The Unspoken History Behind a Surname

When you're a black American, the legacy of slavery lingers everywhere.

More From Lenny Letter No. 115
5 articles
December Horoscopes Are Here
How to Protect Yourself This Flu Season
The Long-Lasting Lustrous Manicure Lifestyle
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

Only the truly curious even ask.

And when a Harvard student recently inquired about my name, she was clear that she wanted to know about my surname. She repeated it three times out loud and then began probing for something deeper.

She didn't have to say it, but I knew she was trying to better understand my heritage and ethnic background. My last name is puzzling. And for some, it doesn't match my physical presence.

More From Lenny Letter No. 115
5 articles
December Horoscopes Are Here
How to Protect Yourself This Flu Season
The Long-Lasting Lustrous Manicure Lifestyle
The Pioneer of Mexico's Feminist Art Movement

When I'm in the Boston region, people ask me if it's French, and I think they are trying to determine if my heritage is Haitian. Others will ask if it's Celtic, a question that would connect me to the Irish.

The truth is, my last name was probably supposed to be Bowen, but somewhere in the past someone misspelled it, and the lives of my clan were forever changed.

This was a common occurrence. Some southern African Americans struggled with literacy after emancipation, and so names took on new spellings. In other cases, white officials didn't bother to document the correct spellings on public records, and the mistakes lived on.

I learned this when I tried to research the history of my last name.

In this country, there are hundreds of Bowens.

Yet my immediate relatives are the only people I have found with the "Bowean" last name.

I explained this all to the young, curious student.

I went on to tell her that the Bowean surname came to my people through marriage.

Before we were Boweans, we were Norwoods and Wakefields rooted in a small town in western North Carolina — near the mountains. Those names are connected back to England.

"Those are my people," I told her.

"I know some Norwoods and some Wakefields from western North Carolina," she piped up, almost instantly, with a giddy excitement. It seemed that for a moment she thought we had found common ground. I'm sure she thought that maybe we knew some of the same people.

The next sentence she almost whispered: "But they're white."

***

As we both stood in the silence, we didn't speak about the legacy of American slavery.

Yet this is the moment when the baggage of race and what it means to be African American comes creeping into the most fleeting of encounters. It's these unexpected confrontations with history that trigger what writer and social commentator James Baldwin called the "constant state of rage."

I've never been ashamed that I am a descendant of people who were enslaved. Yet it is in these subtle moments that the trauma strikes me.

I didn't tell the student that during slavery, African Americans were assigned names by their owners and many times didn't even have a surname, records show. I didn't talk about how those residents were at times given the last name of their owner so that they could be identified as that white family's property.

I also didn't bother to talk about how even after the Thirteenth Amendment brought enslaved people a form of freedom, some chose the plantation name as their last name in order to reveal where they were from. Black people held on to these names for many reasons — one being the hope to reunite with other family members who would only be able to identify them by these familiar markers.

These are the names that so many black Americans still wear.

The decision to stay bound to these names is deeply personal. I would never change my name — even if I married — mainly because it connects me to a fragmented people.

It is the name that binds us together. And I hold on to hope that my relatives, disconnected long ago, can locate me through that shared legacy.

***

It is in these innocent moments that the troubling history of this country becomes real and the residue reveals itself as still present. I've never been ashamed that I am a descendant of people who were enslaved. Yet it is in these subtle moments that the trauma strikes me.

I began to feel weighted as I stood staring at the college-aged woman, who had a classic, sophisticated Latin name that means purity. I felt the weariness of being pushed into an emotional space and frustrated from having to contemplate whether to delve deeper into a topic I didn't expect during idle small talk.

Then I remembered that this history is one we don't like to discuss anyway. We were only making small talk.

"There's probably a relationship between the two families," the African American one and the white one, I remember telling the student. "But I don't know exactly, specifically, what it is."

And then, to be polite, we left the rest unspoken and parted ways.

Lolly Bowean is a writer with the Chicago Tribune and a 2017 Nieman Fellow.

More from Lenny Letter: