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.

New Logo for 2015 English101 Courses & Website

New Logo for 2015 English101 Courses & Website

Curriculum is always more than an overt, scripted content; it is also deeply embodied. So even when I am not being explicit, the specificity of this #BlackLivesMatter moment is implicit.  “Hell You Talmbout” gives me an anchor, what Rakim called “a dope beat to step to.”  The students who I met in last year’s ¡Adelante! program gave me a new sense of charge in ways that my more privileged students could never approximate so the design of this new English101 course/website really speaks to such students as audience.

In the same week of “Hell You Talmbout’s” release, Monae had performed for the Today Show in New York which cut off her speech about Black Lives Matter.  This was not a surprise given the ways that mainstream media has continually promoted stereotypes (whether it be immigrants as all illegal/dirty, poor people as savage, women as oversexualized objects who can sell things, etc), but mainstream media simply does not have a final say or sole impact in the 21st century. Monae’s instagram account and song/anthem available on soundcloud reaches as many people— and more diverse people— than a one-time performance on mainstream television.  While social media is hardly immune from harmful racial, sexual, gendered stereotypes, to dismiss digital spaces (as many teachers at my college do) based on some myth that people are more distracted and disconnected today than in previous centuries is irresponsible.  One might wonder how “connected” and “attentive” all those privileged folk were to the Black folk who were enslaved, strung up during Jim Crow lynchings, pushed into segregated schools, hospitals, etc.  Why exactly are we supposed to believe disconnection is a new phenomenon?

The fact is this: marginalized groups can count on digital spaces to represent their views, beauty, and aspirations MORE than mainstream outlets.  To be literate in the 21st century means understanding this fact ALONGSIDE being digitally literate yourself.  I hope this moment can push students to think more deeply about their digital footprints and about the ways they use writing and design to canvas their own humanity.

drums of defianceI think the question hell you talmbout?  should drive all digital/writing curriculum in the 21st century. What do you have to say?  What impact can you make?  I love the way that Monae is drawing from Black Vernacular Culture when she says “Hell You Talmbout” too.  It is an expression that she would have heard from her grandmothers and greatgrandmothers and on and on.  My students will undoubtedly have been taught that this is slang or a colloquialism and that teaching would be WRONG: slang refers to short-term temporary sayings and colloquialisms refer to small regionalisms.  Hell You Talmbout is neither short-term or local in the context of Black Language. The expression challenges the truth of what you have to say AND expects you to have something of weight and importance to say back.  Despite what school will tell my students, they need to use all of the languages, dialects, and vernaculars at their disposal if they want to attract and move multiple audiences.  While many teachers may tell them that only one kind of English is appropriate, effective language use is never that simple.  It is not an accident that Monae and her ancestors said: Hell You Talmbout— it simply does not mean the same thing as asking someone what they are saying.  The very language matches our history: the music, lyrics, and call-and-response style match how Civil Rights activists used song; the drumming and chanting sound identical to 1920s Black college student protesters who used the lyrics of slave spirituals for their chants; the beat and time could be a New Orleans band marching in the street, the infamous drumline at your favorite HBCU, or an African drumming/galvanizing session before a maroon rebellion. The language that we use to represent the histories we are referencing must be DELIBERATE and should not (always) match what Jim Crow schooling has anointed as the one, right way and set of rules.

I will also open the homepage to the new website with a slideshow of previous students’ projects— the projects that have yielded the most visits: webpages on #BlackLivesMatter; an ePortfolio dedicated to unraveling life as a Mexican New Yorker; an ePortfolio challenging mainstream beauty standards that cause people to say such foolishness as “Pretty for a Black Girl”; webpages that chronicle the artivism of artists like Las Cafeteras.  I am hoping this year’s students will follow in the footsteps of these peers, take inspiration from Janelle Monae, making sure that when they write and design, that they are really saying sumthin and know what the hell they talmbout! 

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