Nigger, Akata, and a Nigerian cab driver [musing]



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Nigger, Akata, and a Nigerian cab driver
by Marie Kanu

A few weeks ago an unfortunate cab driver felt the hot smack of my A Million Little Pieces novel to his face.

No, it wasn’t the hard back.

His offense? The use of the word akata to describe me. Now I have to admit, my anger was not in response to a familiar term of hate that I had a long, tumultuous history with. Rather, it was just a visceral response to a recently introduced term often uttered by my play cousin to describe African Americans.

When I’d first heard the word, there was no question of its negative connotation since the individual whose lips the term frequented used it toward African Americans, women especially, in a derogatory tone. However, when I’d gauged the cab driver’s befuddled expression next to my fiery reaction, I saw an uneven scale (granted the thwack aftermath may explain at least some of his bewilderment ), I had to find out the source of my anger, and whether or not it was merited. My search had me treading on familiar ground.

Ah, akata the word of a million meanings. It seemed that the only consistent consensus is that it is a Nigerian word. According to the RC Abraham Dictionary of Modern Yoruba it is a figurative description of African Americans’ staccato style of speech, a nut eating bird, and a fox. A biology website told me that it was a sort of fish found off of the coast of Nigeria. This wasn’t getting me anywhere. None of these definitions satiated my anger’s curiosity. It wasn’t until a girlfriend of mine mentioned its use in a prolific piece of cinema, were my questions answered. So I looked into Sugar Hill.

Wesley Snipes’ character, who is a drug dealer in the flick, and his brother are receiving refusal from some Nigerian drug dealers on a possible joining forces. The reason that they are given for the rejection is that ,”We can not work with akata”. When Wesley Snipes’ character ask the meaning of the word, one Nigerian drug dealer plaintively explains,“lost children of slaves, you know cotton picker.” Of course Snipes’ charcater gets angry and a great fight scene ensues. Aha, “cotton picker” now there’s justification to beating one with a book. And it didn’t stop there. It was as if this one discovery had opened up the flood gates to hate.

One site explained it as being of Igbo descent and refers to a donkey as a beast of burden----such like a slave. I even came across a joke site stating the top ten reasons why you shouldn’t marry an akata women; some of which I even laughed out loud to. But that volume did not compare to the volume of my Igbo friend’s scoff when I told her the RC Abraham Dictionary’s definitions of the term. She explained that regardless of what any dictionary said, the Pan African attitude behind the word was that African Americans don’t have any culture, they don’t know where they’re from; therefore, they don’t know where they’re going---they lack sankofah, so to speak.

Ouch! It’s one thing to have your neighbors hate you, but from your supposed brethren, that hurts. Now I know my girlfriend only spoke so bluntly because she sees me as an African; therefore, unattached to the hurt. However, as a First Generationor, I have been brought up very American, and akata stings me with the same intensity as “nigger”. It continues to amaze me that people, not dictionaries, carry the true definition of certain words. As my friend explained, the attitude behind a word carries so much of the speaker’s views that without knowing its meaning, I instinctive reacted with rage upon its utterance. Contingent on who says it, the word can engender all its history, feelings, conflict.

Hmm, lost in translation, it’s all too familiar. Nigre , Latin for Black. Slave masters use it to describe Africa’s inhabitants. Oppressor + word used to Oppressees= Negative. But Oppressee to Oppressee = Positive? Is this ever really going to work? I doubt it. The negative definition of a word always overshadows the others, as is exemplified in the term gay. It is the person saying it that gives the true meaning of the word. Like a random guy on the street couldn’t call me bitch the way my girlfriend can. Who knows, the debate will go on and on, and so will my hatred for such terms.

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