-for-one historical holiday, kind of like President’s Day, except cooler: instead of another dull theo-nationalist hymn on the miraculous birth of two of the canonized saints of the United States federal government, we have instead one day on which we can honor the memory, and note the cultural celebrations, of men and women who defied tyrants’ arbitrary claims to an unchecked power that they had neither the wisdom, the virtue, nor the right to wield against their fellow creatures.

Here's a photo of a silver coin with the caption EID MAR. Above the caption are two daggers, flanking a Liberty Cap to the left and the right.

My favorite collectible coin. This silver denarius was actually minted and circulated in Macedonia by M. Junius Brutus after he and his fellow conspirators stabbed Caesar to death. The obverse features Brutus’s head in profile. The thing in the middle, above EID MAR (Ides of March) and flanked by the two daggers, is a Liberty Cap, traditionally given to emancipated slaves on the day of their freedom.

It is worth remembering in these days that the State has always tried to pass off attacks against its own commanders and military forces (Czars, Kings, soldiers in the field, etc.) as acts of terrorism. That is, in fact, what almost every so-called act of terrorism attributed to 19th century anarchists happened to be: direct attacks on the commanders of the State’s repressive forces. The linguistic bait-and-switch is a way of trying to get moral sympathy on the cheap, in which the combat deaths of trained fighters and commanders are fraudulently passed off, by a professionalized armed faction sanctimoniously playing the victim, as if they were just so many innocent bystanders killed out of the blue. Tyrannicide Day is a day to expose this for the cynical lie that it is.

There are actually many reasons to set aside tyrannicide as a political tactic. After all, these two famous cases each ended a tyrant but not the tyrannical regime; Alexander II was replaced by the even more brutal Alexander III, and Julius Caesar was replaced by his former running-dogs, one of whom would emerge from the carnage that followed as Imperator Gaius Julius Son-of-God Caesar Octavianus Augustus, beginning the long Imperial nightmare in earnest. But it’s also important to recognize that these failures were strategic failures, not moral ones; the regicides were doing what they had every right to do, even though their acts of resistance proved ultimately suicidal.

What we celebrate on the Ides of March is not the practice of tyrannicide as a strategy, but rather the reality of tyrannicide as a moral fact. Putting a diadem on your head and wrapping yourself in the blood-dyed robes of the State confers neither the virtue, the knowledge, nor the right to rule over anyone, anywhere, for even one second, any more than you had naked and alone. Tyranny is nothing more and nothing less than organized crime executed with a pompous sense of entitlement and a specious justification; the right to self-defense applies every bit as much against the person of some self-proclaimed sovereign as it does against any other two-bit punk who might attack you on the street.

Every victory for human liberation in history — whether against the crowned heads of Europe, the cannibal-empires of modern Fascism and Bolshevism, or the age-old self-perpetuating oligarchies of race and sex — has had these moral insights at its core: the moral right to deal with the princes and potentates of the world as nothing more and nothing less than fellow human beings, to address them as such, to challenge them as such, and — if necessary — to resist them as such.

How did you celebrate Tyrannicide Day? (Personally, I’ll be toasting the event at home, and doing a bit of commemorative translation work on the skolion for the celebrated Athenian lovers and tyrannicides Harmodius and Aristogeiton.) And you? Done anything online or off for this festive season? Give a shout-out in the comments.

Toasting the Ides at home…

Thus always to tyrants. And many happy returns!

Beware the State. Celebrate the Ides of March!