Black Language Matters: Slick Mouths and the Fact of a Black Lexicon

Recently, I described a person in a (relative) position of power at a job as a woman with a real slick mouth.  This isn’t a compliment.  The loaded meanings of this term points to the reality of what a distinct Black Lexicon is and does.  Like I said a few weeks back, I continue to insist that Black Language Matters.

By calling this woman slick-mouthed, I am questioning her capacity for humanity and general ethical competence.  While you can readily find a hood/urban dictionary for a brief, surface-level definition of something like a “slick mouth,” what those dictionaries often miss is the political, raced location of Black Language that shapes meaning and urgency.  My interlocutor, a Black Language user, immediately understands from my word choice that I can and will prove/explain how deliberately and consciously this woman demeans other people and that her choice to do so is so violent and targeted that it warrants a general distrust for who she is and all that she does.  If I were a child on the playground and I said this person had a slick mouth with me, that would have been my justification for why I knocked her upside the head.  Perhaps, this isn’t a possible response today, but I can certainly mark her in other ways just with the use of Black Language.

Hepster“Slick mouth” represents an undeniable reality of an undeniable Black lexicon/ semantics.  We have extended histories of this: Geneva Smitherman’s Black Talk: Words and Phrases from the Hood to the Amen Corner, Clarence Major’s From Juba to Jive, J. Dillard’s Lexicon of Black English, Zora Neale Hurston’s “Glossary of Harlem Slang,” and Cab Calloway’s “Hepster’s Dictionary.”  These collections are unique gifts in that they offer us Black-designed expressions and words that have traveled across the U.S. and across time for unique, race-based communicative purposes.  The wording of “slick mouthed,” as just one example today, reminds us of a unique vocabulary system that highlights and names those people who use language to do harm and destroy other people’s spirit.  Black language is part of the tool system that helps us see them clearly.

Like It’s Still 1999 . . .

prince r.i.p.Let my elementary and junior high school friends (and mom) tell it, I once had a rather unhealthy infatuation with the legend and genius we have come to call Prince.  I stopped adoring celebrities in that kind of way long ago but I have always been someone who would ride or die for everything before Purple Rain (For You, Prince, Dirty Mind, and Controversy) + “If I Was Your Girlfriend” + “Adore” + so much more.  At eleven years old in 1982, Prince’s 1999 was the first vinyl album I ever bought for myself, by myself, with my own money earned from babysitting. No borrowing or asking adults when it came to this album! The track, “Lady Cab Driver,” was my ultimate center of gravity though I couldn’t possibly have understood what that song was talking about (see the music player above).

“Purple Rain” seems to be literally playing in homes, cars, stores— all around me— right now, a song whose coupling of deep sadness and triumph I am only now appreciating. It had never occurred to me that I would take Prince’s loss this hard, though the OldSkool block parties here in my hometown of Brooklyn sure do make the mourning so much sweeter. There will be memorials and tantalizing stories of Prince’s death in the days to come, I am sure. During all of that (pending) mayhem, I’m going to just sit with my 11-year-old self and the woman I am now who understands “Purple Rain” so much better.

A Re-Mix of the Fourth Demand: June Jordan, Race-Radical Black Feminisms, and Teaching-as-Survival

Today, I will be participating in a collaborative workshop and dialogue that will discuss June Jordan’s transformative contributions to Black Studies, literacies, poetics, and solidarity.  Together, with Conor Tomas Reed, I will be discussing Jordan’s essay: “Black Studies: Bringing Back the Person.”

I decided that I would do a re-mix and use key moments and signals in June Jordan’s text as points of entry into her specific inventions of race-radical Black feminisms for writing classrooms, pedagogy, and education.

CCNY Protests

Black and Puerto Rican students and community members marching in front of Shepard Hall before taking over the South Campus of City College in 1969.

The fourth demand (in my title) refers to the specific list of demands made by Black and Puerto Rican student activists in 1969 at City College that the racial composition of CUNY must reflect the Black and Puerto Rican populations of NYC schools.  Jordan’s essay offers us a glimpse into her design of an educational experience for college students that does more than simply require white middle class discursive cloning.  Pedagogy—what we could call a BlackArts/BlackFeminist pedagogy for Jordan— is a deliberate attempt at transforming the white space of the academy, a project that will always remains incomplete and a project that few of us ever really participate in.

