As soon as I hear someone say it, I bust out laughing: “If you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.” I love the self-assuredness and, well, the bit of threat and warning that come with these words. I consider this a very nice way of saying: YOU BETTA BACK UP! I AIN’T HAVIN IT!
I have always heard these kinds of expressions from working class/working poor black folk (these lines were ubiquitous in the Blues in the 1920s, what we call floating verses from the black oral tradition, but these lines still float now). Many still make the sad mistake of relegating that to some kind of “folk wisdom,” which is just a white, western trick of pretending to value you but really marginalizing you and calling your wisdom subpar instead. There are many things that you can learn from this philosophy that shape how you understand and do your daily living:
1) don’t mess with something you have no business (or talent in) trying to shake up;
2) if you know those peaches have nothing in common with you, your tastes, your likes, your life, then move on… otherwise, it will be assumed that you WANT to get it started;
3) when that shit falls on your head—and it WILL— that is the consequence that you shoulda KNOWED you had coming.
Because, you see, that peach tree (and the person who uses this expression) is rooted and strong enough to NOT care nuthin about you and bend back on everything you try and touch.
There are so many contexts in which you can use this expression, it just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, but for today, I would like to discuss one specific context that is related to the maintenance of institutional racism in colleges and universities where I have worked: white women who (attempt to ) correct my language. At each and every institution that I have ever taught, a white woman has, in some way, sat me down to explain to me the inappropriateness of my language and/or my “allowances” with students of color, an occurrence always more pronounced at public universities than at private universities. There is always some kind of overture where they explain academic discourse and academic writing to me. Now, don’t me wrong, if you have some good advice for me on how to publish more than I already have, I’ll listen with deep seriousness. However, in each case that I describe, the speaker did not have a Ph.D., OR had never published any academic writing (and by this, I am talking in terms of an R1 discourse so I mean research articles, not poems or novels), OR had not published anything rigorous or significant on this side of the 21st century. If I did need some advice, these wouldn’t be the folk who I would go to, so now why on earth would these fools, who so obviously KNOW they do not like my peaches, think they should and could shake this tree? Credentials and experience in academic publishing, online or print, clearly aren’t how these people construct their knowledge of academic writing. Biological whiteness and occupation at a university seem to be their sole practice of academic language and since I disrupt that, they seem to think they can come colonize the way the peaches grow in this orchard. Except, of course, it just don’t work that way.
Here’s just one example. In 2005, when I was finishing graduate school, a white female professor overseeing a professional development project I was part of, told me that she thought I was using too much Hip Hop/youth language in what I do. She wrote me an email detailing my “slippages.” Yes, you heard that correctly. She called herself an expert because her 17-year old white son was an avid consumer of Hip Hop so she knew that language. Yes, you heard that correctly. And, yes, she got her feelings hurt. For a little chronology here, I’ll just say that I was 34 years old at the time when I received her email. For some more chronology: 1) I was eight years old when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979; 2) that was 10 years before this white professor even met the sperm that become her wanna-be-hip, white, suburban son; 3) that was 26 years before this woman’s son discovered Hip Hop by listening to Jay-Z. As to whether or not I use Hip Hop language to semanticize my life is open to debate since this is not deliberate or conscious, but like I said, The Sugarhill Gang was my Sesame Street; Native Tongues gave my morning college lectures so, yeah, they are the soundtrack to which I hear words and I am proud of it. All this is to say, I haven’t been copying white kids in white suburbia; they have always copied us and I let this woman know as much in my email reply back to her. I also gave her a detailed analysis of the many things she had gotten wrong in the articles she had published, years before, about black culture and black language, since the white editors and white reviewers of this journal let her get way too sloppy, an obvious fact since she was thinking, years later, that her doofus, white, privileged son was the center of Hip Hop. To this day, I look her up, every now and again, just to make sure she hasn’t published something out-of-pocket about black people in case I need to get at her ass again. She hasn’t. Like my family and communities taught me long ago: if you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.
I do find it curious that white women in the academy have been the ones who embolden themselves so constantly to correct my language. When white men come at me, they always do so with a white woman on their side. None of this is a surprise. Every wave of feminism has witnessed black women pointing out to white women how their notions of gender equality are constructed for the maintenance of white supremacy. Nothing new there.
Since none of these women are people who I would ever call my friends, people who I would choose to hang out with, or people who I even want to have much conversation with, it is curious that they seek me out— I have never initiated any of these conversations. I mind my business, do my work, do it well, keep to myself, keep it movin, and only talk to the handful of friends who I like and trust, those folk who understand and theorize oppression. These initiated discussions are an obvious and deliberate attempt at colonization and, each time, that I respond back, I get rendered as the angry, oversensitive black woman…or the mean, black girl. The colonized are always rendered as subhuman, stupid (too stupid to know what REAL oppression is, at that), and violent when they resist/speak back to their colonization. It is inconceivable to power that we might have an analysis of THAT power. That’s how institutional racism in universities works, what we might call the daily microaggressions necessary to maintain racist culture, and there are always clear actors who deliberately maintain it. It ain’t a mystery, it ain’t subtle, and it ain’t difficult to pinpoint.
At the end of the day, we can’t be faded though by white women with such limited ideological lenses and vocabularies that they need to label black women angry instead of analytical, loud instead of logical, mean instead of methodical, sensitive instead of smart. There’s only one message to send here: If you don’t like these peaches, then don’t shake my tree.