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.
At 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:
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!
In 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.
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.
My 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
My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools. In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.
Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music. As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching. As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum. She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum. I visited when students did their first presentations.
The presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also. Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization. One young man, bless his heart, took the podium. It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking. Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:
Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”
I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…
I 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