Black Language Matters: “If You Don’t Like My Peaches, Then Don’t Shake My Tree”

peachesAs soon as I hear someone say it, I bust out laughing: “If you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.”   I love the self-assuredness and, well, the bit of threat and warning that come with these words. I consider this a very nice way of saying: YOU BETTA BACK UP! I AIN’T HAVIN IT!

I have always heard these kinds of expressions from working class/working poor black folk (these lines were ubiquitous in the Blues in the 1920s, what we call floating verses from the black oral tradition, but these lines still float now). Many still make the sad mistake of relegating that to some kind of “folk wisdom,” which is just a white, western trick of pretending to value you but really marginalizing you and calling your wisdom subpar instead. There are many things that you can learn from this philosophy that shape how you understand and do your daily living:

1) don’t mess with something you have no business (or talent in) trying to shake up;

2) if you know those peaches have nothing in common with you, your tastes, your likes, your life, then move on… otherwise, it will be assumed that you WANT to get it started;

3) when that shit falls on your head—and it WILL— that is the consequence that you shoulda KNOWED you had coming.

Because, you see, that peach tree (and the person who uses this expression) is rooted and strong enough to NOT care nuthin about you and bend back on everything you try and touch.

There are so many contexts in which you can use this expression, it just makes me all warm and fuzzy inside, but for today, I would like to discuss one specific context that is related to the maintenance of institutional racism in colleges and universities where I have worked: white women who (attempt to ) correct my language.  At each and every institution that I have ever taught, a white woman has, in some way, sat me down to explain to me the inappropriateness of my language and/or my “allowances” with students of color, an occurrence always more pronounced at public universities than at private universities.  There is always some kind of overture where they explain academic discourse and academic writing to me.  Now, don’t me wrong, if you have some good advice for me on how to publish more than I already have, I’ll listen with deep seriousness.  However, in each case that I describe, the speaker did not have a Ph.D., OR had never published any academic writing (and by this, I am talking in terms of an R1 discourse so I mean research articles, not poems or novels), OR had not published anything rigorous or significant on this side of the 21st century.  If I did need some advice, these wouldn’t be the folk who I would go to, so now why on earth would these fools, who so obviously KNOW they do not like my peaches, think they should and could shake this tree?  Credentials and experience in academic publishing, online or print, clearly aren’t how these people construct their knowledge of academic writing. Biological whiteness and occupation at a university seem to be their sole practice of academic language and since I disrupt that, they seem to think they can come colonize the way the peaches grow in this orchard.  Except, of course, it just don’t work that way.

rappersdHere’s just one example. In 2005, when I was finishing graduate school, a white female professor overseeing a professional development project I was part of, told me that she thought I was using too much Hip Hop/youth language in what I do.  She wrote me an email detailing my “slippages.” Yes, you heard that correctly. She called herself an expert because her 17-year old white son was an avid consumer of Hip Hop so she knew that language.  Yes, you heard that correctly. And, yes, she got her feelings hurt. For a little chronology here, I’ll just say that I was 34 years old at the time when I received her email. For some more chronology: 1) I was eight years old when The Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” came out in 1979; 2) that was 10 years before this white professor even met the sperm that become her wanna-be-hip, white, suburban son; 3) that was 26 years before this woman’s son discovered Hip Hop by listening to Jay-Z.  As to whether or not I use Hip Hop language to semanticize my life is open to debate since this is not deliberate or conscious, but like I said, The Sugarhill Gang was my Sesame Street; Native Tongues gave my morning college lectures so, yeah, they are the soundtrack to which I hear words and I am proud of it.  All this is to say, I haven’t been copying white kids in white suburbia; they have always copied us and I let this woman know as much in my email reply back to her.  I also gave her a detailed analysis of the many things she had gotten wrong in the articles she had published, years before, about black culture and black language, since the white editors and white reviewers of this journal let her get way too sloppy, an obvious fact since she was thinking, years later, that her doofus, white, privileged son was the center of Hip Hop.  To this day, I look her up, every now and again, just to make sure she hasn’t published something out-of-pocket about black people in case I need to get at her ass again.  She hasn’t.  Like my family and communities taught me long ago: if you don’t like my peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

I do find it curious that white women in the academy have been the ones who embolden themselves so constantly to correct my language.  When white men come at me, they always do so with a white woman on their side.  None of this is a surprise.  Every wave of feminism has witnessed black women pointing out to white women how their notions of gender equality are constructed for the maintenance of white supremacy.  Nothing new there.

