In the late ’90s, not long after I left Cameroon to attend college in the United States, I learned of a word used in certain African-immigrant communities to refer to African Americans: Akata.
It was not uttered with affection; far from it—Akata means “wild animal,” and thus has much in common with the N-word. In my early days here, it wasn’t unusual for me to see a fellow African look at an African American and say, with a sneer, “Look at that Akata,” or “I just don’t understand these Akatas.”
Days after George Floyd was killed, I attended a Zoom memorial of sorts, organized by Africans for Africans, so we could mourn his death together and think of how we, as a community, could better treat our American brethren.
The ludicrousness of this was not lost on me—that it would take so long, take a tragedy of this public magnitude, for us to see what America had been doing to our brothers and sisters; that it would take a graphic video for both immigrants and citizens of America to comprehend what they’d wrought in fostering an environment in which African Americans are so often treated like animals.
Early on in His Name Is George Floyd, Robert Samuels and Toluse Olorunnipa make mention of the fact that George Floyd wanted to change the world. “As long as anyone can remember,” they write, he “wanted the world to know his name.” It is hard to read this sentence and not feel a twinge of sadness, considering that the world did not come to know his name in the way he’d imagined. It’s unlikely that Floyd ever dreamed he would one day cause an entire nation—nay, the entire planet—to reckon with its centuries-long destruction of Black bodies.
As Samuels and Olorunnipa tell it, Floyd’s aspirations were quite ordinary—he wanted, among other things, to be an athlete and achieve fame and fortune, but American racism stood in his way, and Floyd stood in his own way, largely as a reaction to American racism standing in his way. This mélange created an unsustainable situation that was all but bound to explode.
Samuels and Olorunnipa deserve every praise for presenting Floyd as the complex character that he was—what human isn’t? Both writers are Black men and could easily have diluted portions of the book that show Floyd’s many shortcomings and poor decision making, but they resisted the urge. The result is an expertly researched and excellent biography, a necessary and enlightening read for all, especially those who, like my fellow African immigrants in the ’90s, have ever looked upon young Black men in the inner city with disdain.
If america were a more perfect union, George Floyd might have been born into a wealthy family thanks to his industrious great-great-grandfather, a former enslaved person who “after more than thirty years of working as a free man … had managed to amass five hundred acres of his own farmland” in a period when, at one point, “less than 2 percent of White farmers in North Carolina held more than five hundred acres of land.”
But America then, and now, is not a place where white people are overly comfortable with Black success, so white men had Floyd’s ancestor dealt with, eventually dispossessing him of all those acres and ensuring that later generations would not get a sniff at the American dream. And so it would be.
By the time George Floyd was born in October 1973, every generation since his ancestral land was stolen had known only failed dreams. He spent his early days living with his family in a trailer park in North Carolina as his parents nursed the pains of their futile attempts to escape poverty.
Their marriage ended when Floyd was still a boy, and his mother moved, along with her children, to Houston, where they ultimately settled in a housing project “with a population that was 99 percent Black and most residents living well below the poverty line.”