So… on to the re-mix… (my words are in italics and Jordan’s words are BOLD, in content and font-style)

june-jordanThe next day we began, the freshmen and I, with Whitehead’s Aims of Education

Jordan read Whitehead’s Aims of Education as an undergraduate student at Barnard in her Freshman English class.  Alongside Whitehead, her professor also assigned readings in Greek mythology and an essay about connections between Whitehead and Greece.  Jordan was notorious for calling out Barnard— especially in “Notes of a Barnard Dropout”— and the academy for being able to make Greece relevant to its students, as far away as it was in space and time, but not the Black folk right around the corner in Harlem or in Brooklyn, a train ride away. In her first college class as a teacher, a writing classroom at CUNY, Jordan kept Whitehead on the syllabus and instead of students using Greek mythology as their comparative text like she had to do as a college student, her students used the text of their own black and brown and impoverished lives/bodies. So, for me, what we have here is an alternative praxis of open admissions teaching at a white university AND an entry point for black feminist pedagogy in writing studies, both of which have remained largely invisible and ignored.

Toni Cade Bambara walked with me to my first class.  “Are you nervous?” she asked.

I just want a moment for pause and reflection for black women like Bambara and Jordan walking the halls together, checking in on one another in sisterly ways.  I don’t think I need to say much more than that, but I will point out here that the ways we inhabit the physical, white space of the academy are also important.

I am often stunned, though I should certainly know better, that: 1) so many faculty of color are more interested in securing white favoritism and performing white comfort than in waging race-radical rhetorical action against neoliberalist universities, and; 2) that so many white faculty have absolutely no ability to see or notice or care about the daily, racist microaggressions happening to faculty of color right down the hallway and the students at their college and yet authorize themselves to talk about bodies of color and educational praxis for them.

Jordan/Bambara collageThis image of these two dope sistas acknowledging and embracing one another needs to be another way that we imagine the alternative work of black feminist pedagogies in the academy.  As my grandmother would say, it’s mo’ than a notion.

[T]his essay…is, if you will, a POSITION paper. . .

I want us to keep this image of the position paper in mind, particularly in our current corporate climate where research and writing about schools have conformed to some of the worst, masculinist, most alienating positivist gibberish that I think we may have ever encountered.

The position from which we write and the positionings of our styles and discourses are not opposite running streams.  Jordan’s essay is also a call to question not only WHAT we write in our research studies of communities of color but also HOW we write it.  The positions that we take are often buried in an anthropological othering that our language performs…. even when we claim our methodologies are radical and participatory.

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Trigger Warning: This Post is about Academia and Its “Professional” Conferencing

I am not a fan of the professional conference at this point in my life. Between the expensive hotels and registration fees and the mall-like spatial feel, it just ain’t for me. Ima blame this one of Robin Kelley though—- his piece about “Black Study, Black Struggle” still resonates with me, namely his poignant argument that universities are NOT engines of social transformation, never have been and never will.   If you agree with Kelley’s critiques about labor, race, and empire at the American university today, then you have no choice but agree that professional organizations— housed in neoliberalist, “non-profit” corporations that professionally organize and credential academics— are even less aligned with radical social thought and action.

ccccRegardless of whether or not you were in actual attendance, all compositonist-rhetoricians know that its major, professional organization— the Conference on College Composition and Communication, often called 4Cs (or the C’s by many black folk)— went down this past weekend. It is no secret that many folk of color feel marginalized by that space, despite decades of activism for inclusion born in 1960s and1970s Black Freedom struggles.  Quiet as it’s kept though, younger white scholars are making the same claims of marginalization everywhere that I meet them: fed up with an Old Guard who do not speak to them or to their needs, embarrassed by a new White Backlash, and unimpressed by uber-professionalized middle class comforts and happiness.  Many (not all) of the chairs who organize the yearly conferences have humanized that space in wonderful ways, but that doesn’t necessarily change the organization.  As a professor from a financially strapped city/public university with a heavy teaching load rather than an R1 with its comparatively unlimited funding and leisure time, the conference isn’t designed for me (given its gross expense and time commitment) or my students (given its white, middle class content) anyway.

