This is a major theme in my life right now, and I'm planning on writing an essay on it. The more I talk to folks about it, the more I see it's a very common theme for all people of color--and probably for lots of white folks too, but here in California that history's a bit more obscured from my everyday experience.
But until I get started on that essay, here's an especially moving passage I just read from Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon on the same theme. This is from a conversation between twelve-year-old Macon Dead III and his father, the Junior, talking about what happened to Junior's father, Macon Dead Sr..
"'Pilate said somebody shot your father. Five feet into the air.'
'Took him sixteen years to get that farm to where it was paying. It's all dairy country up there now. Then it wasn't. Then it was...nice.'
"'Who shot him, Daddy?'"
"Macon focused his eyes on hs son. 'Papa couldn't read, couldn't even sign his name. Had a mark he used. They tricked him. He signed something, I don't know what, and they told him they owned his property. He never read nothing. I tried to teach hi, but he said he couldn't remember those little marks from one day to the next. Wrote one word in his life--Pilate's name; copied from the Bible. That's what she got folded up in that earring. He should have let me teach him. Everything bad that ever happened to him happened because he couldn't read. Got his name messed up cause he couldn't read.'
'His name? How?'
'When freedom came. All the colored people in the state had to register with the Freedman's Bureau.'
'Your father was a slave?'
'What kind of foolish question is that? Course he was. Who hadn't been in 1869? They all had to register. Free and not free. Free and used-to-be-slaves. Papa was in his teens and went to sign up, but the man behind the desk was drunk. He asked Papa where he was born. Papa said Macon. Then he asked him who his father was. Papa said, 'He's dead.' Asked him who owned him, Papa said, 'I'm free.' Well, the Yankee wrote it all down, but in the wrong spaces. Had him born in Dunfrie, wherever the hell that is, and in the space for his name the fool wrote, 'Dead' comma 'Macon.' But Papa couldn't read so he never found out what he was registered as till Mama told him. They met on a wagon going North. Started talking about one thing and another, told her about being a freedman and showed off his papers to her. When she looked at his paper she read him out what it said.'
'He didn't have to keep the name, did he? He could have used his real name, couldn't he?'
'Mama liked it. Liked the name. Said it was new and would wipe out the past. Wipe it all out.'"