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Names For Revolutionaries, With Edward Onaci

The Namedropping podcast logo, a coffee cup with a scratched-out name
Art by Tara Jacoby

Back in high school, as he read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and listened to hip-hop groups like Poor Righteous Teachers, Dr. Edward Onaci first grasped the significance of naming. Looking at the choices made by artists and activists, he saw the power in shedding an old name and taking on a new one. In time, he would replace his own last name. "I started to understand why people like Malcolm X were like, 'Hey, that name is a slave name,'" Edward told us in this week's episode of Namedropping. "And so I was just thinking, 'You know what, last name's gotta go.' That's not who I am."

Today, Edward is an academic historian with an interest in onomastics in the Black Power movement. As he conducted interviews with former activists, he came to understand naming as a complex social and political process: an erasure of certain vestiges of slavery, an act of self-determination, an attempt to explore the cultures from which their ancestors were taken. For these activists, names were ways to "wage struggle even better, do a better job as revolutionaries."

In our conversation, Edward relays some of his favorite anecdotes from that research, and explains how names could help those activists "disconnect their minds from the broader culture." He also shares his favorite names within his own family, including his cousin who shares a name with a beverage.

A transcript for the episode can be found here.

If you've never listened to the pod before, check out our season opener with comedian and mathematician Sridhar Ramesh.

Subscribe to Namedropping on AppleSpotify, or wherever else you listen to podcasts. Here’s our RSS feed. You can email us at, or follow us on Instagram. We hope you're enjoying the new season.

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