When he came back, he’d made the decision to become Seyram Maat Selase — still an ambitious young student, still a Christian, but changed in a deep, spiritual way that even he finds hard to describe.
“For the first time, I was able to connect the dots,” he said. “I was able to see my purpose.”
Selase, 28, was elected Anniston’s Ward 3 Councilman on Aug. 28, defeating three-term Councilman Ben Little with two-thirds of the vote — a landslide. Along the way, Selase carefully wove the story of his name change into the campaign, defusing what could have been a campaign land mine.
Name changes can be a tricky proposition for political candidates. Just ask Gov. Robert Bentley, a dermatologist-cum-politician who took a ribbing from his gubernatorial rival in 2010 for tweaking his legal name to get the title “doctor” on the ballot.
For black politicians, the politics of the name are even trickier. Even President Barack Obama can’t seem to shake off the impression some people get from his name — the impression that he’s either African-born or a convert to Islam. (He’s neither.)
Selase acknowledges that he’s seen some of that himself.
“The first impression people have is that, because I changed my name, I’m a Muslim,” he said. “You just have to talk to people and tell the whole story.”
A hidden history
Elston is a well-known name in Anniston’s black community — the name of teachers and politicians, business owners and athletes.
As a young man, Selase wanted to know more about the surname he was born with. He knew the family was from the Choccolocco area, so he went to Georgia Calhoun, the local activist and historian who knows more about Choccolocco than about anyone.
“They’re not among the original settlers, but the Elstons were here a long time ago,” Calhoun told the Star. Among the Choccolocco Elstons, she said, was the former dean of Barber Seminary, a segregation-era school for African-American girls.
Calhoun directed Selase to a document that records the existence of an Elston Plantation, near Choccolocco. Selase said he believes that plantation was where his ancestors lived in slavery. Selase was able to uncover a lot of information about the white Elstons, the slaveholders who owned the plantation. There was a John Elston, he said, who came to America from Nottingham, England. There was a descendant, Allen Elston, who owned the plantation in Choccolocco.
But for Selase, the search for direct genealogical records ends in Choccolocco.
“For slaves, there just wasn’t an accurate record,” he said. “I don’t know where those people were before they came to the plantation.”
Selase said he traveled to what he believes is a plantation site. There’s an old building there: Maybe it’s a plantation house built by his ancestors. Maybe it isn’t.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s hard to tell.”
Truth, justice, righteousness
In 2006, as a student at Berea College in Kentucky, Selase signed up for a trip to Ghana.
The college encourages students to take study trips abroad, said Ann Butwell, coordinator of the school’s study-abroad program. There have been several trips to Ghana, she said, some focused on music, others on history or political science. They’re popular, she said.
Selase doesn’t know for sure that his ancestors are from Ghana. But he does know that the West African nation was home to about two dozen “slave castles” — fortresses where enslaved Africans were held awaiting transfer to slave ships and the horrifying Middle Passage to America.
During the Ghana trip, Selase visited Elmina, one of the most notorious of the slave castles. The visit didn’t answer all of his questions about his family history. But it told him enough.
“It was an experience of redemption and an experience of joy,” he said. “It reminded me of all the people who made it through the Middle Passage, and through all sorts of trials, that allowed me to be here now and run for public office.”
It was then, he said, that Marcus Elston decided he would adopt a new name.
He had Ghanains all around to help him find the right name. After consulting with members of the Ewe tribe, he chose Seyram Maat Selase, which he says means “God has blessed me with truth, justice and the righteousness to be heard.”
Breaking the news
The legal paperwork was the easy part.
“A legal name change is actually pretty simple,” he said. “Women do it all the time.”
Telling the people who knew him was a little harder. In a message to his friends — which he posted on Facebook back then, and forwarded to The Star last week — Selase made his case for the name change.
“It is a great honor to share this transformation with my family and friends,” he wrote. The message goes on to offer examples of Biblical figures who changed their names in obedience to God: Jacob’s change to Israel, Saul’s change to Paul, and so on.
Selase made it clear that he was still a Christian. If anything, the change made his commitment to his faith deeper.
“Anytime someone calls calls me that name, I remember that I have a greater purpose,” he said.
Butwell, who occasionally worked with Selase during his days as a student worker at Berea, said he let friends adapt to the change gradually.
“He let me call him Marcus for some time,” she said. “I finally got the hang of it.” She said Selase isn’t the only Berea student who made a name change after Ghana.
Selase’s soft sell of the name change seems to have paid off years later, during his run for office. In letters to The Star, Selase’s supporters touched on the name change and pointed out Selase’s Christian faith.
He’s quick to point out that he has no problem with Islam — though he sometimes has to remind people that he’s not, in fact, a Muslim. Asked whether his name change, and the response to it, gave him more sympathy for American Muslims, he was careful point out that he’s had only a glimpse of their experience.
“I can say that I’ve seen the reaction somewhat, but it’s a little difficult to know the full extent of what someone else experiences,” he said.
Selase said some voters were skeptical, at first, of his name. He said he got out ahead of any rumors by telling the story of the name change himself. He said they were surprisingly open to hearing that story.
“I think I’d have to credit President Obama for that,” he said. “People are more open to a candidate with an unusual or uncommon name.”
He said he hopes his experience can help him in the search for answers for Anniston’s problems. The city isn’t necessarily ready for a name change, he said,but it does need change.
“In the same kind of way that my life was transformed,” he said, “ I hope Anniston can be transformed — into a more inclusive, more hopeful place.”