Black Language Matters: Mean Well, But Do So Poorly

european-colonialism-in-the-middle-eastI was sitting in my office one evening, getting some work done before I left for the day.  A student happened to pass by my door and stopped to talk about my office artwork and decoration.  I had never met or seen this student before.  He rightly assumed that I did work related to African American and African Diasporan cultures.  I was curious about his interests and became even more curious when I heard he wanted to teach English overseas, especially in the Middle East.

I began to tell this young man about a friend of mine, a rather radical Black studies scholar, who is currently teaching in the Middle East.  The young man grew excited by this example and began to talk excitedly about his dreams of teaching The Great Gatsby to people in Palestine.  It was difficult for me to listen to much of what he had to say after that, all about his civilizing mission, all about how he could get Palestinians to understand themselves better with his hit list of white male authors.  Yes, he said this mess OUT LOUD!  IN THE 21ST CENTURY!  Got colonialism?  Yeah, we do!  Right here!

When I tell colleagues across the country this story, folk imagine that I am talking about a privileged, entitled, wealthy, white, heterosexual male following the trend of saving the developing nations after graduation.  The lure of neoliberal volunteerism from the Global North’s special tint of imperialism and arrogance is typical for those privileged circles and passes as progressivism, kinda like the work that Kristof does.  BUT NOPE!  My man was BROWN, a first generation college student, from a working class family.  Having been fully colonized himself, he is now ready to go out and colonize other folk who look like him.

I was struck by the student’s total lack of rhetorical awareness.  What on earth would make this child think that I would be a good audience for this discussion?  I can’t even describe the look on his face— it did not, not even for a moment, occur to this child that his plan would NOT be something that would inspire or impress me, that his plan does not match what radical scholars in Black studies do (that was the example I gave him). And, trust: he is NOT culturally aware enough of his own linguistic heritage to have known how to signify on me in that moment.  He was as serious as can be and never for a moment considered that someone who looks and thinks like me would be offended by his thinking. If he does make it to the Middle East, I hope they run his ass right outta there, because the criticality and discursive awareness that he should have gotten by graduation should have at least made him smarter than to pursue this kind of conversation with me.

When I relay this story, many people often tell me: well, he means well. Or, alternatively, folk like to remind me that this student’s mostly white, traditionalist teachers who have taught him also mean well and are very dedicated to such students. For the life of me, I just can’t understand why anyone thinks this is a valid point.  How in the world is “well-meaningness” an entitlement to ignorance?  Then, I realized something important. Somewhat like the foolishass student I have described, I have not fully interrogated my discursive surroundings.  You see, with the black discourse communities that I call home, meaning-well and doing stupid mess are not constructs that work in tandem.


Design by Vagabond

Here’s the relevant expression and worldview: mean well, but do so poorly.  There are many iterations here.  If you put emphasis on DO, then it means this person does almost everything wrong.  Don’t get NUTHIN right.  If the emphasis is on the SO, then this person really can’t handle the task at hand or the subject in focus very well at all.  May as well bag-it-up and QUIT while you are ahead.  If the DO and the SO are both emphasized, well, then, it’s a total loss for everyone.  There are also two pronunciations of POORLY.  PO’LY and POORLY.  It’s all about how and when those Rs are pronounced.  The less of an R you hear, the bigger of a fool this person is! Like I keep saying, black language is not easily translatable into a one-to-one sentence or word correlation with a “standardized English.”  There is SO MUCH going on in that ONE utterance when a person is classified as someone who mean well, but do so poorly.  What is even more important here is that I credit this expression and the worldview that it produces/represents with my utter inability to comprehend those moments when someone justifies horrific acts with statements about good intentions.  After all, colonial and/or missionary teachers thought they were doing the right thing too.  The kidnapping of Native American children, held hostage in boarding schools, in the United States wasn’t THAT long ago that we should be forgetting that well-intentioned white people thought THAT was the right thing to do (and this still happens in different ways today). The worst perpetrators of oppression have been folk who meant well and who thought they were doing right. You need a special language and worldview to be able to decipher when and how “well-meaning” folk can and will colonize you.  Intentions alone are never good enough in black language/black life.