A curious yet highly explainable tension persists between native born African Americans and immigrant Africans in America. At its simplest, the tension manifests as mutual antagonism between the seemingly resentful indigenes and the apparently disdainful immigrants. But the tension is more complex than such simplistic depiction. Our contributor examines this intricate issue, a subject that has become even more poignant with the latest manifestation of police brutality against all Blacks that led to the cold-blooded murder of an African American man, George Floyd, on a concrete pavement in Minneapolis.
By Chidera Michaels
African Americans and Africans in America are two peoples from the same root that were separated by an ugly history, and now live alongside each other in America with sometimes palpable smoldering tension between them. This tension, sometimes barely below the surface, is so real that the two groups often walk on eggshells whenever they are around each other. And each group suspects and distrusts the other for perhaps some cogent reasons, but also for an amalgam of vacuous and nebulous reasons.
I chose to call one group “Africans in America” just so that they could be differentiated from the other group. Otherwise both groups are usually lumped together by the public as simply African Americans. And since most Africans in America are naturalized Americans, they are rightfully referred to as African Americans or black Americans by the public.
When I arrived in the United States, it was not long before I heard an African American referred to as “Akata” by my friend with whom I lived at the time. I was surprised by that word, mostly by the sound of it. When I asked him what the word meant, he said that he didn’t know. So, I decided that someone must have coined the word for its onomatopoeic value, or for its potential to annoy those for whom the epithet was intended. Even then I had the feeling that the word was meant as a negative epithet because of the way my friend whispered the word to me when our African American friend was out of earshot.
Along the way, I found out that the word was being used by virtually every African in America, not just by Nigerians. Then about two years ago I learned for the first time the meaning and etymology of the word. I learned that “Akata” means a wild cat, and that the word is a Yoruba word. Yoruba is a language spoken by people in the southwestern Nigeria. I was nonplussed when I learned this. What on earth prompted someone to start calling African Americans this name? And what could be the purpose?
I was also surprised by the meaning of the word for another reason. All along I had thought that the word meant something very awful. Not that calling someone a wild cat was not awful enough. I just thought that it meant something much more awful. I say that because of the connotation the word held for me before I learned the meaning of it. Prior to learning the meaning of the word, I have never heard an African say of an African American, “Oh, there goes an Akata. Bless her heart.” No! What I have always heard is akin to the following: “Why are you surprised she did that? Don’t you know that she’s an Akata? What did you expect?”
While looking into the reason for this ill-thought-out denigration of an already beleaguered people by their own society, I also needed to know how the Yorubas used the word in Yorubaland? So, I began to ask around amongst my Yoruba friends and acquaintances. What I learned about the word surprised me yet again. They told me that someone started referring to African Americans as Akata because they are of African stock but live outside Africa, their natural habitat. Contrary to what I had learned, these Yorubas told me that Akata does not refer to animals like cheetah, tiger, or lion.
The word refers to those cats that are in every way like the domestic cats but live in the wilds. People from my area of Igboland call them “aghulu,” while the regular cat that live in the homes are called “busu.” The Yorubas I spoke to said that they too were surprised to learn that African Americans were being referred to as Akata, for two reasons. First, they were surprised that someone would decide to refer to African Americans as Akata. Second, they were surprised that the word became a negative epithet. However, they also confessed to have used the word in its current usage, i.e. as a negative epithet for African Americans.
But I think that it is fundamentally wrong for African Americans or any other group of people to be called a demeaning or an unflattering name. It is doubly wrong in this instance because our African American cousins have been of immense help to Africans in America in our quest to obtain documentation here in the USA. How can anyone conceive of calling them wild cats given the way their forebears were brought to this place? And what about what they had been through (and are still being put through) all these years by the white people? And we, of all people, will add to that too?
And, it has been said by some African Americans that Africans in America are taking up the opportunities they fought for with blood and tears. I sincerely salute those noble and courageous African Americans who, through their efforts, made possible the opportunities we enjoy today. But the part about taking native-born African Americans’ opportunities is probably not well thought out. That’s because a lot of the opportunities that became available are not being seized by a chunk of black Americans, especially by black American males. However, it must be acknowledged that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws could be responsible for this lag by African American males. But blaming these twin evils is wearing thin by the day.
So, Africans (especially Nigerians) who came to America, hungry for education and progress that aren’t available in their homelands, grabbed these opportunities with both hands and won’t let go. Therefore, in my view it is wrong for African Americans to fault Africans in America for seizing these opportunities. I think that there is no need for begrudging Africans in America for grabbing these opportunities. The reason is because there are enough opportunities to go round. Remember that these Africans in America sometimes needed to be twice as good as white persons to be offered the positions.
It’s for this reason that Africans in America (especially Nigerians) excel in education. That is the only way they know to gain acceptance into this very racist society. But to explain away why Nigerians are the most educated sub-group of people in America today, some African Americans have insinuated that the reason is because these Nigerian Americans are the cream of the crop from their country; that they are the privileged and the smartest from their land. Really? That would make me one of the privileged and smartest from Nigeria. And I know that not to be true.
I could be wrong, but I would have thought that it would be a source of pride for African Americans that their cousins from Africa are conquering education in America. Racist whites have always maintained that black people have lower IQ than whites. The performance by Nigerian immigrants should dispel that if racist whites tell themselves the truth.
However, there is something to be said about being told from the moment you were born that you are inferior. That does things to one’s psyche. But I was of the view that seeing their cousins from Africa performing well would free them from the shackles of inferiority complex. African Americans who are born in America are not inferior to anyone. And I don’t think that they need me to tell them that before they believe that they are not inferior to anyone.
