Black Language Matters: Our Word is STILL Bond

With all of the different committee and administrative roles I have had in academia in the past 13 years, I have reviewed a whole LOTTA syllabi. Across multiple institutions and departments, the most dominant and lengthy prose that I have seen on these syllabi revolve around policy:

  • if and what you can eat and drink in the room
  • when and if you can go out and pee during class
  • when and if your mobile devices can be used or seen
  • how long your papers must be (with descriptions of their dullness— i.e., western styles of paragraphing, language, etc)
  • how to make headings on the page (usually of the bad 8th grade variety)
  • what happens if your body or your work is late or absent
  • who to call for this and that and when to call them
  • who to email for this and that and when to email them
  • numbers of all kindsa offices on campus, including the professor’s, and anyone else students can be pushed off on if they have life-difficulties (i.e., leave your personal problems at the door)
  • the horrors of plagiarism and the threats of what can happen
  • the campus’s cut-and-paste language/legalese around disability (rather than genuine care)
  • the department/program’s cut-and-paste list of learning objectives that a small group of faculty have gathered to write, usually for the purposes of assessment rather than a political investigation of what the hell we are teaching and how and why.

This bulleted list of PUREEEE boringness makes you wonder:  who would actually want to read this mess?  And what are students even learning?  And you know what is significantly short?  A discussion of the CONTENT STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!  In fact, if you look at most syllabi, what students are mostly learning is the particular college’s and the classroom’s disciplining of their body movements.  When you do get an actual course description, what you really see is the university’s neoliberalist discourse that appears in the course bulletin— more of a coded doctrine than any kind of readable prose because the course description is always really tight (in terms of words and characters allowed) and confined by the tastes and politics of the mostly white faculty who had to approve it.  In fact, if you took a good look at most college syllabi across the country, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that any real student learning is happening at all… or that words mean and do anything but CONTROL students’ bodies.

My way around all of this is to open my syllabi with narrative, complete with images and graphic design all over the place.  In other words, I am talkin to ya!  What is this class?  How do I connect to it as teacher?  How do I want students to connect to what we will do together? And WHYYYY do I expect the things from them that I am asking? I do have all of the required policy mess in there because these syllabi must be filed with departments’ bureaucratic structures… but it comes at the very end… in real small print cuz it really ain’t worth the ink and extra paper.

Fall 2016 went down a little different: I mixed policy with narrative.  Of all things, I opened talking about plagiarism, a topic I seldom agree with colleagues about.  If your writing assignments are REALLY creative, then students can’t be liftin words from the internet, for instance.  If they do, then yo teaching stuff ain’t original…discussion closed.  Despite these personal politics, I opened my fall 2016 syllabus with an egregious case of plagiarism, of somebody jackin someone else’s words without any kind of attribution. In this case, I mean none other than Melania Trump.  Written in italics below is the opening of that syllabus and the website (www.funkdafied.org) that went with it... with an accompanying soundtrack that honors the black underground traditions for how we would study that semester.

FROM THE SYLLABUS:

Do you remember when Lauryn Hill dropped “Black Rage” in 2012 and then re-mixed it as a new song-sketch in 2014… from her living room in dedication to the uprising in Ferguson?  Do you remember where you were and what you were doing in August 2014 when J. Cole released “Be Free”…  dedicated on soundcloud “to every young black man murdered in America”? Did you check in when Killer Mike uploaded his essay about Ferguson to his instagram account? (And peeped his Graffitis SWAG Barbershop style)?  Or did you watch and listen as he urged countless black citizens to move all of their savings and checking accounts to black-owned banks in summer of 2016, to the astonishment of every major news outlet when black communities did just that!? Were you moved by the content, the style, the moments, the language?  Do you want to know more? If so, this course is for you!  Welcome to: Word is Bond: African American Language and Performance.

Who would have ever predicted that the very title of this class, WORD IS BOND, a title that was created in April of 2016, would have gained such national attention by July, just three months later?  Perhaps, you missed it and don’t know or remember the infamous incident.  

Here is how it went down.  In 2008, the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention on behalf of her husband’s bid for the presidential nomination.  Here is what she had to say: “Barack and I were raised with so many of the same values, that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say you’re going to do . . . And Barack and I set out to build lives guided by these values, and pass them on to the next generation. Because we want our children – and all children in this nation – to know that the only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”  Now fast-forward to 2016, eight years later, when we heard those words again, except this time in the message of Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, at the Republican National Convention in support of her husband’s bid as the 2016 Republican candidate for president.  Here is what Melania Trump said: “From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise . . . That you treat people with respect. They taught and showed me values and morals in their daily life. That is a lesson that I continue to pass along to our son, and we need to pass those lessons on to the many generations to follow, because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.”  Strangely enough, Melania Trump’s words are almost identical to Michelle Obama’s.  Could this just be coincidence?  The answer is emphatically no. 

In colleges today, we call this plagiarism and if you make that kind of “coincidental mistake,” there is a whole administrative procedure that WILL BE waged against you including the possibilities of: failing the assignment, failing/repeating the class, facing disciplinary action from the college’s review board, or meeting with top-level administrators at your college to confess and redress your cardinal sins.  Plagiarism is serious business at any college today given the easy accessibility that everyone has to previously published and/or public information; every college in the U.S.A. has a lengthy policy that you are expected to know and understand.  So regardless of whether or not you agreed with, felt sorry for, or dismissed the seriousness of the allegation of plagiarism against Melania Trump, you can be sure you will NEVER be automatically forgiven or even gently cajoled if you do something like this in your work for any college class. 

