While it might very well be that most if not all of today’s outspoken black sophists – all of whom I gots the utmost deference for – speak and write in almost borderline perfect English (with they prim and proper selves, soundin all dignified), and no doubt being subsumed under a classification of “respectable black people” to which me and mines and you and yours should ogle in awe-inspiration at, for they are the paragons worth our genuflection. It just be that it’s confusing, and here’s what I mean.
What I mean is that almost simultaneously they borderline belying they rhetoric through the use of a standard variant of English that speaks to a linguistic political system positing the Queen English as superior to/better than they “Mother Tongues”. Which, to be fair, not to be taken as wholesale criticism of deemed respectable parlances; being black dont necessarily make one conversant in the ways of black English, or African American English Vernacular, Ebonics the same way being white doesn’t automatically make one proper-English speaking. Far be it from me too to get on how folks roll, let alone how they roll their tongues: that be the jobs of prescriptivists, ideologues of standard English whose boldface proscriptions of any entholingual variant just another form of oppression against those for whom the standard (whiteness) is not the primary. And while commonalities vary, the constancy and primacy of “code switching”-infused readin and writin instruction is too blatant to ignore. It basically be how The Teach say to black students that they English “wrong” and in turn prompts rewriting into the “right” way.
In reality though, coppin you some language be sort of a la carte – that is, depending on exposure, to what extent, in what contexts, in light of what gains and losses, how often, entry points, among other things, turns language acquisition into Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you gonna get. Add to that our personal preferences and idiosyncrasies and proclivities as to what kinds of chocolates, how much we indulge, susceptibilities to harrowing consequences from consuming such foodstuffs, allergies, and just our human nature to not give a what about all that, and then some. The same be ringing true for language is what I’m trying to say. Like what my man Dr Vershawn Young (Dr Vay or just Vay hereafter) say in his “Should Writers Use They Own English?”: “The narrow, prescriptive lens be messing writers and readers all the way up, cuz we all been taught to respect the dominant way to write, even if we dont, cant, or wont ever write that one way ourselves.”
I also observe that it might very well be that they (the aforementioned black sophists, I mean) mommas and daddies made it so that they’d grow up knowing how to move through a room full of vernacular vultures via an understanding of what Randall Kennedy (Mr K hereafter) dropped in Harper’s as the politics of respectability (POR hereafter). The proponents of which Mr K writes, “advocate taking care in presenting oneself publicly and desire strongly to avoid saying and doing anything that will reflect badly on blacks, reinforce negative stereotypes, or needlessly alienate potential allies,” which to me and my black consciousness be some old doublespeak: Championship for the assimilation to the dominant persuasion through the starvation of your origination for the sake of your preservation, sans reparations. But peep, because Mr K make POR sound almost like capital-D Doctrine; he say it legit because of the considerable number of other “good” sisters and brothers, albeit not always, it work for. Like, he talk about how Thurgood Marshall “usta” (read: used to) vet his black clients for personhood in making up his mind about whether or not he gone rep them in the court of law; he say the only reason Rosa Parks even a name today be that she was a better black person than the other black folks the same mess she went through happened to; he say even MLK complicit in that; he (Mr K) even try to undercut Michael Eric Dyson (Mike Dyson hereafter)–like, “How dare this negro,” almost–for supposedly being hypocryphal for lambasting POR while a participating in it.
My first response to this, albeit well-meaning, sort of, is how’re folks not supposed to consider our so-called heroes discriminatory assholes, hearing that, for example, MLK was accessory to “refraining from rallying around [Louise Smith and Claudette Colvin] who had been arrested before Parks,” because what? Because he and his enforcing dress codes where dress codes dont apply. So one has to look good, sound good, smell good, in order to be good? “Good” as in “looked out for”. So someone can have a legitimate case and Marshall just gone bypass they case because they not squeaky clean? Of Marshall–aka “Mr Civil Rights”–Mr K writes:
…Marshall did not proceed like conventional defense attorneys, who are generally indifferent to the culpability of their potential clients. To the contrary, he often declined to commit his scarce resources to the defense of those he believed to be guilty. He did not want the standing of the NAACP belittled by association with criminals. He viewed the reputation of his clients, the organization, and himself as important resources in the struggle to advance the fortunes of black America.