Here’s another fallacy closely related to the above. I have heard some African Americans say that Africans in America look down on them, i.e. feel superior to them. The first time I heard it, I felt sad. Why would Africans in America feel superior to African Americans? Superior in what way? Superior because their homeland is being pillaged by tribal illiterates along with their corrupt enablers?
I am not saying that there are not some Africans in America who may have this inexplicably idiotic feeling of superiority. But I think that the feeling of Africans in America would be one of gratitude rather than feeling of superiority toward their African American cousins. For one, almost every African in America who became naturalized American owe it to an African American. The last sentence doesn’t need to be explained to anyone in the African community in America.
There are, however, a section of Africans in America who do not appear to like African American females. These are African females in America. They allege that African American females flaunt their sexuality on their men’s faces – like literally. Following from this, they further allege that these black American females use their sexuality to poach their men and husbands. I don’t understand what these African females are talking about. In my view, African American females seem to understand why God broke the mold after creating the female species. African females in America probably need to adapt and copy; as long as they keep within probity, and within the values instilled in them while growing up in their homelands.
Another area of difference between African Americans and their African cousins is the seeming lack of marital commitment by African Americans. My first job in America was as a swing shift security guard in a telecommunication company. My partner was a female African American security guard with whom I became friendly over time. She was twenty-eight years old at the time and not married but had four children. That fact would not mean anything to an average American, but as a new immigrant from Africa I was blown away.
And then one day while we were shooting the breeze, she unloaded on me this mother of all doozies. She told me that she had had each of the four children with a different man. Blood drained from my face. When she noticed the shock on my face, she laughed nervously and quipped, “I’m a sinner, right? You ‘effing’ African prick!” Thereupon I apologized and explained to her that I had never been made privy to such knowledge before. That was more than thirty years ago. Now nothing shocks me anymore.
I am not sure what is responsible for this lack of marital commitment among African Americans. Some have opined that it’s because there are not enough African American males to go round. Way too many of them are in prison or recycling through the judicial system. And too many of them are being lost through gang turf wars in their neighborhoods. All the above may be true, but there is a kind of averseness to close relationship that is prevalent among black American men. A black psychologist friend of mine told me that the problem goes all the way back to the slavery time when marriages between slaves were discouraged by their white owners. Since then, he said, it has been difficult for black men to unlearn this behavior.
Being a black man in America, it kills me that whenever the influence of African Americans is being discussed by the larger society, it is African American women that are being referred to. The men have made themselves so irrelevant that they may as well not exist. I think that I know what black American men are going through. I am an African American male for all practical purposes even though I am not a native-born American. So, I go through almost everything they go through. I came to America at the age when African American young men are routinely profiled and suspected of sundry crimes. I get stopped by the police more than I like. When I am in the white section of town, I am more careful what I do or say. But I kept my eyes on the ball.
And someone will say to me: But you didn’t grow up in my neighborhood. You don’t know how tough it is to grow up in the projects. And you don’t know what it means to be forced into a street gang against your will because they threatened to kill your mother if you didn’t. And my answer would be: No, I don’t. That’s where my experience differs from the average homegrown African American male. I know it’s hard. But all I am asking African American men to do is to try a little harder. It doesn’t help them or anyone to just roll over and play dead. African American women are carrying too much family responsibilities all by themselves. Some of them are turning to illicit drugs in order to cope, and some are being driven crazy. African American women need the help of their men.
Having said that, it behooves the African American females to take it easy on their men, especially those of them that are playing by the rules. These kinds of African American males are already being put through hell trying to make it in a white man’s world. They do not need to be dumped on by their women as well. It does not help anyone when African American females carry on as if they are prima donnas when dealing with black men, but they turn around and behave well when they are around white males.
During my early days in the United States, I got myself involved with a few African Americans of the female persuasion. So, I got to know a bit about African American culture through them. But the one African American culture I could not understand, by a long shot, is the culture of see-nothing-say-nothing. The “I ain’t a snitch” syndrome. The effects of racism may still be having debilitating effects in the African American communities, but the one that’s decimating those communities by far is the effects of the ubiquitous street gangs. These gangs have such a death grip on the lives of African Americans in these communities that the only rule of law they know is the unforgiving strangleholds of the gangs.
It’s so bad that they fear the gangs, by a mile, more than they fear the racist police officers. When a white police officer kills an African American, African Americans flood the streets to protest. But when the gangs kill hundreds, often in the presence of family members for purposes of instilling fear, no one tells the police what happened. And African Americans do not flood the streets to protest such gang shootings. It is for this reason that racist whites smirk when they see blacks protesting police killings. They think that such protests have hypocrisy and selective outrage written all over them because black Americans turn blind eyes to thousands of gangland shootings in their own neighborhoods.
I consult at this prison in the State of Maryland infrequently. There, I met this slightly deranged former white police officer who said that he was in prison for killing a black man. His best friend in prison is a black man. He told me that his friend (who was standing by his side smiling) killed more than a hundred black persons in his neighborhood but was not in prison for any of those killings. Rather, he was in prison for stealing a car at a Walmart parking lot. My jaw dropped. “I ain’t a snitch” saw to it that this guy will never serve a day in prison for those alleged killings. Now how does that make any sense?
♦ Chidera Michaels is an attorney and a Christian theologian based in Baltimore, MD, United States (email: firstname.lastname@example.org)