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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Runnin with the Rabbits but Huntin with the Dogs

bill-withers-grandmas-hands-1973I have always liked Bill Withers’s song, “Grandma’s Hands.”  He takes what is seemingly part of mundane, everyday utility and reads an entire history and philosophy of life there.  I could do the same thing with my grandmother’s words, though I am ashamed to admit that it is really only at this late stage in my life that I am truly understanding them.  She gives me an explanatory model for things.  I actually named my dissertation based on one of her expressions: running with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  That became the title of the introduction for my book but it really frames all of my thinking.

As silly as it sounds, I am just starting to realize that academics/professors/scholars RARELY actually mean what they say and write/talk about.  Unfortunately, it’s taken me a long, long time to get this simple fact.  Like I have already said, my grandmother always used words and language intentionally.  I just wasn’t raised in a world where you would write a book or deliver a speech on a topic because it was a hot-topic item but not something you actually believed in.  That would be runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Now, of course, many of these issues are related to power.  For instance, in my field, you can publish articles about teaching students of color but never actually teach any of them (or, really SUCK at it).  That is to be expected in a knowledge-production system where a select white privileged group decides who and what gets published even when they know nothing at all about communities of color.  You can also go home and beat the hell outta your wife but if you have the right mentor, the right university pedigree, and the right connections, your career will be catapulted forward as someone with solutions to violence.  That’s just patriarchy working there.  And like I have discussed here on the blog, George-Zimmerman-styled racists can get published and hyped in my field as radical agents of social justice.  These examples are things I have just come to expect.

I mean something a little more than these everyday scenarios that I just described. Here’s what I have finally figured out: folks be FLAT-OUT LYIN…runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.  Imagine a radical gender studies scholar who then goes home and makes his children and wife wait on him hand-and-foot like they are serfs in his kingdom.  Go on and get that image in your head because you might just have his book on your shelf and be quoting him regularly as someone who is disrupting gender norms.  He doesn’t mean any of that.  Let’s take another example.  Imagine a department full of folk who teach and talk about critical theory forever and a day but when a black male student in the department is called a N**** and when a Latina student is called a wetback, all you get is D.E.A.D. S.I.L.E.N.C.E.  Is this critical theory in action?  Or are these people just faker-traitor-perpetrators?   Now imagine a scholar who people (well, let me be honest— not all people, just white men) herald as a champion of sustainability and yet, on the ground, every policy and utterance he makes is so corporate, standardized, and neoliberal that you may as well be working for the Conservative Right.  Yeah, get that image in your head nice and good too because folk in my field will call THAT the NEW LEFT if you let them… runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs.

Princess-Ariel-disney-princess-7095223-841-1014Like I said, I have learned these lessons very slowly and today is no different.  I decided to look for videos from someone in my field who marks himself as a radical Marxist of color; I thought maybe I would add his work to one of the modules my students get to choose this semester.  I found some self-aggrandizing performances of really bad poetry (and that’s bad meaning bad) and more than 100 videos of his daughter with more than 50,000 views on youtube alone, posted by him and the mother of the child (also a self-proclaimed Marxist).  Now, really, I should have known to expect this foolishness from them but I felt a certain kinda way to to see this biracial family raising a little brown girl to publicly dance and sing in outfits like a pink, Mickey Mouse tutu with two kittens who she has named after Disney princesses. I won’t even replay my general feelings about the dangers of raising brown and black girls to see themselves as white disney princesses since I have already done that TO DEATH here at this website.  I really do get how hard it is as parents to displace Disney but you also gotta get how hard it is for anybody to see you as a radical third world Marxist with 100s of such videos.  In the least, if you consider yourself anti-capitalist, non-hegemonic, and non-standard, you need to admit just how slippery that slope is when you don’t even counter your small child’s total embrace of Disney, white ballerinas, white princesses, and all things pink.  That’s about as standard, capitalistic, and hegemonic as it gets.  All of these folks calling themselves Marxists and theorists of political economies but then go and use technology solely as a neoliberalist shrine to children’s conspicuous consumption (i.e., Pokemon, Disney, iPads, bourgeois outings, et al on full display).  If only Marx could see them now!!  If you truly know Marxism and political economy, then you might not want to be listening to a damn thing of what these folks have to say.

