Call me Akata: Reclaiming our birthright as Indigenous and African people born on American soil
Slave ship technologies may be powerfully place-rupturing, but they are not being-shattering.
by Chelsea Neason
In 1964, Malcolm X made history with “The Ballot or the Bullet”. With this speech, he proclaimed a bone-shaking truth: Black people born in America are not Americans. In Detroit, MI during one of the most impactful decades of visible Black resistance in the United States, Malcolm declared:
“We are Africans, and we happen to be in America. We are not Americans. We are a people who formerly were Africans who were kidnaped and brought to America…We were brought here against our will; we were not brought here to be made citizens. We were not brought here to enjoy the constitutional gifts that they speak so beautifully about today.”
Later that year, he voyaged to various key places in Africa on a mission to develop international Black solidarity. During his stop in Accra, Ghana he wrote a letter in which he observed:
“The people of Nigeria are strongly concerned with the problems of their African brothers in America, but the U.S. information agencies in Africa create the impression that progress is being made and the problem is being solved. Upon close study, one can easily see a gigantic design to keep Africans here and the African-Americans from getting together. An African official told me, ‘When one combines the number of peoples of African descent in South, Central and North America, they total well over 80 million. One can easily understand the attempts to keep the Africans from ever uniting with the African-Americans.’”
Indeed, white supremacy works on multiple levels to enforce a hard binary between Black people in the U.S. and those in the every other part of the world, especially on the Continent. Some believe that Black Americans should cease to exist as a distinct people and that we are only valid if we copy other ethnic groups completely.
Others see our distinctness as proof that we are inherently removed from African-ness forever. Recent analyses of Black Panther as being representative of a sweeping antagonism between Africa and the Diaspora speaks directly to this state of dynamic tension.
One cultural hotspot for this tension is in the word “Akata”, a Yoruba term with a complicated history. The essential meaning translates roughly to “wild animal”—usually a wild cat such as a panther or leopard (though some have contended that it means “fox” or “jackal” instead). The word may have become widely associated with Black American people in the mind’s eye of young Nigerian immigrant students during the Black Panther Party’s high visibility on college campuses in the 1960s-1970s, when our radical youth claimed their identities as displaced African people on the world’s stage.
These were a pivotal two decades for Black American cultural autonomy. The Black Panthers’ fierce wild cat totem burns in the mind, as does the Black Arts Movement with its expressions of our very West African sense of cool and signature revolutionary spirit. Jazz talk had recursively made its way throughout the 20th century into 70s jive talk, in which Black Americans meaningfully and symbolically referred to each other as “cat”.
Continuing the African-centered momentum that our freedom fighters set in motion years ago, I am choosing to form a symbolic socio-political identity using this word. In doing so, I want to re-assert these clarifying statements about Black people born in America.
Black people in America are not fundamentally and forever changed by the Middle Passage into something different from Africanness.
Whiteness is a set of processes and technologies designed so that its embodiers can try to become the arbiters of existence itself. This is a state Dr. Marimba Ani calls reification—the “hardening of dynamic, vital truth into deadened dogma…It denies circularity and the spiral of organic development. It prevents transcendence of ordinary time and space, thereby denying ancestral ontological experience” (Ani, 1994).
I reject the notion that whiteness is powerful enough to succeed at becoming ontological. Slave ship technologies may be powerfully place-rupturing, but they are not being-shattering.
Whiteness cannot mystically transform Black African people into things using the Middle Passage—a violent desecration of the sacred indigenous concepts of journey and pilgrimage. Africanness can not be destroyed because it is not a dead fact. Much like the self-replicating fractal designs we continue to create on the Continent and in the United States, it is an ongoing set of recursive processes recreating itself in our daily lives.
Black people in America are co-creators of culture that is as valid and authentic as other Black peoples’.
I reject whiteness’ use of Black peoples as entertainment by pitting us against one another in culture (or lack-of-culture) wars. Gladiatorial proxy battles are a violent pastime that white Americans regularly enjoy in categorizing Black culture produced by people living in any place considered “exotic” as inherently more authentic, valid, or valuable.
When traveling abroad Black people from the West are often treated more favorably than Black people local to the area or from the Continent. The reality is that hierarchies of Blackness exist throughout the colonized world, and I reject these hierarchical notions of Blackness.
Black people living in America are a nation unto ourselves.
The liberal promises of civic nationalist American citizenship cast a tolerant veneer over naked imperialism and anti-Blackness. While claiming to incorporate all and refuse promoting one culture over another, this ideology actually serves to overrepresent white Western culture as some universal “human” way of being that Black people in America can never truly embody.
Regardless of what our birth certificates might say, we are not American. America is a foreign nation-state currently holding an entire Black indigenous nation captive while occupying and colonizing the lands of many other indigenous peoples, domestically and globally. We do not belong to them, nor does their orchestration of our traumas define who we are.
Black people living in America have the right to African indigenous identity, and to a name that does not reference our captors.
I choose to lay claim to our birthright as indigenous and African people. As a part of this process, I am choosing to reclaim the term Akata as a name for African-centered ethnic identity in the United States.
Some use Akata as a pejorative, but I come from a nation of people with the audacity to hijack the word “nigga” and infuse a multiplicity of meanings into this term initially meant to describe lack of being and humanity. I believe in our very African capacity to do even more with this deeply symbolic word, and am proud to come from a nation known as the Wild Cats of the African diaspora. Our revolutionary spirit exists to remind the world that your respectability politics have no power here—you cannot tame Africans.
Call me Akata, because my people are wild.
We are an indigenous African nation constantly rebelling against a foreign government. Our totemic symbol is the Black Panther, a wild animal. Our language is AAVE, with many dialects still being created.
We are made up of sub-tribes such as the Gullah/Geechee, Louisiana Creole, Mississippi Delta, and many more. We have created martial arts, traditional foods, and our sonic shamans have swum in the medicine of music so much that art movements drip from their minds—movements that are deeply loved and responded to by Black artists around the world.
I am a practitioner within a lineage of our religion—Hoodoo/Conjure—which in turn has its lineage in Kongo religion of central Africa, Odinani of the Igbo, Ifá of the Yoruba. We continue to work alongside other Diasporic African traditions from Palo to Vodou, and dip daily into the same ancestral pools of knowledge to intentionally develop new cultures and identities no matter where we are across time and space.
We are Africa, and we cannot be contained.
Chelsea is a 24-year-old Conjure practitioner and student, working to participate in the global creative project that is Blackness