But hollup. Because if the then-running criteria (according to POR) mandated “[presenting] the civil rights movement in a fashion that would generate sympathy” and was “predicated on a belief that blacks needed to elevate themselves to reach parity with the Euro-American peers,” which meant being “rightly attentive to [one’s] image,” and that one “speak well, dress suitably, and mind our manners,” then it’s likely a considerable # of blacks who sought the Black Fist were dismissed solely off characteristics that failed to emblematize a (white)man-made standard of respectability. I mean, where else so-called good blacks gettin that idea from, anyway? Also: In his “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” flavor-of-the-month Ta Nehisi Coates (who Mr K jumps on, too) illustrated how the utmost-respected MLK was pretty much a criminal in the eyes of J Edgar Hoover, “who harassed three generations of leaders,” saying “he attacked Martin Luther King Jr as ‘the most notorious liar in the country,’ and hounded him, bugging his hotel rooms, his office, his home, until his death.” Now, we can either work from the assumption that the racist climate during Hoover, et al’s time was harder to snap than now, and so Hoover’s actions and behavior while deplorable are understandable from a lopsided cultural/historical/contextual standpoint; or we can acknowledge how not even MLK was impervious to ethno-impartiality.
Question: How this not discrimination, borderline intra-racism? Intra-racism mixed with public relations. Conflating superficial features with content. Mr K also dont make it seem like he and them acknowledging what the implications would be for future generations, saying in the penultimate sentence “At no point has there been more reason for young black men and women to be hopeful that investing in themselves will pay dividends,” making it sound mad cookie cutter-like: be made in the image of Rosa Parks, as an example, and be blessed. I get it though, because white folks pull the same when unruly blacks bust up shops in the wake of some mess, saying: WWMLKD? Enough.
My second response is that if “No one with any sense claims that ‘acting better’ ensures immunity against racist violence or any other lurking catastrophe,” and “The argument is that prudent conduct and sensitivity to how we appear to others improves our chances for success in environments peppered with dangerous prejudice,” then well, has Mr K considered that maybe some folks just dont wanna roll like that? What I mean is while it might be well and good to cop you some high saddity sensibilities to put you on par with constituents within some exclusive (read: white) circles – that is, get you some cred – that’s hardly a respectable pretext for respectability, or even acceptability. What Mr K promoting, I feel like, is self hatred and a bias toward a “reality” even Mr K know funked up. Instead of de-funking it for the folks, though, Mr K feel it best we blacks and other historically marginalized folks highbeam our way through life, like that dont waste battery.
What’s more: since when being one’s self a bad thing? R E S P E C T something earned not something coaxed outta someone by acting phony. That be how some jokers get got, you understand? Think Rachel Dolazel. Think Shaun King. If anything, Mr K sound like he about that DuBoisian doubleconsciousness as if it a good thing, which contrarian to DuBois’ point in the first place.
In “Nah, We Straight’: An Argument Against Code Switching,” my man Vay talk about this exact thing. In it, he locate the POR in code switching, referring to the literal switching from one speech act to another depending on the rhetorical situation. Like Kennedy & Co’s respect politics, codeswitching just linguistic ones propagatin self-hate, or that one stave off the nutrients of they immediate culture. Like Mr Kennedy say of his orders: “The fulfillment of our racial obligations required that we speak well, dress suitably, and mind our manners” (italics mines).Vay, however, say code switching just Jim Crow all over again in that it pumping that “separate but equal” logic into folks heads, in effect bifurcating folks identities a la doubleconscious.
What Vay make salient is how not even teachers, plus those for whom fluency/mastery expected – aka middle class white folks – get it right, saying: “[dominant language ideology] persuades us to imagine they do. It demands that we participate in a fantasy that white middle class folks are entitled speakers of public English.” This presumably the fallacy from whence Mr Kennedy et al coming from, an assumption itself, the basis for his argument as to respectability politics from whence historically marginalized folks should engage “reality with clear eyes in order to fashion responses with any hope of success,” success coming from a “Know Your Role” model whereby blacks demonstrate obedience, and an obedience rooted in an inferiority complex, and an inferiority complex born out a fucked up history.
Taking note of the slippery slope, though (Moms and Pops probably readin), let me not front like I always been me, rockin this voice, because I very much so subscribed to a “politics of respectability” before seeing the light. See, here’s we me and Mr K almost kindred: “My parents inculcated in me and my two siblings a particular sense of racial kinship: in our dealings with the white world we were to be racial ambassadors. Our achievements would advance race, our failures would hinder it.” This here tell me more so how hard upbringing to break – and tradition – forefronting for yours truly the pathos of “But momma said.” Which I for one can relate to, being literally beaten – had that ass whooped – to talk “like I got some sense,” having “too been brainwashed about the ‘inherent and Absolute rightness’ of white middle-class dialect and [did] not realize that language can be/has been for Black people in America a tool of oppression” (129), to quote Geneva Smitherman one time. And even now I’m aware of the operable privilege my high school diploma, BA, and to-be-completed MA (here’s hopin) done afforded me in just being able to say I give a. Nor can I testify to the voice I henceforth choose to express myself in havin done me any favors heretofore, or even at present. It dont. Truthbetold, I’m shook it wont never. But I point to James Baldwin in my “self destruction,” in my saying no to respectability politics inasmuch as it DIY censorship, pretty much. Lo Baldwin, who asked: “If Black English (BE hereafter) Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?” And to Jay-Z (Hov hereafter), who in Decoded says: “But I can’t say I’ve ever given much of a fuck about people who hear a curse word and start foaming at the mouth.”
