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 have said continually on this blog, 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 talk 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 these conversations in my classrooms with a specific definition now— a definition inspired by an investigation initiated by my graduate students at the graduate center/CUNY and one of the classes I teach, African American Literacies and Education.  Inspired by Elaine Richardson’s African American Literacies, my students and I worked 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: “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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Black Language Matters: How High School Students Taught Me about My Black Language Use

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 those 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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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.   Continue reading

eBlack Archiving and Pedagogy

I never asked Tolstoy to write for me, a little colored girl in Lorain, Ohio. I never asked [James] Joyce not to mention Catholicism or the world of Dublin. Never. And I don’t know why I should be asked to explain your life to you. We have splendid writers to do that, but I am not one of them. It is that business of being universal, a word hopelessly stripped of meaning for me. Faulkner wrote what I suppose could be called regional literature and had it published all over the world. That’s what I wish to do. If I tried to write a universal novel, it would be water. Behind this question is the suggestion that to write for black people is somehow to diminish the writing. From my perspective there are only black people. When I say ‘people,’ that’s what I mean.

~Toni Morrison

If I had to define what AfroDigital texts look like and do, I would re-mix Morrison’s arguments above and include issues of digital composing and design.  I am drawn to her singular goal of offering an unapologetic, self/community-determined right to think, imagine, and create with and for black communities.  An AfroDigital pedagogy would seem closely related.

I’ll start here by wondering/wandering about the intellectual, textual community that digital texts can  provide.  I mean something beyond (for now, at least) the seemingly endless experimentations in classrooms with new technologies as if the experimentation itself is the pursuit of knowledge, a rigorous theory of new media, or the creation of socially critical or meaningful action.  I have seen enough youtube videos online made by young people, often for their classes, that deploy quite ingenuous uses of technology but say nothing critical about black communities, fail to transcend the tradition of book reporting, or, at worst,  showcase dazzling multimedia tools about nothing.  I love when these kind of tech-creative projects are done by 11 and 12 year old students but when the creators are college students, I have some questions, to say the least.

So I am not talking about digital products as the sole marker of an AfroDigital pedagogy.

I am also not talking about the replacement of books and articles since nothing of the sort would be true of my own life.  The reading that I do on blogs and other websites does not replace the reading that I do in books and articles, some of it online/e-Book and some not. Nevertheless, I still believe that it is simply no longer enough for a group of students to connect with one another in classroom dialogues or via online discussions alone.  Nor is it enough to simply read a book outside of the digital universe that can give vision and audio-dimension to the text. We need to contextualize the world of ideas as part of the digital life that many students already have.  For an AfroDigital pedagogy, I am talking about the creation of a fierce, eBlack mini-archive that complements each of our classes.

While students certainly have access to more information and knowledge about black communities and their histories than ever before,  I see no evidence of a greater understanding of power, race, and culture today than 20 years ago when I first began teaching when there was no such thing as google, iTunes, or widespread use of DVDs.  I don’t expect this understanding from young people since this is the reason, after all, that they are in my classes.  However, to talk about the unlimited exchange of knowledge that can be found online severely miseducates students.  A google search, for instance, is as coded by money, power, and access in relation to whom and what gets listed, not unlike previous power dynamics that determined whose books/nations made it into a library or printing press.

When I want to link course content to various websites and videos, I clearly need to know that content first in order to sift through the options.  For instance, I wanted to build connections for my university program to current scholars’ counter-standardization and counter-testing movements in New York by locating politically challenging video-presentations.  I had to know first to look for Pedro Noguera and Michelle Fine because what I got before including their names in my search was inane, at best, and racist, at worst.  What about our students who do not know Fine and Noguera as critical, radical thinkers and educational activists?  Do we assume they will find these sites and people on their own because the internet is so amazing in the way it equalizes information-gathering from multiple perspectives?  Do we assume the internet is so highly interactive and engaging to young people that students will automatically do the work of sifting to find radical nooks and corners?  Do we assume they will know, in the example above, to follow the NYCLU on twitter to see the latest activist work they are doing in and for schools?   And if they are following NYCLU on twitter, is that the beginning and end, the creme de la creme, of their intellectual work? I say no on all this.

Do we just include a link on a syllabus (or classroom text) or pull up a video in class where oftentimes, like in the case of the panel which hosted Noguera and Fine, contending for our attention, are comments from racist whites about how and why they refuse to send their white children to schools with the poor and dumb black kids in the district?  After all, isn’t this what digital spaces allow— free exchange of ideas we may not get otherwise?  I say no on all that too.

I can’t afford to assume that our digital universe readily provides access to students to fully humanized representations of black communities.  I can’t assume that the most race-critical perspectives have been digitized and easily located for them.  I can’t ever assume that students’ possession of a new technological toolkit means that students have a radical or culturally-relevant use of it. So as I plan my class this fall, I am mindful about one, important use of my own website: to gather up and (re)present digital texts as a mini, eBlack archive so that my students and I can focus, think, be, do, and listen better to the black communities we are learning about.

When I first began using the term, AfroDigitized, in 2005, I had not heard the 2001 “The Shrine” album compiling a variety of artists from Africa forging what they call futuristic and future sounds of the Motherland.   After now hearing that album, I like the term even more as well as this notion of looking and listening digitally to the future, as if it were already here, rather than assuming that we have now is enough. These realizations, at least for me, are small but necessary first steps toward an AfroDigital Pedagogy.