peach-treesSince none of these women are people who I would ever call my friends, people who I would choose to hang out with, or people who I even want to have much conversation with, it is curious that they seek me out— I have never initiated any of these conversations. I mind my business, do my work, do it well, keep to myself, keep it movin, and only talk to the handful of friends who I like and trust, those folk who understand and theorize oppression.  These initiated discussions are an obvious and deliberate attempt at colonization and, each time, that I respond back, I get rendered as the angry, oversensitive black woman…or the mean, black girl.  The colonized are always rendered as subhuman, stupid (too stupid to know what REAL oppression is, at that), and violent when they resist/speak back to their colonization.  It is inconceivable to power that we might have an analysis of THAT power.  That’s how institutional racism in universities works, what we might call the daily microaggressions necessary to maintain racist culture, and there are always clear actors who deliberately maintain it.  It ain’t a mystery, it ain’t subtle, and it ain’t difficult to pinpoint.

At the end of the day, we can’t be faded though by white women with such limited ideological lenses and vocabularies that they need to label black women angry instead of analytical, loud instead of logical, mean instead of methodical, sensitive instead of smart. There’s only one message to send here: If you don’t like these peaches, then don’t shake my tree.

Black Girlhood Stories: Outsmarting Every Fox!

Flossie-and-the-Fox-9780803702509One of my father’s closest friends is  the owner of the first black barbershop in my Ohio hometown where I grew up.  My cousin worked there as a cashier when I was little and always took me along with her. This is when my father’s friend would always tell me that the name of his shop was his actual, full name: Poor Clark’s.  As a little girl, I thought his first name was “Poor”, pronounced Po, and that his last name was “Clark.”   This was a fabrication that Mr. Clark actually upheld until I was old enough to figure it out for myself.  When I remind him of this, he laughs and agrees that this is a good first name, proud that he concocted such a story for me.  He also told me that he was born in a place so deep back there in the backwoods of Mississippi that they had to pipe sunshine in.  I believed every word of that also and had fanciful imaginations for how one might get sunshine through a very, very long pipe.  My cousins and family told me stories like this all of the time and I believed every word.  While I was arguably a very gullible, little girl, I certainly learned that you can make language and stories twist and turn at your will.  With these stories, however, also came expectations for how to live my life and understand myself.  I was expected to question everything, use a sharp level of common sense, value quick wit in language play, maneuver the world with a critical eye, know a lie when I hear one, not be the fool who gets fooled by smooth talk, look past what someone says to see who they really are, pay close attention to what people do rather than to what they verbally profess, not believe someone just because they proclaimed themselves superior/intelligent, refuse to see myself as too small/too weak/too insignificant to handle tough situations, not back down from something that intimidated me, and realize when I am being tricked, thwarted, or messed over.  I was expected to be there for my community and to be able to know to rely on myself—my intuition, my social perceptions, and my own political awareness. I see all of this now as a kind of black literacy skills-set, a black-girl skills-set even, a worthy one that I will always be honing.  This is why my favorite book has always been Flossie and the Fox.  Though this isn’t the book that officially kicked off my anti-princess campaign on this blog, it is THE book that changed my relationship to children’s literature and to the alternate universe it can offer for and about black children. The book is simply brilliant for the ways in which it not only revises the fairy tale, Little Red Riding Hood, but destroys it and makes it unutterable for little black girls.

Published in 1986 by Patricia McKissack and illustrated by Rachel Isadora, McKissack’s tale represents a story that was told to her by her grandfather while sitting on the front porch with her family during hot summer evenings in the South. This story does not begin with: Once upon a time.  Instead, Grandfather would open with a question: “Did I ever tell you about the time…”   Little black girls are active participants here as they become the both the moral and the message. Now this is a story you just have to hear.

Flossie iiFlossie Finley is a little girl from Tennessee who rushes to her grandmother’s side when she is called.  Big Mama is busy sorting peaches so Little Flossie must take a basket of fresh eggs over to Miz Viola because a sly fox has been scaring the hens.  Flossie tells Big Mama that she “disremembers” ever seeing a fox but Big Mama, after stopping to think for a minute, assures her this: “Chile, a fox be just a fox” and simply tells her to watch the eggs closely.  With that advice, Flossie is on her way to Miz  Viola, walking through the woods instead of using the road to stay cooler.  Sure enough, Flossie runs into the fox who asks her what her name is.  Just as polite as can be, Flossie gives the fox her name and tells him she doesn’t know his name either.  When he answers that he is Fox, Flossie lets him know she doesn’t believe him and soon after, he commences to prove his fox-ness to her.  And, from there, Flossie just shows her shine.  After all, a fox be just a fox.  That’s not something she can’t handle.

