In the spirit of America's Black History Month (which is celebrated every February), I have chosen to write on a really uncomfortable subject-matter: the unkind things American blacks and African immigrants in America say to each other either good-humoredly or in moments of inflamed passions.
About three years ago, my then 6-year-old daughter came back from school looking noticeably anguished. The first thing she said to me was, "daddy, what does 'African booty scratcher' mean?" I had never heard that expression before, but it struck me as singularly hilarious. So I laughed out loud. But my daughter didn't share in my fun. "That isn't funny, daddy! It's a really mean insult."
She was right. "African booty scratcher" is an insulting phrase that American blacks reserve for African immigrants in America. My daughter said it was her African-American classmates (toward whom she gravitated when she first got here) that called her an "African booty scratcher." She knew it was no compliment because other students laughed boisterously at her expense. She reported them to the school principal (American elementary schools have "principals," not "headmasters") who punished them.
But my daughter still wanted to know what in the world an "African booty scratcher" meant. I know "booty" is the slang term for "buttocks" in (African) American English, and a scratcher is one who scratches a body part to relieve an itch. That means an African booty scratcher is an African who habitually scratches his buttocks. But I knew it had to mean more than that.
I called some of my African-American friends to ask what they knew about the expression. It wasn't a pleasant discussion for them. So I turned to the Internet for answers. It turned out that the expression has existed in black American vernacular speech since at least the 1970s. It grew out of the stereotypical images of poor, starving, barefooted, barely clothed African children in "Save the Children" or "CARE" commercials on American TVs. The commercials showed, as they still do, African children in tattered, begrimed clothes driving away flies and scratching several parts of their bodies. It speaks to American pop culture's prurient fixation that, of all the body parts children in the TV commercials scratch, they chose to isolate the "booty."
A hugely popular and critically acclaimed 1991 African-American movie titled "Boyz N The Hood" gave wings to the expression. The protagonist of the movie, 10-year-old Tre Styles, tells his class that everybody is from Africa. "Did you know that Africa is where the body of the first man was found? My daddy says that's where all people originated from. That means everybody's really from Africa. Everybody. All y'all. Everybody," he says.
But a dark-skinned boy in the class rejects the suggestion that he is from Africa. "I ain't from Africa. I'm from Crenshaw Mafia," he says, referring to his membership of a gang in Crenshaw, a predominantly black neighborhood in Los Angeles.
"Like it or not, you from Africa," the protagonist insists. But the black boy couldn't bear to think he's African. "I ain't from Africa. You from Africa. You African booty-scratcher!" he shot back.
Until my daughter caused me to research the term, the only insulting expression I knew African Americans had for Africans was "jungle bunny." Never mind that almost half of Africa is desert and only about 20 percent is jungle or rainforest!
But it isn't only African Americans who have insulting expressions for African immigrants. Our people also call American blacks "Akata." When one of my African-American friends asked me what the term meant two years ago, I felt the same sensation of discomfort that my African-American friends must have felt when I asked them about "African booty scratcher."
The truth is that I had never heard the term "Akata" until I came here. It is a Yoruba word for "wild cat," which encapsulates the impressions that registered in the minds of the first Yoruba immigrants to America about African Americans: that they are wild, rude, impetuous, aggressive, and uncultured. African-American pop culture has popularized the notion that the term means "cotton picker" or "slave," or "nigger," but that's completely inaccurate.
"Akata" has evolved from being an exclusively derogatory term that Yoruba immigrants hurled at African Americans to an inoffensive descriptive term used by most African (not just Nigerian) immigrants here to refer to African Americans. The word can also function as an adjective, as in "Akata culture," "Akata music," etc., although there is often a thinly veiled whiff of condescension and disdain when the term is used attributively. Plus, African Americans understand the term to be insulting irrespective of its semantic evolution among African immigrants.
A Ghanaian professor by the name of George Ayittey who used to teach at the American University in Washington, DC once said "Akata" is the corruption of "I gotta." He speculated that African immigrants in America called American blacks "Agata" and later "Akata" because of the excessive frequency of "I gotta" in the speech of African Americans--in the same way that Yoruba people are derisively called "Ngbati" in Nigeria because of the disproportionate occurrence of the word "ngbati" (which roughly means "when," but which sometimes functions as a hesitation filler) in their demotic speech.
But Ayittey's theory is implausible. A man who said it was his uncle who coined the term "Akata" to refer to African Americans in the 1960s disputed Ayittey's proposition. Interestingly, many Yoruba people I spoke with in Nigeria told me "Akata" is not part of the active idiolect of contemporary spoken Yoruba.
The exchange of ethnic slurs isn't limited to African Americans and African immigrants in America. (Wikipedia has a huge repertoire of racial and ethnic slurs that several groups throw at each other). And it certainly isn't the only feature of the relationship between the two groups. But given the historical and racial affinities between Africans and African Americans--and the expectation of cordiality, acceptance, and courtesy between them--these slurs can activate painful expectancy violations.