Thursday, October 13, 2011

Akata Is A Mean Spirited Word

Written by Azizi Powell

It might suprise African Americans to know that some Africans don't have love for African Americans. Indeed, some Africans-I'm looking at you Nigerians-use an informal referent for African Americans that I think is quite mean spirited. That referent is "Akata".

I think "akata" is pronounced ah-KAH-tah. But I'm not sure. Actually, although I've met a number of Nigerians (mostly Yorubas and Igbos) in my adopted city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, I've never heard the word "akata" spoken. And I've never been directly referred to by that word-or at least I don't think I have.

My knowledge of the word "akata" is very new. I found out about that referent last week when I happened upon on this 2006 discussion thread "Re: Akata?". (By the way "Nairaland" and "Naija" are hip, modern ways of saying "Nigeria" and "Nigerian"). From that discussion thread, I learned that there are various theories about the origin & meanings of the word "akata". Most commenters on that thread thought that akata was a word of Yoruba origin. While a few commenters on that discussion thread took the position that "akata" wasn't necessarily negative, most commenters agreed that that word had a meaning similar to what Americans call "the n word". Some commenters gave the source meaning of "akata" as "wild cat", "wild fox", or "goat". But those source meanings seemed speculative to me. The word "ataka" gained some publicity in the USA by its inclusion in the 1994 Wesley Snipes movie Sugar Hill. Brotha Wesley played a drug dealer who beat on some Naijas who called him "akata" after he learned that (according to them) "akata" meant "cotton picker". However, one commenter discounted that "cotton picker" was what akata really meant because there is no word in Yoruba for "cotton".

Here are several excerpts from that lengthy discussion thread:
Join me in the middle of ecstasy; [tag name] 2008
..."well when I was in Nigeria, people often referred to black americans as "akatas" which is a very stubborn animal kinda like a goat. I know I wouldn't appreciate being called that. But many people back home thought many black americans lacked manners and home training and are very stubborn which is why they nicknamed them "akata". Even till today here in the states, many Nigerians still call black americans "akata" even if its not supposed to mean something negative. It just became a name that stuck.

Also when someone acts in defiance or is very stubborn, Nigeriians say "why are you beiing such an akata?" clearly this is a stereotype as not every black american is "akata"-ish."
Drusilla (f) June 13, 2006
..."Any African American who hears somebody calling them an Akata, should have the exact reaction [African American commenter] Hero did and cuss the person out.

Better yet, pull out a roll of toilet paper and offer to send it to Nigeria for their mama to learn of this new toilet paper technology.

It's an insult. Why play?"

food4tot ; June 14, 2006
"The use of the word can be banned but I don't see that happening in Nigeria for instance. Even Americans born to Nigerian parents are called "akata" by their uncles, aunties, cousins (when the go back to Nigeria).

Its a nickname, and sometimes it is used to tease "akatas" about their foreign outlook. I know Nigerians like teasing people just to get them wound up.

You can ban it in US but you will need to do a lot to ban the use of such words in Nigeria. They will just keep on teasing you just to see your colour go red(if you have a very pale skin). That redness would be an amusement to them and they wont stop taunting you until you grow a thick skin to it. That is when they might stop."

Drusilla (f); June 14, 2006
It's not about banning. It's not about not calling names. African Americans love to play the dozens as well.

You know and I know, that there are things about Nigeria and Nigerians that if said in public company would make every Nigerian want to crawl in a hole and die. (Unless they are Black people. )

So African Americans are not unarmed if someone wants to play the name calling game.

It is the pretense that this is not what is being said, that bothers me.

Don't piss on me and pretend you are giving me water."

I'm just loving the last line of that last excerpted comment. I think I'll borrow it. It sounds so African.

Here's my bottom line. I'm African American and I believe that "akata" is a mean spirited word. As we Black Americans say "Come on, son (or daughter). For those not in the know, that means "You can do better than that". So my Naija peeps, when I chastise you, know that I do it out of love.