Fox is just beside himself that a little girl like Flossie doesn’t know who he is and is not scared of him and he tells her as much.  Flossie’s answer is classic: “you sho’ think a heap of yo’self” and then she just skips right along.  When she stops to rest by a tree, Fox comes along to offer her his proof: “I have thick, luxurious fur.”  Flossie iiiFlossie rubs on his fur and tells him flat-out: “feels like rabbit fur to me” and then accuses fox of trying to fool her. Fox is ticked off now and insists that she needs to recognize his fox-status and act accordingly.  It doesn’t work though.  “Unless you can show you a fox, I’ll not accord you nothing!”  and with that, Flossie gets at him, once again, and then skips along.

Flossie is thirsty now and so she stops to get some water at the brook. Fox comes out to her and asks her to notice his pointed nose and warns that this fact should be proof enough for her.  The dialogue here is just beautiful.

Flossie: Come to think of it, rats got a long pointed nose (then she snaps her fingers). That’s it! You a rat trying to pass yo’self off as a fox.

Fox: I beg your pardon.

Flossie: You can beg all you wanna.  That still don’t make you no fox.

Next in her travels, Flossie meets up with a tabby cat who she enlists in her discussion.  Fox asks Cat to speak up and assure Flossie that he is a fox.  Cat obliges by pointing out the details of Fox’s claws and yellow eyes. This does not deter Flossie either who pretends to be deep in thought and then says: “All due respect, Miz Cat, but both y’all got sharp claws and yellow eyes.  So… that don’t prove nothing ‘cep’n both y’all be cats.”  Fox now starts to plead about “this horrible situation” and again tries to offer her proof: this time, it is his bushy tail that he describes.  Not missing a beat, Flossie reminds him that squirrels have the same kind of tail.  When Fox offers his promise to Flossie that he is a fox, Flossie just lets him know that his promise won’t do.

FlossieBy this point in the story, Flossie can see Miz Viola’s house at the McCutchin place in the distance so she allows Fox one more chance.  He offers the evidence of his sharp teeth and ability to run exceedingly fast.”  Again, the dialogue is perfect:

Flossie: You know, it don’t make much difference what I think anymore.

Fox: What? Why?

Flossie: Cause there’s one of Mr. J.W. McCutchin’s hounds behind you.  He’s got sharp teeth and can run fast too. And, by the way, that hounds looking’, it’s all over for you!

The story ends with the fox running for his life and Flossie looking out at us, every egg in tow, with the biggest most beautiful smile, letting us know that she knew he was Fox all along.


Like I said, this was just not a story I could really summarize and my telling does the book very little justice here.  The story is just too perfect.  This is no Little Red Riding Hood: this is not a girl who is given one path/dictate that she must follow and then punished brutally for not following it, too naive and unaware to handle alternate worlds, ideas, and independence.  There is no woodsman to come and save the day.  Flossie is never even given a path, only a destination in relation to a much larger community than the nuclear family.  Like Stevie Wonder tells it, when you’re movin’ in the positive, the destination is the brightest star.  Flossie is trusted to get to the destination and is encouraged to believe in her ability to get there.  After all, Big Mama tells her before she even leaves that a fox ain’t all that. The Fox— i.e., the big, bad world— is never made bigger than Flossie and she never treats it as such.  She never once co-signs the Fox’s overdetermined beliefs in his own superiority and power and lets him know it at each step of the way. And she doesn’t need someone to come save her because she can save herself— with her sharp wit, intelligence, and ability to see things exactly as they are, knowing exactly who she is and where she is.  She is still innocent and pure in the way she interacts with the creatures on her travels but she is not so gullible and pathetic that she loses the ability to recognize a predator and handle him.  Not even the fox’s, lofty, high-faluting language is given any kind of social marker of intelligence, educated status, worth, or superiority.

I would go so far as to say that for a black girlchild, the knowledge/talent/wisdom that Flossie has are a life-and-death matter in a world dictated by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.  You will HAVE to be creative on that kind of path because the walkway will never be clear-cut.  The fact that a black grandfather would tell his grandchildren this story on the front porch speaks volumes to a black community’s full awareness of this kind of life-and-death matter and the ability to present it to children, not in self-defeating ways, but in life-affirming ways.  This grandfather knows that them silly princess fairy tales are not for his Flossie-girlchildren and he gives them something even BETTER from his own mouth and from his own word! Like I have kept saying here in this anti-princess campaign, we have always had alternatives.  And we have always had counter-rhetorical styles and counter-epistemologies that offer girls a role and vision of themselves beyond the exaltation of passivity, male dominance, and white femininity.