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.

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