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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Rough Side of the Mountain

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.

BarnesThe 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…

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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

Black Language Matters: “I Ain’t Got No Time For That,” Sweet Brown, & Other Black Rhetorics

There are times when talking to my poet-friends is just so difficult.  You’ll say something and it will remind them of a memory or a line they had in their heads, so they will just interrupt the conversation and start writing.  You can be in the middle of dinner, talkin about sumthin real intense too, and then, all of a sudden, BAM, they stop cold-turkey and write in their notebooks.  I suppose I annoy people too, because I am always delighted by and stop dead in my tracks for African American language patterns. I  can get as enthralled by the content as the language and start crackin up at the ways my friends say things, not because it’s funny, per se, but because of their cleverness and verbal dexterity. I can’t help but trace the deep, sociological specificity of how, when, why, and where a term or expression is used.  “I ain’t got time fa dat”/“I ain’t got NO time fa dat” is one of my favorite expressions, interchangeable with: “aint nobody got time fa dat” or “aint nobody got time fa you” (a few expletives might also come.)  This expression is certainly not new since I have heard elders use it for as long as I can remember, so I suspect that my age and current circumstances correspond to its new frequency in my discursive toolkit.

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

Sweet Brown from a White Perspective

For many non-Black folk, the first time they noticed this expression was from the now infamous, internet-sensation Sweet Brown in early 2012.  When Sweet Brown escaped an apartment fire in Oklahoma City, she told the local news that she left, without shoes or clothes, and ran for her life.  After then explaining that she has bronchitis and the smoke was getting to her, she proclaimed: “Ain’t nobody got time for that.”  From that point on, the memes and remixes ridiculed her, circulating her last words seemingly endlessly, with of course, an incessant focus on her headscarf.  Ironically, with all that arrogance and surety that she was saying something simple, none of these folk were smart enough to actually know what Sweet Brown was articulating: about the apartment building, about her life, about her health, and about her social circumstances as a black woman.  The time spent on caricaturing her voice and look was appalling, though she SAID she ran out the house unable to even put on shoes. And, true to white appropriation, not a single meme used the expression correctly.  Most of these folk even thought Sweet Brown INVENTED the expression.  Unfortunately, not enough black folk saw the light either.

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

Sweet Brown… Through the Fire!

The use of “that” in “I ain’t got time fa dat” is never solely about a specific event you simply cannot attend or that causes an inconvenience for you. “That” means pure foolishness, the kind of mess you should not have to waste your time, essence, energy, and spirit on.  If someone asks me if I am going to a certain event and I say, “naw I ain’t got time fa dat,”  I am making a criticism of the event, the people involved, the ideas being promulgated, and the social world being maintained.  I am NOT talking about a conflict with my schedule, calendar, or date book!  On top of that, I am proclaiming the worth of my energy and attention in relation to the sponsoring person, event, or issue.  It is a public declaration aimed at re-assessing the worth of the speaker and the listeners who she is trying to define the world for and with. I see black folk everywhere publicly proclaiming who and what they don’t respect with this obvious phrase and yet so many miss the meaning.  I mean, really: you can tell folk to their faces that you ain’t feelin em too tough and they will think you are talking about your dayplanner!  In the words of James Baldwin: “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is!”

Of course, it goes deeper.  It also depends on HOW you say it.  We can gender the term too.  If you are a love interest (with the interest coming more from your end than mine), and I say “ain’t nobody got time for you” in an annoyed way, look you up and down, and roll my eyes, I am telling you that: a) I am not ever going to be interested in you; b) you are stupid, AND; c) your momma dresses you funny.  Yes, all that from 6 words.  If I say this about my boss, colleague, or some fool with a title or “authority,” I am calling them stupid and useless to my life, other than as another source of oppression, which I hardly need more of (which was EXACTLY what Sweet Brown was actually saying).  Yup, all that from 6 words.  This is precisely why translation exercises from Ebonics-to-Standard-English or simplistic contrastive analysis don’t work: the context of Black Language always suffers and loses depth of meaning, hardly a coincide since we live in a world where its speakers are not considered people who produce deep sweet brown meanings either.

It goes deeper still.  Since the expression always uses the word time along with any variety of emphatic double negatives, we have to notice how time is configured completely outside of a western norm.  The use of time in  “I ain’t got time fa dat” does not reference the here-and-now alone.  This means we need to turn to all that AfroCentric stuff that white academics and their bourgeois allies of color think is so, so far beneath their high-brow western theories of their western selves.  This expression is based on an Africanized notion of time! Time here counters the run-til-you-are-ragged hustle under hyper-consumption and neoliberalism.  And yet, the expression also makes time cyclical, non-linear, and, therefore, more of the spirit than of the temporal body (maybe even something like habitual be).  Given its Africanized originary impulse, its place as a marker of oppression, and its circulation in the context of white institutions, it is a markedly black expression, not simply because black people have produced it but because THEIR EXPERIENCE has produced it.

It didn’t surprise me that folk couldn’t see depth into what Sweet Brown was saying and opted for black-face performances instead.  Academics/scholars who imagine themselves to study language or rhetoric don’t do much better either.  They too, and proudly so, take a white framework and simply apply that to black lives and act as if they have created anything other than the same kind of blackface caricature of the likes of those offensive memes about Sweet Brown.  I am not suggesting that black scholars not use white theorists, since that would be stupid.  But I have also never forgotten Professor Sylvia Wynter’s warning either: that when you borrow and inform yourself, you must ALWAYS notice when race as an overarching sociogenic code of our present episteme is untheorizable/unseeable in a scholar’s work.  I like to use Black Rhetoric to understand those kinds of academic slippages and the slippin’ and slidin’ that academics do in the context of whiteness: I ain’t got no time for that.