CCR 611: Comp Histories/Theories

Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans

Black or African American Language (BL or AAL) is a style of speaking English words with Black flava—with Africanized semantic, grammatical, pronunciation, and rhetorical patterns. AAL comes out of the experience of 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. Language is a tie that binds. It provides solidarity with your community and gives you a sense of personal identity. AAL served to bind the enslaved together, melding diverse African ethnic groups into one community. (3)

I’ve been loving the exam reading the past couple weeks. I purposefully saved the comp history/theory/pedagogy texts for the end because they’re more aligned with my research interests, and I knew they’d be more enjoyable to read when it got down to crunch time. Although I’ve read this book before, it was great to re-read Smitherman, particularly with language diversity fresh in my head from the discussions in Shaughnessy and Bartholomae. And—more than anyone else on the list—Dr. G spits the truth.

Chapter Breakdown.

Cover of Word from the Mother (profile image of an African woman with head scarf, elaborate earrings, and necklace)In Chapter 1, “African American Language: So good it’s bad,” Smitherman breaks down both the historical and social context of AAL, introducing it as a “counter language, the resistance discourse, that was created as a communication system unintelligible to speakers of the dominant master class” (3). A linguist, Smitherman notes that race does not determine language; rather, children acquire language from their communities (5). In the U.S., our communities are frequently divided across racial lines, so children acquire the language that exists within those raced/ethnic communities. AAL, it seems, is somewhat of a paradox, evidenced by its linguistic push-pull. Influenced by DuBois’s conception of double consciousness (the idea that we look at and understand ourselves through the eyes of others), Smitherman defines linguistic push-pull as a love/hate relationship toward Black Talk: “Black folk loving, embracing, using Black Talk, while simultaneously rejecting and hatin on it—the linguistic contradiction is manifest in both Black and White America” (6).

AAL has  had a tenuous socio-political history in the US. Research on AAL boomed in the 1960s and 1970s, and it became a concern for educational policy in the 1970s, notably in two cases: Martin Luther King Junior Elementary School Children, et. al., v. Ann Arbor School District Board (or “The Black English Case”) from 1977-1979 and the 1996 Oakland School Board’s Ebonics Resolution. Both of these cases focused on the (lack of) academic progress of African American students in our public school system, drawing attention of the importance of valuing AAL and dialect for the learning process. And though it wasn’t the direct focus of either case, Smitherman notes that these were both symbolic of a larger controversy: whether AAL constitutes a distinct language or is merely a dialect of English (15). Though linguists accept the legitimacy of dialects, Smitherman argues, “In the minds of everyday people (and, unfortunately, even among some of my non-linguist academic colleagues—hello!), languages have high status, but dialects do not” (15). That is, dialect is often seen as a bastardized derivation of language. Smitherman establishes a case for AAL as a language worthy of respect because “languages evolve from peoplehood and nationhood” (17), and she argues that AAL crosses boundaries of gender/age/religion/class/nation and is historically and consistently influenced by culture, history, and experience. Black Language, she argues, is “bound up with and symbolic of identity, camaraderie, culture, and home” (19).

Chapter 2, “Words and Expressions, Proverbs, and Familiar Sayings,” outlines a linguistic core that Smitherman defines as “Black Semantics”—words and familiar expressions that cross the boundaries of age, gender, and social class in African America but have also become incorporated into the “linguistic property of all Americans” (20). This chapter reads like a glossary of this core, ranging from historical phrases (“African Holocaust”) to proverbs (“can’t kill nothing, and won’t nothing die”) material artifacts (“do-rag”), practices (“signification/signifyin” and “testifyin”), and general slang (“trippin” and “wack”).

Chapter 3, “The N-words,” teases out the linguistic differences (and the socio-political and racial implications of) the different derivations of the N-word. Essentially, Smitherman flips the meaning of The Nigga as someone who is “[n]on-conformist, daring, breaking social conventions, going against the established (read: White) norms for Black folk” (49). He becomes threatening, though, because the Brotha has been historically feared for these tendencies. This part made me think of the Nirmala Erevelles’s introduction to Disability and Difference, where she describes the fear shared with her husband, who suffered from grand mal seizures:

