Not New To This/True To This: Black Language, the Internet, Southern Roots, and the Failed Entrenchments of Whiteness

I wish somebody had told me that teaching about Black Language in The South would be this smoove. I’m almost scared to say this out loud, because some of yall will bring your sorry butts down here and mess this up. I remember when I told folx I was moving to Texas and they swore they would never move here or anywhere South. There is no such thing as a space free from white supremacy in the USA, so suggesting otherwise is just stupid… especially given all of what you must ignore to equate the Midwest, NorthEast, Westcoast, and all points on the compass with racial/political progress.

I grew up in the Midwest, my family is from Alabama, I went to college in California, and I spent my adulthood in the Northeast. Today I teach college in the South. I started teaching in 1993 in the Bronx, NY which marks my very first experience of teaching about Black Language as a classroom teacher when I introduced my high school students to Geneva Smitherman, including her foreword to the book, Double Snaps (where she contextualizes what we then called snappin inside of the Black Language tradition of signifyin). It was the Golden Age of Hip Hop and my BIPOC students were “South South Bronx” all the way through… and they were as anti-Black in their ideas about Black Language as any white supremacist out here. I had to go to WORRRRRRKKKK to get them to think through their internalized anti-Blackness. As dope as those students wore, it took even more work to get them off the side of white supremacy during the Ebonics “Controversy” in 1996. They came around… eventually.

Centering Black Language in the college classroom– where I have taught courses spanning gender studies, composition, Black studies, rhetoric, and education— ain’t been easy either. Not in Queens. Not in the Bronx. Not in Harlem. Not in Brooklyn. Not in Newark. Not in my 26 years of teaching in those places. These are spaces steeped in Blackity-Black Black Language and yet far too many Black folx don’t want to claim it. At a Black college in Brooklyn, many of those students complained about my focus on U.S. Ebonics, Hip Hop Nation Language, and Caribbean Nation Language. I actually scared many students right out of my classes. For some students, it would take something drastic to get them to come to the light. In one instance, one woman was insulted that a college class and a college professor like me would even mention Ebonics and she let everybody know it (usually using Black Language herself)…. that is, until her son’s elementary school tried to put him in special education because of language issues. I went to bat for her and that little boy and kept him out of special education, but that was what it took for her to change her tune. I’ve written about these moments extensively, so I’ll just chalk it up here: I could tell dozens of stories like this. Granted, it wasn’t everybody, but it was always enough to make me almost lose a professional disposition.

2019 was my last year teaching and living in the Northeast. I vividly remember my last undergraduate class— a small capstone that I treated as a writing seminar. Those students’ final projects were fabulous (see here for their collections), but a few were very vocal that they did not want to hear anything about writing and language that intersected with narrative, translingualism, Black Language, or non-essayist literacy. That got shut down pretty quickly when they realized that all that white school language that they had mastered for the majority-white and very traditionalist faculty at that CUNY college (City University of New York) was not something that would get them a multiracial audience who would listen to them. It was 2019. And they was still working my nerves. I do miss those students dearly— their vibe, their rhythm, their flow, their language, their loudness, their daily aesthetic… and even the way they made me get in they asses about their negative attitudes on Black Language. That said, the South is dope. I had to re-learn how to teach about Black Language. Cuz it’s a whole other world here.

Because there is no dissent.

Not even a little.

No hesitation.

No questioning.

It’s just full steam forward… like, yeah, let’s get this. All of the time.

By my fourth semester of centering Black Language in my undergraduate courses here in Texas, I really got it. After years of resistance, I’ve learned how to teach about Black Language on the offensive. But I ain’t really learn how to teach it on the offense and WIN! At first I thought it was a fluke, but by the fourth time, I was like, naw, they open AF. They write notes on the evaluations, to my email, and in my DMs thanking me for lessons on Black Language. Like, what? I done died and gone to Black Language Heaven?

I’m tellin you right here: It’s the South.

From September 1993 all the way up to May of 2019 in New York and New Jersey, I faced some kind of resistance in the classroom to Black Language. Three months later, I landed in Texas and the tide shifted. It ain’t me. I ain’t change THAT MUCH in three months. And it ain’t cuz a new Black liberation cultural movement emerged in three months either.

This is the South.

And we winnin.

I decided that we would rock out a little different this semester and create our own Black Language Workbook that future semesters will build on. This semester seemed like I had the perfect course to do this work: DIGITAL BLACKNESS.

Like always with real Black learning and intellectual work, when you ain’t fighting and pleading and explaining the legitimacy of a Black thing, you can get down to the actual nitty gritty of the thing and do and think some new fire into it. That’s what teaching now is like. We hit the Black Language theme unit somewhere in week six but by week five, one student, Josulyn, had already presented, telling us that what many call internet slang is really Black Language that racism won’t let be fully credited as such. By the time we started creating the Black Language Workbook, we understood that there is no such thing as Black Digital/Black Internet Language. The digital makes its meaning through, with, and because of Black Language. It’s like the technology today is only now catching up with 100s of years of Black Language and that’s only because Black folx are training social media to do so!