To show that I still love all my Naija family, here are two Nigerian videos that I really like:

Fela Kuti - Teacher Don't teach Me No Nonsense

evad6832,·Uploaded on Apr 27, 2007

fela kuti live

Darey - "Ba Ni Kidi"

Uploaded by DareyOnline on Apr 27, 2011

"A really fun song with plenty of energy, rhythm and non stop action! The vibe is addictive and sure to get you moving something!!!'Ba Ni Kidi' means 'Give MeThe Beat'. Directed &Produced by Mark Hofmeyr and Soul Muzik."

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  1. Azizi, I checked the nairaland forum,mostly to see if anyone discussed what first came to mind when I read this.Here's the comment by chinani...
    "think about the nature of West African languages. Use Igbo & Yoruba for example. In both languages words are spelled the same but mean different things b/c our languages are tonal. So anyone who tells you it has a definite meaning one way or another is misinformed."
    Some posters think it is entirely dismissive or belittling,but as this poster suggested the actual meaning would depend on the pronunciation.Without the tonal indications it would be impossible to know exactly what is meant.
    I don't know if it is a Yoruba word,but I do know that many Yoruba are no longer fluent in the language,as it is considered more modern and sophisticated to speak English,and many people communicate mostly in Nigerian pidgen because it can be understood across cultures and ethnicities.The younger posters may have no idea of the origin of the word and may be more likely to use it as a slur.
    When I was in Nigeria I heard the word "oyinbo" several times,and when I asked my husband for the meaning he looked at his brothers as if to ask whether he should tell me. It means white man(or person),and when children were running after our car shouting "oyinbo pepe(pepper)" it was clearly meant as a taunt.I took it to mean that I am as white as a pepper,in other words pinkish.I also know that it can be used derisively or simply descriptively,and I got kudos for coining the phrase "oyinbo tax" for the extra money people wanted to charge for white people.Yorubas do have a great sense of humor and love to tease and sometimes be teased,so I think it will be difficult to get a definitive answer on the word itself.I think it would largely depend on the person using it.
    Meanwhile I will ask my Yoruba husband,and some Yoruba friends and family for their opinions,and I'll get back to you.
    Sally Adebayo

  2. Thanks, Sally.

    I appreciate your comment. Thanks also for sharing your personal experiences with being called "oyinbo".

    I look forward to learning more about the origin and original meaning of "ataka".

  3. I like what is going on here keep it up

  4. the correct term is "akata"
    - I myself am nigerian...

    1. Thanks, anonymous.

      I made a typo in the beginning of my comments to that post and continued that incorrect spelling throughout my comments with the correct spelling in the post. That's very poor editing on my part.

      I've made those corrections.

  5. Two of my African Cowokers told me their people call us "Akata" and laughed. I had a feeling it was something bad... I'm pretty pissed now. Thank you for blogging this because I had no idea what it really meant.

    1. You're welcome, anonymous.

      I also don't like the word "Ataka". I published this post to increase awareness of this word. That said, that word doesn't define all Nigerians since I doubt everyone in that nation uses it. Also, that word doesn't define all of the people who use it or who have used it.

      I'd like to share this true story that happened to me way back in 1964 which I think is relevant to this topic.

      This encounter happened to me when I was a teenager attending a one week summer assembly (a Bible course for young people) at a New Jersey liberal arts college. African American students from throughout the state who attended that religious course were housed on the campus of that college and we ate our meals at the same cafeteria as "real" college students who were attending summer school for their accredited courses.

      On that particular day when I was in the cafeteria lunch line I realized that there was a young Black African man standing in front of me. (I recognized him as an African because I had just read a book about some people in that continent having "tribal scars" on their face.)

      I remember getting my nerve up and asking that man "Excuse me, are you from Africa?" When the man answered "Yes", I continued by saying "I've read that Africans don't like Black Americans. Why is that?"

      I remember that man looking at me and saying "Black people in the United States don't like yourself. Why should anyone else like you?"

      That's all that I remember about that conversation. But it left a lasting impression on me. Now, decades later I can truly say that I have high self-esteem and high racial (group) esteem. And that conversation with that man whose name I probably never knew was one of the things that motivated me to get here.

      Thank you for so succinctly getting to the heart of the matter, brother who ever you are.