The black male body, already a source of terror in white patriarchy (Davis, 1983; hooks, 1985), when transformed during a grand mal seizure—with rolled-back eyes, harsh grunting sounds, mouth drooling bloody foam, and the occasional loss of control of bodily function with its associated putrid smell—could become an even more terrifying spectacle as a result of the now-lethal triple combination of race, gender, and disability, the very embodiment of abjection (Kristeva, 1982). Our terror, I knew, was shared by other black men who, because their disabilities included involuntary physical movements (e.g., cerebral palsy) and/or real/apparent cognitive differences (e.g., mental retardation or autism), were often thought to be drug addicts or drunks, and therefore dangerous. To be perceived as a dangerous black man in the wrong place at the wrong time by a frightened person armed with a gun could result in death. (4)

Like Smitherman, Erevelles shows how historical fears and representations of the Black male body have manifested within our contemporary contexts, although Erevelles’s focus is more material than Smitherman’s linguistic attention. Indeed, Smitherman describes nigga as part of the counter-discourse that African Americans have developed over the centuries, assigning a positive connotation to the word and emphasizing language’s evolving nature. She notes, “The impact of words depends on who is saying what to whom, under what conditions, and with what intentions. Meanings reside in the speakers of language” (51). This is important for considering nigga as a word of address or a greeting rather than something someone is called and is also useful for considering the current controversies around the word, which are highly influenced on the widespread use of the word and a misunderstanding of its historical and cultural context (see, for example, the controversy of Rachel Jeantel’s testimony in the Trayvon trial, which was ridiculed and sparked a debate about the n-word). Since it seems like (at least in the media) the controversy of the n-word is when White people get involved, Smitherman acknowledges that it is a linguistic double standard, a “symbolic challenge to White hegemony, one of the previous few to which Brothas and Sistas can lay claim in this society” (60). Perhaps, then, this is the controversy with Paula Deen—someone with no social, cultural, or historical connections to AAL who has significant white privilege and capital—saying the n-word.

In Chapter 4, “Honeyz and Playaz Talkin That Talk,” Smitherman extends this discussion of the importance of AAL in Black culture, arguing that “AAL gives shape, c

oherence, and explanation to the condition of U.S. slave descendants and functions as a mechanism for teaching and learning about life and the world” (64).

This gets to the root of how AAL functions as a language rather than a corrupt dialect, and throughout this chapter, Smitherman illustrates how AAL is improvised and manipulated. In particular, she emphasizes the importance of play in the AAL tradition, noting that in all games, there are clear rules that must be followed. Thinking of AAL as a game, then, allows us to think of it as a framework that provides structure and control in an uncontrollable world (65). Some of this verbal play includes signification/signifyin (“a stye of verbal play that focuses humorous statements of double meaning on an individual, an event, a situation, or even a government” [69]), the Dozens (“a style of highly exaggerated, hyperbolic talk that takes place among social intimates” intended to showcase verbal skills “until you shut everybody else down” [76]), and trash-talking/selling woof tickets (“manipulating language to get in another person’s head, to mess wit them, to intimidate them, to force them to make mistakes or take a course of action that will be detrimental to them” [79]).


Chapter 5, “‘I Used to love H.E.R.’: Hip Hop, in its Essence and Real,” shifts focus from AAL in daily contexts to how it has manifested within music, specifically in the development and rise of rap and hip hop. Rap, which Smitherman describes as a “rich, postmodern Black art form” (84), presented the “promise of a beacon of hope that could help revive the Black Liberation Movement” (82). This was seen in the political stylings of Public Enemy, Ice Cube, KRS-One, Tupac, etc. At its core, this chapter grapples with the complexities of hip hop as “an unmatched vehicle for influence and change” to its criticism as a channel for “commercialism and misogyny” (85). Smitherman notes that 70% of hip hop sales are in the suburbs and that many artists and fans are entrapped in consumption, commodification, capitalism (89).

Smitherman looks to the historical roots of hip hop in order to counter some of the attacks made about its hypersexualization, misogyny, and appropriation. Smitherman argues that hip hop linguistics—in keeping with generational continuity—remixes older verbal forms in new, dynamic ways (95). She deconstructs the hip hop binary (either conscious/political OR gangsta), arguing that it’s both about the music and the lyrics, affecting both the head and the heart (98). Importantly, she also notes that as a subversive art form, hip hop represents an “outlaw cultural form” (101) which originates with Black working and unworking class youth who play with and master the Word. And, in line with her linguistic arguments, Smitherman (citing Alim, 2004) notes that hip hop artists code switch between AAL and LWC, varying their grammatical patterns in order to form identity and strengthen the bonds of community (103).

