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 talk 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 these conversations in my classrooms with a specific definition now— a definition inspired by an investigation initiated by my graduate students at the graduate center/CUNY and one of the classes I teach, African American Literacies and Education.  Inspired by Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, my students and I worked 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:

“A rhetorical recipe”… under the tongue (what “Big Mama hid under her tongue cuz she headed for northern cities during the Great Migration”)

“the dialect of the doe boys”

“the bass that appears in a rapper’s rhythmic rhetoric that appears everywhere”

“the native tongue to the underrepresented Black American”

“culture in these words”

It’s the way Willis turns the second part of his poem, when he offers the grammar lesson that best signals the politics of Black Language Matters for me. It’s not simply about the linguistic mathematics here.  It’s the process that Willis describes here in one of my favorite lines: “THE BENDING BACK OF MY SPEECH COMES FROM YEARS OF CARRYING THE BLACK EXPERIENCE.”

Willis shows that Black Language has a specific race-resistance grammar where the silence of the “OR” sound finds its voice in Emmett Till and Rodney King screamin, “don’t beat me no mo,” and Trayvon Martin askin, “what is you followin me fo?”  Black Language also has a specific misogyny-resistance grammar where the “ER” sound transforms itself into an “a” when Lauryn Hill proclaims that “even after all my logic and my theory, I add a muthafucka so you ig’nant niggas hear me.”

As if this wasn’t enough, Willis lays it all the way down even more.  Black Language is:

the verbal diaspora of Africa that shapes our very spines…

the way we cross our T’s with the Middle Passage…

the times when we dot Our “I’s” with strange fruits…

the paths we have traveled when we curve our S’s with Atlantic routes/roots.

We have never been “slaves to white phonetics,” never strung up by “Jim Crow grammar,” and have never been confined by the lines of “Mason-Dixon diction.”  Black Language cannot, therefore, be corrected because this language is about political, historical, and cultural CONTEXT, not deviations from what white systems/schools/institutions define as the norm or standard— arbitrary rules that far too many folk (white folk and folk of color) accept as somehow harboring truth, justice, elegance, or logic.

At the end, Willis brings us to the scene of WRITING, the vantage point that interests me most.  I am not a school/university-trained linguist.  Although I find some of that work interesting at times, I am not interested in mathematical equations/statistical data that describes how, for instance, my grandmother used African American Language.  I am not interested in helping white academic/middle class audiences understand her language as competent, intelligent, rule-governed, and rhetorically-savvy. Those who have doubted these facts did not do so because they were in need of quantitive academic studies; they were in need of humanity, of exactly the kind of humanity my grandmother’s Black Language enacted.  Willis’s focus on WRITING is a radical contribution for me. He is not merely talking about code-switching when you talk to your boys, or when you shift oral registers in public performances.  Willis is talking about Black Language as a THOUGHT PROCESS, as words/meaning that structure his thoughts and intellectual-political movements on the page and screen, going beyond the linear, western discourse-teleology of white institutions/white schooling/white publishing that far too many of us promote and sustain.

Yes, Black Language Matters.

And we are so far away from realizing the radical implications of this.


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