There’s more to the story here than the Trump’s mere bypassing of the redress expectations after plagiarism that everyone else is susceptible to.  This is also a story about black cultural appropriation and undergirds how and why Michelle Obama’s self proclaimed legacy of her word as her bond is one that only she could make given her own black sociocultural background.  “Word is Bond” has a rich epistemology in African American history.  It might best be characterized as the urban shortcode for the concept of NOMMO, an important concept for you to understand from the very onset of this class.  Nommo is an African word derived from the Bantu language that denotes the magical power of words to cause change.  The concept of Nommo means that the very acts of naming, speaking, and using language are sacred acts.  It is NOT coincidence that an African-centered cultural understanding gets articulated by people of African descent across the African Diaspora today. You hear the re-mix all the time in expressions like: “word up” or when people just say “WORD!/ WORD?” (which can be an exclamation or a question, depending on intonation, and as such dictates the response). It is this concept of Nommo that animates this class.  The histories of race and the cultural experiences of black people in the western world have specific meanings for the ways language gets used. There are never any mistakes and there are never any coincidences. 

________________

So that was the syllabus prose last fall– a style that permeates most of my syllabi now. I mostly decided on this kind of alternative language/visual style for college syllabi as a way to work against the dominant white rhetorical trends of college teaching today.  But it’s time that I take that all further here.

I realize now that my alternative language/visual style is deeply rooted in black language politics.  If OUR WORD IS STILL BOND, then there is just no way in hell that we can allow our language, our aesthetics, or epistemological rootings in alternative notions of critical education to be squashed. Even the neoliberalist dictates of how our colleges expect us to sound and write course syllabi can be altered! WORD!

 

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.

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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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Black Language Matters: Hell You Talmbout? (Back-to-School in 2015)

Screen Shot 2015-08-22 at 12.32.40 PMOn August 15, 2015, Janelle Monae and her Wondaland labelmates gave a free concert in Washington D.C. that was only advertised on social media. Before the show, Monae and the Wondaland crew led a rally through the streets of D.C. that included a stop at the Capital. The rallying song/chant represented her new song, “Hell You Talmbout,” dedicated to the Black Lives Matter Movement, freely available to anyone on Soundcloud.  On her instagram page, Monae explained the message of the song: she channels and records the pain of her people, her own political convictions, and a challenge to those who remain indifferent.  I’ve decided to use this song as the soundtrack of the homepage of my fall 2015 English 101 course to capture how we will approach writing.

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Black Language Matters: “If You Gon Sing It, Then Bring It”

At a recent meeting I attended, a participant talked very disparagingly about scholars who do work in digital rhetorics and digital humanities.  Now, it ain’t like I ain’t got my own questions about the aforementioned, mostly along the lines of why is this scholarship so damn white, but that was not the participant’s beef.  His beef was that scholars in digital rhetorics and digital humanities only offer meta-analyses of digital culture and not actual digital products and projects.  That’s not true, though I can see where the impatience is coming from: a dull, visually stale website that you paid someone else to create and an active twitter account ain’t exactly sophisticated digital production.  I said, for the most part, that these impressions were false and then really left it alone.

Because you see, I was operating from a black cultural/language frame.  And that means something very simple: if you dissin what somebody else ain’t doin, then it must be because YOU DOIN IT!

african_american_expressionsIn my childhood, we would simply say it like this: if you gon sing it, then bring it.  This expression could be applied to someone who was poppin off at the mouth about you behind your back but not bold enough to bring it to your face; OR if an athletic team, especially, talked a lot of junk about their impending win: this was a reminder to watch your mouth unless you were really bringing your A+ game.  What does this mean in the context of the situation I described in the first paragraph?  Well, as soon as I got home from the meeting, I google-stalked this participant like it was no tomorrow. And what did I find?  Not much of nuthin.

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Cultural Assets, Language, and New Inspiration

I learned about my own language use from my high school students circa 1996.  I no longer remember what we were reading or what we were discussing, something about language politics.  One student, let’s call him Shakim, remarked loudly: yeah, Ms. K., that’s what you do.  I had no clue what he meant.  According to the class, I use four different types of English and since they had names for each type and seemed to have practiced it all out, I guess these were common understandings, commonly understood by all except me.

Screen Shot 2014-10-21 at 8.39.57 PMMy first English had many names that, out of deference to who might be reading here, I will simply collate and say: THE PLACE OF RACE.  This is a kind of English that I use with folk who I think are racist.  My words are very annunciated and deliberate (and I don’t blink much but I may squint).  I am as “proper,” if you will, as I will get.  Basically, it means that I do not like your stank behind and believe, like Public Enemy said in “Can’t Truss It…no, no, no, no”, that years ago you would have been my ship’s captain (and by SHIP, I mean slaveship, not the Love Boat or Princess Cruise Line). Here are the relevant lines (weblinks take you to Rap Genius’s explanation):

Look here comes the judge, watch it here he come now
(Don’t sentence me judge, I ain’t did nothin’ to nobody)
I can only guess what’s happenin’
Years ago he woulda been the ship’s captain
Gettin’ me bruised on a cruise, what I got to lose
Lost all contact, got me layin’ on my back…
427 to the year, do you understand
That’s why it’s hard for the black to love the land

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