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An AfroDigital Sign O’ the Times: A Big Sista Hug to Akilah Johnson

akilahIf you did a  google search at any time today, then you immediately noticed today’s Google Doodle by Akilah Johnson.  Johnson, a high school tenth grader, won this year’s Doodle for Google contest, winning a 30K college scholarship and 50K worth of technology for her school.  I did not actually know about the contest but was immediately drawn to Johnson’s doodle called “My AfroCentric Life.”

My initial reaction was related to the adult coloring book trend. I have been curious in the past few months about adult coloring books and their supposed connection to mindfulness and mental health. I tend to flip through the pages when I encounter one.  Though I have an abundant supply of colored pencils and markers, I seldom use these utensils for any concentrated creativity anymore.  More importantly, I’ve never been compelled to actually purchase one of these coloring books because I am not particularly inspired by the designs, though I appreciate their intricacy.  I am always annoyed that Africanized cultures are ommitted despite the undeniable power of pattern and design in African visual life.  Though I contemplate doing my own Afrocentric pages, I just never managed to do that work.  When I saw Johnson’s artwork, I thought: see THERE it is!  Her signature black sharpie, black crayon, and colored pencil style should be an inspiration for what an Afrocentric coloring book and line-design project could offer.

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Oppression Born Into the System: How We Understand Race/History in 16 Points

This list was created by undergraduates at John Jay College of Criminal Justice/CUNY at the very beginning of spring semester in 2016. Our course is focused on critical race theory and this list was collectively written, modeled after the style of the blogpost— “MY (APPARENTLY) OBLIGATORY RESPONSE TO ‘FORMATION’: IN LIST FORM.”  This list captures our initial discussions and definitions of race/racism and its roots and rootedness.

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Black Language Matters: Beginning with “Ebonics 101”

grammarlyAt the risk of situating #BlackLivesMatter as merely a trope when it is so much more and cannot be de-neutralized with endless spin-offs, I want to think out loud/digitally about BLACK LANGUAGE MATTERS.  I like MATTERS here as both a noun and a verb: 1) all of the attenuating political circumstances, past and present, around issues of language, meaning, and multiple Englishes; 2) all of the processes where Black Language carries the depth and resistance of Black suffering and resilience.

I start the first post in this series with a definition— a definition inspired by an investigation initiated by my graduate students at the graduate center/CUNY and the current class I am teaching, African American Literacies and Education.  Inspired by Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, we worked in our last class to really define and anchor ourselves in race, culture, resistance, and African American languaging systems. It wasn’t easy.

For me, Steven Willis’s “Ebonic 101” gives me (in)sights and images to always keep in mind.  Black Language is:

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When White Violence Is “The Canon”

Henrietta Lacks

Henrietta Lacks

In preparation for a group discussion about critical research methodologies in gender studies, I went back and looked at hours of footage from Rebecca Skloots, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, as well as other research about race, Black women, and medicine/science.  I had been particularly inspired by Karla Holloway’s ability to relentlessly give Skloots DA BIZ’NESS for constructing a research study for mainstream audiences that, in fact, re-enacts violence against the Lacks family, a Black family who for the most part still live in abject poverty.  Henrietta Lacks, known by the medical/science industry as HeLa, was a poor Black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951 for developing what we now know to be the vaccine for polio and the central tools for cloning, gene mapping, in vitro fertilization, and more.  Her cells have made billions of dollars but her family, then and now, do not even have health insurance.  Meanwhile Skloots enjoys the big dollars from Olympic-styled endorsements, media showings, and a New York Times bestseller.  Despite her economic wealth, I wouldn’t ever want to be Skloots given the criticism, rightly deserved, that she has endured by formidable critics who link the central fetishization, exoticism, violence, and exploitation of her research/methodology to the kind of minstrel show we get on Bravo television when Black women’s bodies are the subject.  Whew, so glad I ain’t Skloots! I wouldn’t even be able to wake up in the morning with a morsel of self-respect.

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