"Why Akata is no word for Black Americans"

By Siete Saudades

I recently saw an article by a young activist, Chelsea Neason. Although I commend their brilliance and astute commentary about all other parts of the article, I was alarmed to see them using the term "Akata", not only as a reference for themselves but for our entire people, Black Afro-Americans.

One of our major anxieties as a people, as a bundle of ethnicities, has always been about the terms we use to refer to ourselves and the terms that others use to refer to us. Historically, Negro, Coloured, Black, N****r and African American are terms that the state and its components have used to refer to us, a people in exile who are composed of genetic and cultural influences from 46 different African ethnicities.

For the most part, these are not terms that black people have come up with. We did not invent race or racial ideology, and definitely not racial oppression. As it stands, there is no singular term that we universally use to refer to ourselves, only general consensus about approximations. Due to our multiethnic heritage, we cannot point to a single African culture as home or use their languages to define us as a whole. We would be minimizing our other histories in doing so.

Which brings us to the word Akata, a Yoruba word often used to refer to black Americans.  The context of the word akata applied to black people is inherently derogatory.

Akata means wild cat or wild dog and for a culture that highly prizes order, conformity, coolness, home based-ness, and structure, it is derogatory. Unruly people are not celebrated, and even difficult Yoruba teenagers in diaspora are often sent back to Nigeria to be disciplined into conformity. Akata says that we have no home, no birthright, that we are "wild" and "cultureless". These insults often lobbed at us, often by people who absorb, utilize, and accessorize with our cultures.

I have seen that an individual has edited a Wikipedia link defining akata to include that it means "Black Panther". The word is not specific to panthers, and the word for black is dudu. If it were actually so, it would be "akata dudu" or something of that sort. Or better yet, ekun dudu. I am not a Yoruba scholar, however, but given the structure of Yoruba as I know it if "eiye dudu" is "black bird", why would that not be so with "akata", if it was supposed to mean "black panther"? Wouldn't "ekun dudu" be a closer translation?

I was told that the definition of akata is in The 1912 Yoruba Dictionary. This same text refers to Esu, a cosmic entity, as the devil. This flies in the face of Orisha religions, which do not have a devil. Such an inconsistency with the actual contexts and definitions within Yoruba cultures, not to mention that the text itself comes from a colonial position, deeply bothers me.

I am not accepting the word akata for us as a people. Likewise with any derogatory term. You do not see other ethnicities "reclaiming" toxic language the way we are expected to. Show me Asians, non-black Hispanics, Jews, Eastern Europeans, literally anyone….lay down and let you call them racial slurs. And that's not to say that we as black people need to operate as others do, but I feel that there is a fundamental lack of understanding, self-esteem or pride that is what causes someone to *own* a condescending and derogatory term like akata. I believe that it is a defeatist position to take.

Yorubas define themselves as Omo Oduduwa, children of a great strategist, warrior, emperor, and deity…. and we, descendants of the Yoruba, get to be called scavengers and wild animals because we are displaced? Because our ancestors suffered for hundreds of years outside of Africa? Because we are loud and opinionated? (Mind you, where did we get this if not our ancestors?) This has to stop. We are more than "akata", just as our brothers and sisters are more than "African booty scratchers", an extremely disgusting and anti-Black, anti-African term that many immigrant youth are familiar with.

That said, I hate the whole idea of "reclaiming". You cannot reclaim what is not yours, or which is a label asserted onto you by an outside group.

Neason's brilliance is quite evident elsewhere, and I want to reiterate my support of it, but I have a pointed disagreement with the label Chelsea chose for us. Context and definition count. Words have meaning. You cannot just twist a word to fit your agenda or narrative, especially when there is an existing definition.

My Yoruba name, Adetokunbo, means "crown born overseas".

I'm sure there is a far better way to say that we are displaced than to say "akata". A reverent, respectful, word of honor that acknowledges our history. To own akata ignores all the ways that the Yoruba themselves engage with the world, how they feel about themselves, and so on. They are a people of many words, evidenced by their use of oriki, praise poetry. Oriki, like Ifa itself, is considered by UNESCO to be an important part of world culture.

There are better words for us.