I recently started genealogy research into my Jamaican roots. My last name, like those of many other Jamaicans, is Scottish. I knew it was beforehand but I didn’t care, not until my father accused me of not caring for my heritage. I decided to do some research into Jamaican history.
A genealogy search revealed some deep-rooted ties between Scotland and Jamaica, and I found information on the Scottish History Society. Now I have a bizarre “soft-spot” for Scotland, but feel weird about it, because I am black. Yet, it’s a tie that binds. When I see people with my last name–black or white–I feel the need to reach out to them.
Black people with white names is not something I think about often, to be quite frank. Years ago I came across a book analyzing the last names of Americans, expecting the author to mention something about African-Americans. I remember the author being dismissive, insisting the black people with these names had them due to slavery–that’s all, and now back to the main show. This dismissal had always bothered me, even now that I can’t recall the title of the book. I also read The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and found the interview with the “white” Lacks jarring–dismissive and incredulous.
As a writer, I rarely write characters with non-white names (even when my characters are black). I also have a pet peeve about black Africans (people directly from Africa) with European last names. Is it not hypocritical of me, a woman with a white last name? I have considered changing my last name a handful of times; but, I have reservations about westernized blacks who re-name themselves.
There are pros and cons of changing my last name to an African one (Uhuru?). It’s a way of reclaiming one’s stolen heritage. But at the same time, I feel doing so is letting white people off the hook (out of sight and out of mind sort of deal). My last name is part of my heritage, as a woman from a society colonized (unwillingly) by my ancestors 400 hundred years ago. It is more honest, as it, added to my race, links the two sides of my heritage (African + European). It’s a testament that colonialism happened. Slavery and miscegenation happened.
I cannot claim Scottish heritage, and fear the message buying a tartan might send (however cool it might be to have one dedicated to my last name); but, at the same time, I can’t help but watch Outlander and note similarities between Scottish dialect and Jamaican (slang: jouk) and that my last name is prominently featured in the show. Or, relishing the fact that the people who gave me my last name came from the northeast/highlands (there’s a street in Edinburgh called Jamaica North Street Lane).