Chapter 6, “All around the World, Same Song,” picks up on the crossover discussed in the previous chapter; that is, White America’s absorption of Black language and culture (108). This is what Cornel West has termed the “AfroAmericanization of youth,” manifested in mannerisms, speech, and gestures (109). I find this chapter really interesting because even though she doesn’t say this (and I’m not sure if she would agree with this), there’s an underlying argument here that even though White society simultaneously criticizes and denies overt AAL and Black culture, the attempts at “understanding” or even “valuing” translate closer to exotification.

For example, she describes that in the 20th century, there was a fascination with Black culture’s marginalized, rebellious nature (110), which is ironic because this nature would have been rebelling against the society who found it so intriguing. In the 1960s and 1970s in particular, the Black Movement “became the poster child for the social rebellion of disaffected groups, its language and rhetorical style the venue for expressing protest by marginalized groups seeking entrée into the center of American life” (114). This poster child reference is fascinating because, as discussed in disability discourse, this is aligned with a charity model that upholds contempt and pity (harkening back to DuBois’s notion of double consciousness). Today, this crossover is ever-present thanks to the fast-paced dispersion by digital media, which sustains the generational continuity of Black culture and enriches American culture while simultaneously erasing the material and social conditions that influenced this language and culture (119). Ultimately, Smitherman presents this appropriation as a consequence of capitalism that negatively affects Blacks:

Despite a trickle of African Americans into the upper echelons of bling-bling, despite a larger middle class than at any point in Black American history, despite increased Black educational levels in this “post-Black” era, the bottom line fact is that the masses of Black people ain gittin paid. They remain socially, educationally, and economically marginalized outsiders while their language and culture is absorbed into the corporate mainstream and used for marketing everything from fast food and soft drinks to cereals and shampoo for White folks’ hair. (120)

Concluding Thoughts.

In the final chapter, “Negro Dialect, the Last Barrier to Integration?,” Smitherman questions whether linguistic acceptance and appreciation is actually the last step toward a different (more accepting) world view. To do this, she offers some stark facts and numbers about the deteriorating material conditions of the Black working and unworking class post-Civil Rights. For example, she cites micro-aggression, racialized assault, “linguistic profiling,” and the economic realities of many living below the poverty line (123). She also discusses the number of African Americans implicated within the prison system, noting that “in every state of the U.S., the proportion of Blacks in the prison population exceeds the proportion of Blacks among state residents” (125, emphasis added). She also examines the current state of our education system, nothing that schools are no longer segregated by law but instead are segregated by region and housing patterns (126). And, though she doesn’t mention this, many have argued that racial segregation still manifests in schools through the over-representation of students of color in special education programs. Many place this educational issue within the context of the linguistic push-pull, arguing on one hand that Black education is dependent on the eradication of AAL and on the other that AAL is integral to Black identity and culture (129).

Smitherman notes that AAL speakers are as diverse as AAL itself: “They come in all colors and sizes, they are young, they are old, they are male, they are female, they comprise both Cosby’s ‘lower’ and ‘upper economic,’ they are preachers and sinners, they are pimps and Ph.D.s, they are Reverends and Revolutionaries” (136). And together, they comprise and reflect the complexities and richness of AAL. I think she emphasizes this in order to buck the assumption that those who engage with AAL are lower class or uneducated, an attitude that must be changed. She argues that this attitude shift must occur in the schools, where these negative attitudes are reinscribed and reaffirmed (138).

One way to do this is to incorporate Black culture and language into our curricula—bringing in hip hop culture as a subject of study. Another way this can happen is by passing a national policy of bi/multilingualism that makes it mandatory for all U.S. K-12 students to study “foreign” languages and their cultures. African American Language-Culture would be a subject that students could study in order to better prepare them to enter the world “as bi/multinguals and with a global perspective on and acceptance of linguistic-cultural diversity” (141-42). Smitherman notes that this isn’t unreasonable because other countries uphold multilingualism as both policy and as standard practice (144). She concludes with the acknowledgment that U.S. citizens must come to understanding if we ever want to move beyond mere appropriation of Black culture and language.



Smitherman, Geneva. Word from the Mother: Language and African Americans. New York: Routledge, 2006. Print.


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