Skip to Main Content

Africana Studies (African American and African Studies): Country & Group Names

A guide to library research techniques and information resources in Africana Studies.

Names of Ethnic Groups, Countries, and States

The names of countries, empires and ethnic groups in Africa can often be changeable and confusing, and at times can cause problems when doing research.

Names of Ethnic Groups

Look up ethnic groups in the following encyclopedias/databases.  In them, you'll find a description of each group, and (usually) a list of alternate names for that group. Ethnic groups can have many names, some of which they've given themselves and others they've been assigned by other groups. It's important to remember that when you're researching a particular African ethnic group, it may have more than one name and that you may have to search under some of its alternate names to find information about it.

Names of Countries / States

The names of certain African countries/states have changed over time while others have names that are the same or similar to other countries/states in Africa. Still others have names that are the same as ancient or medieval African states that were in another part of the continent and have an entirely different history and ethnic makeup. These different names can cause confusion, and may require you to search under multiple names to find the history and current affairs of a single country/state. To see the past names of any modern African country/state look at the following resource. There you can look up the country/state you're interested in and find out about its name changes (if it's had any) by clicking on the "History" tab on the left-hand side of the page.

Here are a few country/state names that frequently cause confusion:

  • The Republic of Ghana is named after an ancient empire that was not located within the confines of that modern state, but was found within the boundaries of another contemporary African state, Mauritania. The peoples of ancient and modern Ghana are not ethnically related, and share no history of any consequence.
  • Modern Benin was originally named Dahomey at the time of its independence in 1960. Its name was changed to its present form in 1975. The ancient state of Benin was located in what is now Nigeria, and has no relationship to the modern state.
  • The ancient state of Kongo was located in Central Africa.  Today, there are two African countries called Congo (spelled differently from the ancient state!).  These are the Democratic Republic of the Congo (aka Congo-Kinshasa) and the Republic of the Congo (aka Congo-Brazzaville). At independence Congo-Kinshasa was officially know as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it changed its name to Zaire in the 1970's, and then back to the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the 1990's.
  • Guinea is a name that Europeans used for west Africa in centuries past.  At present, there is a west African country named Guinea, and well as another in that same region named Guinea Bissau.  There is also a central African country named Equatorial Guinea.

African American Related Terms

Hyphen or no hyphen?

When researching African-American Studies, it's important to remember that your search results will vary depending on how and when you use the term "African-American".  Because it is a hyphenated name, your search results using that name may vary greatly depending on whether you add or delete the hyphen.


  • A search for African-American in the Library's catalog will produce fewer results than one for African American (note the absence of the hyphen). The reason for the difference is that in the first instance the words African and American are being searched for together and in a specific order (African-American), while in the second instance those words are being searched for separately, in any order (in which case you might find a book like the "Africans to Spanish America").

Alternative Terms

It's also important to remember that the name "African-American" has only been widely used in the United States since the early 1990's. In the late 1960's, 70's and 80's, "black" was more frequently used, and in the 40's, 50's and early 60's "Negro" was used. If you're searching for books or articles written about African-Americans that were published prior to 1990 (and there are many, by excellent authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, etc.) the names "Black" and "Negro" may be used frequently, if not exclusively. That being said, it is also important to point out that books and articles written about Africans and African-Americans (though seldom by Africans and African-Americans) that were published before 1960 are somewhat more likely to contain historical inaccuracies and cultural biases.  Therefore, be cautious in using such resources unless you know or can find out about the scholarly reputation of the author.