Black Language is future-oriented in the way it does Language; it’s like it was able to predict the needs of current digital communication long before it was even available to us. The hallmark discursive features of Black Language are the foundation of such digital communication today, all of which my Texas students defined in the workbook below (hit the arrows to go forward):

Black Language is alllll about…. the creative play on words, image-makings that make the text come alive, metaphors everydamnwhere all the time, quick wit on even the seemingly mundane, lightning fast comebacks, exaggerated language that drives home a point, call-and-response to get audiences involved, signifyin on any-and-everythang, semantic inversions that can flip the meanings of any word, tonal semantics that make the words sound the way you mean them, mimicry that will clapback by just imitating you, narrative sequencing so that multiple stories can tell a main story, directness AND indirectness, proverbial statements that make everyday feel like a Sunday school lesson….. and just willlllld creativity all the time with morphology and syntax.

That’s like the WHOLE ASS internet.

Yup, it took coming South to learn and understand all this (I am arguably in the Southwest though, not the Deep South, but still South). It makes sense though, since The South is the home of Black Language in the United States as we know it. I remember way back when I would share with my students something one of my graduate school professors, Robin D.G. Kelley, talked to us about in class. He talked about the “accent” of the Deep South as Black Language as that “accent” developed in the parts of the United States that held the most enslaved Africans. This goes against the “commonsense” suggestions that Black Language was developed from the accents of Southern whites (as if white Southerners are homegrown vs. new settlers and as if slavery didn’t last for 100s of years for Black folx who imprinted the South everywhere). Kelley flipped all that to say, naww naww, the accents of Southern whites developed based on a proximity to Black folx that Northern white folx didn’t have. White supremacist relationships to slavery simply re-center whiteness in linguistic politics and so suggest otherwise. Granted, Kelley did not talk like my crude paraphrasing, but the message is still there. When I told students in the North all this, they disagreed and I had to check them real quick in their anti-Black assumptions that they knew more than a brilliant Black historian like Robin D.G. Kelley based on something their majority-white high school teachers told them. Fast forward to 2019 when I share the same thing here and you know what the students say? I remember it like yesterday, cuz a student from Augusta, GA (and Augusta stay tearing it up) raised his hand and said something like this: Oh, yeah. That makes so much sense. I knew white people like me talked different for a good reason. Ain’t heard a dissenting voice yet. Good reason, indeed!

Other times, well, they just say what’s on their minds.

While I’m having the time of my life, I think most of my students are actually just pretty chill, like it’s just another day for them, or, like maybe I shoulda been teaching in the South all along.

I am so glad I am a rhetoric-compositionist because this is the work I get to do in classrooms every week, every month, every theme unit, every semester. And as a researcher and scholar, I write about these things, examine language/writing politics closely, and situate classroom learning in the historical and current contexts of racism, education, language, and literacy. We have decades of research on Black liberatory /anti-racist/anti-colonial/ intersectional teaching and learning that connects me as a writer-teacher-scholar to an entirely different community of thought and action. This allows us to move in ways that go against the opposing whiteness of the school, department, district, and/or campus which is often hell-bent on re-centering whiteness no matter that even white students are asking for something different. Like now.

My current context (yes, where my first-year and second-year college students do work on Black Language so brilliantly) recently decided that one of the categories of specialty for a new hire for composition classrooms would be: “Argumentation and Propaganda Analysis.” Foolish on so many levels!! Those of us who are “PhD-trained” as rhetoric-compositionists know that this is not even how speciality and expertise in the field are named in 2023. The wording comes instead from the title of a course that looks like it has been on the books for a while. A year ago, the then-administration asked me if I would teach this class. I declined explaining that the course is not something that I would ever put on my CV. I also questioned why the course is still in the curriculum given that every organization, conference, and journal in my field is facing a serious reckoning for the kind of white indoctrination that such a curricular choice represents. It goes in the opposite direction of what I communicate to my students as 21st century rhetorical study and is too deeply rooted in an exclusionary traditionalism that has worked as its own white “propaganda” (ironic that whiteness sees propaganda everywhere but in itself). Now fast forward to a year later and they wanna hire someone in this defunct category— and name it as such on a public-facing, national ad. It’s not even even giving a contemporary white supremacy tea— it’s just some old 1950s Cold War retrograde stuff designed from the perspective of a white male bourgeoisie (it ain’t, after all, W.E.B. DuBois’s or Aime Cesaire’s perspectives). Meanwhile, folx act surprised at the racist backlash that we see from someone like Ron DeSantis when white retrenchment like that is clearly present everywhere. The professors who center their work in rhetoric-composition studies did not propose this category; the literature faculty did. There was even an almost-unanimous vote on this white racist construct— I was the SOLE ONLY vote of NO— but it passes anyway because white curriculum is considered democratic and faculty-governed when voting this way. In the end, the professors in rhetoric-composition studies will be blamed and thrown under the bus when graduate students and folx on the national scale call out this white supremacy for exactly what it is ….and the perpetrators will, like always, gaslight their way out of it. It’s as colonial of an enterprise as you can get.

And it’s easy to see and decipher.

But then again: I belong to a Black Language Legacy that sits at the intersection of the Black Radical Tradition. Like my students can even show you, we do and think real differently over here. White retrenchment never wins. Listen to Black Language and you hear all the evidence of that. We ain’t goin nowhere and neither is the Black Language that will always deconstruct you.

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