So Kennedy’s treaty basically talkin about how the revolutionary tradition of blacks is located in decency at the cost of dignity, and what that mean fo disgruntled black folk in the 21st Century. Kennedy say the point people for blacks are “good blacks” who are and were “attentive to how [they were] perceived.” That its “association with esteemed [blacks] and episodes in African American history suggest that the politics of respectability warrants a more respectful hearing than it has recently received,” he say. So in Kennedy head, it the J O B of historically subjugated people to be bigger people in order to “counteract racist dogma…in a fashion that would generate sympathy and admiration…in the struggle to advance the fortunes of blacks in America,” even if it not gonna work? And even if it it do, said subjugated folks are just expected to uphold these virtues at the expense of who they are, want to be, should be, could be, to make Whitey feel better about their proximity?
Problematics abound, obviously, which explain why so many folks from Flavorwire to Boston Review to The Atlantic, including commenters in comments sections, got on Mr K for his on High, mountaintop-influenced chide. Mind you it’s unsurprising he and his ilk would deploy such a clarion call, “a prudential plea for reasonable action”–damage control–in light of some mess of late. And I know exactly what folks gone do wit Kennedy’s suit: the exact same thing he do in it: project onto blacks images, names, symbols, demonstrations, including Kennedy hisself, of what works, and don’t, and not never gonna; or at least not if he and his have something to say about it.
Language-wise, there enough cultural relevancy not only to substantiate why blacks among other nonnative/standard English speakers should be able to express they-selves how they wanna, but also to give a name to it. It’s code meshing: “Code meshing the new code switching,” as Vay say, observing how code switching a misnomer and actually mean “[blendin] dialects, [int’l] languages, local idioms, chatroom lingo, and the rhetorical styles of various ethnic and cultural groups in both formal and informal speech acts.” Note too how I said code switching a misnomer: in sociolinguistic terms, right, code switching actually dont mean what widely and popularly understood as code switching. On the contrary, “Code switching may be defined as the use of more than one language or language variety concurrently. Spanglish, the simultaneous linguistic production of Spanish and English in the same discourse, is an example of this kind of code switching.” But see, this what happen when the Herrenvolk start touchin stuff that aint theirs, because now code switchin about that “contrastive analysis–a method comparing black English to standard English so that [black students] can learn to switch from one to the other in different settings.”
Code meshing, on the other hand, pretty much that organic thing we all do from off the top of the dome, when we not worryin bout–or rather not performing for–whoever listening or watching. Albeit kneejerk-y, or call it “raw,” it not exempt from revision, grammaticality, nor do it inhibit communication or any of those mad skills we value in (a white patriarchal) Western society: “A whole lot of folks could be speakin and writin real, real smart if [folks] stop using one prescriptive, foot long ruler to measure the language of peeps who use a yardstick when they communicate,” writes Vay. He say “What we need to do is enlarge our perspective about what good writin is and how good writin can look at work, at home, and at school” (“Should”).
So it kind of irksome of Mr K to say otherwise, especially Mr K who say “nigger,” or “nigga,” a protean word, can make you feel (read: understand) why a nigga might use it, or uses it, and then gone try and disabuse a nigga from using it because of some longheld Stockholm Syndrome-infused politics peculiar to old skool blacks? Like, what nigga?
Here go Mr K: “Opponents of respectability politics talk as though it has never been effective,” granted, and “Well known detractors of respectability politics dress to impress–as most adults do on a regular basis.” And: “Whenever people dress to impress they are engaging in politics of respectability,” which I do see, granted. And while: “[Mike Dyson] [dont] wear casual street clothes when he [appear] on Meet the Press to do ideological battle with Rudy Giuliani. He [dress] up [cuz] he […] rightly attentive to his image. He participates in the politics of respectability [tho] he [disparage] it,” why it cant be that Dyson enjoy gettin fly? Since when clothes make the man? Can I just say now, that the believability of POR really contingent on one’s ability to detect logical fallacies, because for Mr K, or anyone, to associate character and competence with manmade rules of engagement is straight cattle-dumb and as old as igneous rock.
