Graduation Year


Document Type




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)

Degree Granting Department


Major Professor

Gary L. Lemons, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Quynh Nhu Le, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Cynthia Patterson, Ph.D.

Committee Member

Cheryl Rodriguez, Ph.D.


Black, names, onomastics, racism, white supremacy, feminism, intersectionality


Oppression, Resistance, and Empowerment: The Power Dynamics of Naming and Un-naming in African American Literature, 1794 to 2019 researches and discusses the way African American authors both discuss naming and un-naming in their works and the way they use naming in their works to illustrate the dynamics of power in relationships—racial, familial, gender-related, work-related, etc. Chapter 1 focuses on the earliest forms of African American literature, memoirs in particular, also known as “slave narratives.” In their memoirs, many of those men and women who were formerly enslaved wrote about having their names taken from them and replaced with names chosen by slave masters. They also wrote about the ways those who were formerly enslaved sometimes rebelled against the names given to them and, after they achieved freedom, used names to reclaim their power and sense of autonomy. Chapters 2 (poetry), 3 (plays), and 4 (prose) discuss the ways post-slavery African American authors write about naming and un-naming or use naming to illustrate power imbalances in relationships, not only racial, but familial and gendered relationships as well. These authors write about naming that is empowering, as in a father seeking spiritual guidance to gift to a child a name that will root the child in family and guide the child in life, or disempowering, as in an oppressor un-naming, renaming, or using demeaning names to exert power over the oppressed. In African American literature, naming as a tool for oppression is most evident in deliberate white supremacist attempts to demean Black people, but patriarchal oppression and control by Black men over women and children is also illustrated in African American literature, even, sometimes, in those names that appear to be loving nicknames. This dissertation employs an onomastic lens to explore the way the authors of slave narratives illustrate the history of un-naming, which is rooted in slavery, and it explicates the various ways African American authors since the Civil War use naming in their works to illustrate both the balance and the imbalance of power in relationships with white people, in relationships within families, in gender relationships, in parent/child relationships, and in relational issues related to economic status in Black communities.