Smitherman – Word From The Mother

“to speak . . . means to assume a culture . . .every dialect is a way of thinking.”

–Frantz Fanon (1967)

In Geneva Smitherman’s Word from the Mother, Smitherman speaks with maternal authority and explores the push-pull relationship that both African and White America have with African American Language. Through an overview of AAL debates past and present, Smitherman demonstrates that while White and African America are still undecided on how they feel about Black people and their culture, there is nothing ambivalent about AAL; it has roots, consistent rules and continues to have a recognizable impact on mainstream America and the language of wider communication, “standardized” American English. Smitherman also makes the case that because of this we should broaden the concept of AAL beyond the notion that it is only for and used by young Hiphoppas, but that AAL should be included in writing pedagogy at all levels, as well as, a national bi/multilingual policy for all U.S. citizens.

Smitherman asserts that AAL is rooted in the West African languages that enslaved Africans brought to the United States over 400 years ago.

“AAL comes out of the experience of the U.S. slave descendants. This shared experience has resulted in common speaking styles, systematic patterns of grammar, and common language practices in the Black community.” (3)

Smitherman points to similarities in words of West African origin and AAL to demonstrate the connection between the two languages. For example, she compares the “tote” as in tote bag and “tota” meaning to carry in Kikongo. Smitherman uses these similarities and research to disprove the notion that AAL is random and an indication of genetic inferiority. “Linguists then and now are united in our overwhelming rejection of assertions that AAL is illogical or evidence of some kind of intellectual shortcoming in Blacks.” (11)

Although many still deny AAL’s legitimacy and value as a language form, Smitherman presents undeniable evidence of the linguistic crossover of terms that were at one point exclusively Black and are now enjoyed by all. The “high five” previously known as giving and getting skin/ five has its roots in West Africa.

There are several West African language sources, including Mandingo, I golo don m bolo, meaning literally “put your skin in my hand” as an expression of agreement and solidarity. Practiced on the down low in Black America for most of the entire twentieth century, “put your skin in my hand” morphed into the “high five” around 1990 . . . one can observe its use not only among White males, but also among elite White women on the golf course as well as among elderly White females confined to nursing homes (113).

If this text had been written after the 2008 presidential campaign, I’m sure Smitherman would have also addressed the closed fist variation used by then Black Presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and his wife, which later became known to White America as the popular “fist bump” only after they were assured there was no terrorist affiliation indicated by it.

The bottom line in Word from the Mother is that AAL or Negro Dialect as it was once called should not be seen as a hindrance to African American progress. In chapter 7, Smitherman debunks the argument put forward by Gordon C. Green in 1963 that Negro Dialect would be the last barrier to integration. At that time, Green argued that within the next generation all signs of segregation and overt racism would be eliminated and that Black folk needed to lose their dialect in order to reap the benefits of the societal about-face. Smitherman points out that the de-facto segregation that is still present forty years after Green’s plea has nothing to do with AAL. “Indeed, the irony of Green’s four-decades-old argument is that in the U.S., the “Negro Dialect” has been integrated, but the “Negro people” have not.” (122)

Smitherman argues against simplistic approaches to AAL and attempts to move the conversation to higher ground by discussing possible uses in education. She explores language awareness programs in elementary and secondary school that serve to develop and reaffirm positive attitudes toward AAL. “Education about language diversity has to start early on – with all children” (138). She also cites Gwendolyn Pough’s use of Hip-hop pedagogy in her college courses as “a vehicle for critical thinking and social change” (141).

However, the broader issue, Smitherman concludes, is what kind of stance we will take as a nation concerning acquisition of language. Smitherman suggests a bi/multilingual national policy where AAL would be one of several languages that students could select. Students would also study the respective cultures of the languages offered and therefore be prepared to enter the adult world as bi/multilinguals with global perspectives (141). Smitherman argues that this is a better strategic position than the current monolingual policy and practice encouraged by No Child Left Behind. “While the twenty-first-century world is moving in a common direction of multilingualism, the U.S. remains stagnated in a backward monolingualism” (144).

Regardless of the continued linguistic push-pull relationship White and African America have with African American Language it has stood the test of time for over 400 years and it is here to stay.

Advertisements

Richardson – Hiphop Literacies

Elaine Richardson’s Hiphop Literacies examines African American Hip-hop past, present and future and clearly locates Hip-hop discourse within the Black discourse trajectory and secondary oral contexts within the United States and abroad. Richardson’s placement of Hip-hop discourse in these contexts is significant because it highlights the fact that although Black culture and discourse are enlisted at best and hijacked at worse through increasing globalization, the people and culture that they represent continue to be vilified and manipulated for profit both in the United States and abroad. Richardson sets the stage for the complex space that Hip-hop occupies by juxtaposing two quotes at the beginning of chapter 5: AAL in German Hiphop.

“The absorption of [African American Language] into Eurocentric culture masks its true origin and reason for being … a way of talking that has taken surviving African language elements as the base for the creation of self-expression in an alien tongue” (Smitherman, 1998: 216).
“Hip-hop and rap cannot be viewed simply as an expression of African American culture; it has become a vehicle for global youth affiliations and a tool for reworking local identity all over the world” (Mitchell, 2001:2).

This dual-reality that Hip-hop occupies is fairly harmless when, as Richardson points out, terms such as “chill” and “fresh” cross over into the mainstream and are appropriated by German hiphoppas. After all, Richardson also points out in Chapter 2, Cultural Vibrations, that language borrowing occurs quite frequently between African American Hip-hop and Jamaican Dancehall. However, when a term such as “nigger” which is “a controversial term stemming from the history of slavery, racism and White supremacy” (85) is used by German hiphoppa Kool Savas, the globalization of this homegrown  discourse can become problematic. “Though he (Kool Savas) might get a pass from the German rap crowd, intimate African American rappers, and perhaps American rap fans if/ when he is collaborating … currently his usage would be problematic with unfamiliar Blacks or a Black non-rap audience,” (86). Kool Savas’ staying power on MTV’s Hitlist Germany shows that German hiphoppas are “feelin his Germanized AAL/ Hiphop flow” (86), which translates into profit/ benjamins/ scrilla. This would not present a problem if in fact the examination of the global reach of Black youth culture resiliency and creativity resulted in us doubling up our effort to nurture and elevate the culture as Richardson proposes it ought to, but that is not the case.

Richardson presents another example of the rape of Hiphop flava. She calls the merging of Hip-hop and the video game industry a double-edged sword. While the gaming industry allows young people of color to profit off of their intimate knowledge of Hip-hop, it also distorts the culture and projects a narrow view of Black people that has historically had the effect of essentializing them. Richardson sites Adam Banks (2006) and others that argue that the video game design itself is rhetorical and “Blacks have been designed into positions of exclusion” (102).

In essence, to take comedian Paul Mooney’s famous line, “Everybody wants to be a nigger, but nobody wants to be a nigger,” a step further, it can be said that everyone wants to perform Blackness in order to get paid, but nobody wants real “niggers” to get the high score on screen or in reality as also shown in chapter 4 – Lil’ Kim and Women’s AAL Practices. Nigger, in this context, meaning “Rebellious, fearless, unconventional, in-yo-face Black man (or woman)” (Smitherman 2006).

In conclusion, Richardson gives an overview of the rhetorical language and literacy practices of Hip-hop and the tremendous impact it continues to have on language in the United States and around the globe. Gonzalo Frasca (2004) argues that “the game,” should be designed so players can explore complex societal problems, and question the values and assumptions of the games (104). Richardson’s Hiphop Literacies shows that the commercial Hip-hop “Game” and the way we as a society approach it could also use a makeover.