But before y’all get to flexing and jumping down my throat, check out this li’l ditty. In “Pitfalls In Fighting ‘Nigger’: Perils of Deception, Censoriousness, and Excessive Anger,” (2002) Mr K sing different:
The black comedians and rappers who use and enjoy nigger care principally, perhaps exclusively, about what they themselves think, desire, and enjoy–which is part of their allure. Many people (including me) are drawn to these performers despite their many faults because, among other things, they exhibit a bracing independence. They eschew boring conventions, including the one that maintains, despite massive evidence to the contrary, that nigger can mean only one thing. (emphasis mines)
Mr K look real, real suspect right now, because how Mr K’s abovementioned not flyin in the face of the very respectability politics he and his propose? One may be wondering, as I am, if Mr K’s current assertion ain rooted in some skullduggery to thwart the efforts of well-meaning brothers and sisters who don’t necessarily identify wit him and his. Encroachment on they cynosure perhaps got them tight (read: mad) – shook – or it just that Mr K think he know what’s best for millennials who take umbrage at feeling as though it’s not safe out here for them. “But momma said,” and I get it. But hold up (before I swole up) because I need to be fair to Mr K, because from Jump I said how it kinda dubious of black sophists arguin on behalf of they constituents to talk unlike they constituents – a slippery slope, hence why I couldn’t front like this always me, either. That it wasn’t, by extension, denote the political awareness in my aboutface, which not even all that political as it is existential, or commonsensical, or sentential, or sacrificial, if not nonsensical and just me trippin – no psychological.
My argument to the negative of respectability politics locates me in an argument for the use of code meshing readin and writing instruction as it, as Vay say, “allow black people to play both the black and white keys on the piano at the very same time, creating beautiful linguistic performances that will hopefully help relieve double conscious and facilitate the merging DuBois hoped for” (“Nah”). Which hardly me sayin do as I say, though; or say how I do. Recognizing how doubleminded people be, this hardly an indictment, too. Rather it’s a shoefitting. So if the shoe fit, then yo, that’s all you.
As a coda I wanna accentuate my mikedrop with a sort of verso-recto look at Obama and Jay-Z (Hov hereafter)–Obama and Hov being the kind of culturally relevant loci wherein the politics of language and respectability get all kind of jacked up.
Check it: A YouTube video titled “Obama’s Ghettoest Moments” classifies as “ghetto” for Obama as the time he danced on Ellen to Beyonce’s “Crazy In Love,” the time he swatted a fly midinterview wit sum white man, and the time, in a doctored up (and very funny) video, he frontkicked open a door, exiting stage left; “Obama’s My Nigga Handshake,” shows him shakin hands with a white man to soft music and immediately thereafter givin dap to Kevin Durant to rapper YG’s “My Nigga”; 2010, the press all agog at Obama’s black English: “Nah, we straight,” he said in response to a cashier offering him change up in Ben’s Chili Bowl.
That any of these could be, or are, considered “ghetto” for POTUS is proof positive of how some folks can identify “ghetto,” still respect one’s “gangster,” and accept such identifiably “ghetto” and “gangster” markers in someone like POTUS. It also highlight how the whole argument just plain dumb. It’s like my man Vay say of Obama’s changing of the game towards the end of his eponymous nod:
As we think about Obama’s language practice during his campaign and accept for the sake of argument that he played the code switching game (I say for sake of argument, because some folks believe that he is heard differently by whites and blacks) then what if, just what if, he played the game to end the game? Not so only he could have the luxury to use AAE (African American English) more freely after the election, both in informal settings like Ben’s Chili Bowl…and in formal settings, as he did in one interview with Diane Saywer where he says he “hipped” his personal aide Reggie Love to Aretha Franklin and John Coltrane, but so nobody else, no other AAE speakers would have to put on a show to prove their worth. What if he played the game not to endorse the game but to show that the stigma against AAE in formal settings and academic writing is stupid?
A section of Hov’s Decoded titled “Negative Space,” underscore Vay’s point, actually. Same way Obama paying the game to end the game, Hov, understanding the game and how being a rapper/black/insert your ethnic, gender, sexual minority automatically puts one at odds with the dominant consensus, says “brush your shoulders off”:
Growing up as a black kid from the projects, you can spend your whole life being misunderstood, followed around department stores, looked at funny, accused of crimes you didn’t commit, accused of motivation you don’t have, dehumanized–until you realize, one day, it’s not about you. It’s about perceptions people had long before you even walked onto the scene. The joke’s on them because they’re really just fighting phantoms of their own creation. Once you realize that, things get interesting. It’s like when we were kids. You’d start bopping hard and throw on the ice grill when you step into Macy’s and laugh to yourself when the security guards got nervous and started shadowing you. You might have a knot of cash in your pocket, but you boost something anyway, just for the sport of it. Fuck ‘em. Sometimes the mask is to hide and sometimes it’s to play at being something you’re not so you can watch the reactions of people who believe the mask is real. Because that’s when they reveal themselves. (55, italics mines)
Now see Obama brushin off his shoulders. Gettin that dirt of his shoulders. The haters gone hate, anyway, so: let them. As Hov said, “Pardon my back.”