What’s in a name?

African American Heritage Trail puts out new books for Island classrooms.


“It’s very important that students understand that life is about choices made, and that we all face significant choices. The choices we make effect the environment in which we live,” explained cofounder and tour leader of the African American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard Elaine Cawley Weintraub, when asked about the group’s new children’s book. “A Good Name Is More Precious than Gold and Silver: Stories of Enslaved People of Martha’s Vineyard” is a new series of books for the younger audience, dedicated to honoring those on Martha’s Vineyard who had their names and liberty stolen through enslavement.

The series of books, divided for younger elementary, older elementary, and middle school students, all cover the same topics and contents while effectively adapting the reading level appropriate for each age group. Each edition shares the same cover of the main character, Nancy Michael, but has different colors to represent the age group: brown for book one, blue for book two, and green for book three. They tell the story of the origin of Nancy’s name, which comes from her distant relatives who lived on the Island in the late 1700s. Many of Nancy’s relatives were sold into slavery and lost their original names, because of which not much is known about them. The inspiration and motivation for writing the book came when creating the Nameless Trail, a site created by students of the Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School to recognize those who were enslaved on the Island, and those who were able to escape enslavement. “I had long felt that we needed a children’s book geared to developmental age that explored difficult topics such as enslavement in a way that would allow children to relate to its meaning and thus be able to gain a lifelong understanding of that meaning,” said Weintraub.

The title and the theme of the book were suggested by the illustrator of the book, Roisin Ox, “a good name is more precious than gold and silver,” a saying that originated with the Yoruba people of Western Africa. Weintraub made it clear that the importance of a name was a clear guiding principle throughout the project. A name is how we express ourselves, and it shows our place in the world, and, as Weintraub said, “It helps to explain just how profound the loss of a person’s name is.”

They also wanted the connection between the importance of a name and the authentic history of the Vineyard to be part of the series. The books do not try to deny that slavery occured on the Island, just as it happened everywhere in early America, but they also focus on the knowledge that the Vineyard later became a shelter for those seeking freedom. Examples include Frederick Douglass’ speeches against slavery, and the Wampanoag Tribe’s determination to ensure the safety and escape of Randall Burton to Canada for the freedom he desired. These and many more stories are peppered throughout the book to remind the students and young people reading that this history happened where they live.

Weintraub expressed that this project was incredibly important to her; she wants to give the students on the Island an equal chance to learn about the history right here: “One-size-fits-all history focused on places and people far away from us does not allow students to relate the stories they hear to their own lives.” She also shared that a full set of the books has been given to the Charter School, and she is planning to donate copies of all three editions to all of the Island schools and the Island libraries. They are also being sold at Edgartown Books, Bunch of Grapes, Sideline, and on the organization’s website, mvafricanamericanheritagetrail.org.