My grandmother wouldn’t have left this as simply a contradiction amongst life’s political difficulties under capitalism though.  When you understand a construct like runnin with the rabbits but huntin with the dogs, you have to follow through and ask the tougher questions like: How is the total embrace and worshipping of white femininity part and parcel of how gender works in this version of Marxism?  You have to question how and why academics circulate their theories of political economies such that white women/whiteness stay at top.  As a black woman, you can’t afford to NOT ask such questions because you will be hunted by these folk who are only pretending to be a rabbit beside you.  It is hardly a coincidence that my grandmother offered such a violent image about people who are not politically on your side but pretend to be.  The complexity and sophistication of my grandmother’s expression and her determination to live a life according to its meanings are at the core of how I define black working class consciousness.*

2-dogs-hunting-rabbitThese have all been hard lessons for me to learn.  As strange as it may seem, I would prefer my students to come at me, in full force, as the next kingpin of the G.O.P. rather than think/act like the G.O.P. but then turn around and call themselves Howard Zinn.  My GOP example is extreme because I have never actually had such students, but the point remains.  Today when I have to explain to my students the kind of writer that I want them to be, I think of my grandmother’s life as an example: Say what you mean and mean what you say.  Know who you are and what you are really about.  The last thing I want is for my students to be the kind of academic writers and thinkers that I can find in my field.  From where I stand, academic writing/speaking in this field is all about FLAT OUT lying about everything that is important and that should be REAL.  My students deserve a writing curriculum that asks them to tell and know their Truths.


*My grandmother (and my youth) would have been “officially” categorized as the “black poor”, but my grandmother did not call HERSELF that.  She saw herself as a worker so when I say black working class, I am not excluding the “black poor,” I am just excluding the whiteness of THAT label.

AfroDigital-Sensitized: Black Sensibility Online

440x296_2200-white-people-dancingGranted, I probably take the public nature of a digital universe too seriously.  I will concede that.  When I see “professionals” in my field uploading videos of themselves where they are dancing to one beat, their small child dancing to another beat, and a black artist’s song playing in the background with an entirely different beat altogether, I think: oh hayell TO THE naw.  If that weren’t bad enough, these folk got the nerve to be singing along, karaoke machine in full display, to the tune of yet another beat, wearing the paraphernalia of their college alma mater.  If I were the president of that college, I would have to pull these folk aside and talk to them.  It’s like an audition for American Idol that has gone very wrong: someone has got to step up and just say naw, baby, this right here ain’t for you; focus on another goal.  Call me an essentialist then… I think this might just be a black thang.  The black folk who I know and who raised me simply would not be out here uploading videos of pre-rehearsed performances (copied from TV) to broadcast for the world where they and their CHILDREN are singing and dancing with NO KINDA RHYTHM, RHYME, or TIME.  You have to be the Jackson Five for that kind of thing!  In what I define as black culture, when you publicly display yourself, you better be ready for sharp critique: think Showtime at the Apollo here— the youtube before youtube.  It ain’t nuthin nice when you need to be told to exit that public stage. Even with those youtube videos that bougsie black folk like to critique forever and a day of black mothers twerking (with their kids mimicking in the background), you have to concede one thing: them. folk. CAN. dance.  I’m not saying all the black folk that I know can sing and dance, just that when they can’t, they KNOW it and so don’t arrogantly display it for the world.  At the end of the day, even in the worst kind of minstrel show, black folk just don’t get the option of public display without an iota of talent or rhythm.  And though we are never credited as such, the black folk who I know and those who raised me have some high standards by which you come to understand yourself.

It ain’t like I don’t have a sense of humor.  I laughed all day long when I saw Jimmy Fallon, Robin Thicke, and the Roots do a rendition of “Blurred Lines” with children’s musical instruments.  Thicke never sounded better and this version of the song is so much better than the already played-out radio version.  The brotha playing the banana might be the new love of my life.  And, interestingly, this New-Skoolhouse rendition makes the song more than a wanna-be Marvin Gaye clone and the new rhyme rewrites some of the song’s problematic gender politics.  You see, even for the sake of humor, black folk don’t give up the seriousness of real rhythm and creativity… and knowing what the hell you are doing and who you are.

When it comes to online spaces, I use a black sensibility to tell me what is wrong and what is right.  I might offend folk with what I am saying but the structural racism that I discuss is not something I haven’t examined/read closely.    But that too is a black sensibility: say what you gotta say and whoever feels a certain way about it, let them go on and feel it.  That ain’t my problem or cross to bear. Mostly, it’s my standard of performance, skill, and appropriateness that I see as AfroDigital-Sensitized.  In just a few weeks, I will be teaching three sections of first year writing (FYW) where students and myself will interrogate digital literacies and digital empire more closely than I ever have before in FYW.  The modules are finally coming together and I am quite clear that I am using an Afro-Digital-Sensibility to craft the units of study, the framing of the course, and the polemics of digital spaces.  This is about more than what African Americans do or consume online; it’s about an ideological framework inside of yet another system we have not designed.  Like I seem to be saying over and over again here, I haven’t ever needed to look further than the wisdom of my people to know how to navigate the world, digital or otherwise.