Geoffrey Canada: What’s in a Name

Educator Geoffrey Canada with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Educator Geoffrey Canada with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

So, “what’s in a name?” The right to choose one’s own name has a fascinating and fraught history in the African American tradition. We saw that naming has a complicated history in the Jewish tradition as well, when we revealed to Barbara Walters her family’s original name and the shtetls (villages) from which two branches of her family hailed in eastern Europe. As genealogist Jim Yarin told us, Jews often changed their names within the shtetl, since their surnames had been imposed by the state, often to insult them. “Goldwater,” Jim said, was a pun on urine. You get the picture. So Jewish people sometimes had a public name and a private name: a name within the shtetl and another name outside of it. In Barbara’s case, her family had four public names in London and America before finally settling on Walters. But their original name was Warmwasser, meaning “warm water.”

I always ask a guest what it is they would most like to learn about their roots. In Geoffrey Canada’s, case, he said that he knows nothing about his father’s line and this lack of knowledge has haunted him for most of his life. Tomorrow, I have the extraordinary pleasure of being able to give him this gift: the knowledge of his father’s ancestors, back into the deep recesses of slavery, and possibly beyond. He will learn that his name is not his ancestor’s original name, though it is close. And that his ancestors even took a third name before settling on “Canada.” But he will also learn that he descends from a white man, and we believe we know who that white man was. We can only be sure if the direct male descendant of this white man agrees to take a DNA test, which so far he has refused to do. I am eager to see how Geoffrey feels about his, and what he suggests that we do. Will he want to know the identity of his white 4th great grandfather? I certainly would. In fact, part of this series will be a continuation of my search for the identity of my great-great grandmother’s lover, the man who fathered all 5 of her children, including Edward Lawrence Gates, my great grandfather, from whom I inherited this Irish man’s y-DNA.

Watch the full Finding Your Roots episode: Barbara Walters and Geoffrey Canada.