Word Play: How "Black English" Coarsens Culture


by Hannibal B. Johnson - December 10, 2015

This essay discusses “Black English” in the context of the overall African American culture, with particular emphasis on the consequences of reliance on non-standard English in a competitive, capitalistic, majoritarian-oriented society.

Years ago, my niece, “Kim,” reawakened me to a phenomenon I thought had been largely held in check. I recall taking on chauffeur duty that day, shuttling Kim and her sister to some forgettable family event or run-of-the-mill shopping destination. Though the particulars escape me, I vividly recall a testy exchange provoked by Kim’s snarky, teen-spirited comment, just as we readied for departure. Addressing her younger sister, she declared her disdain for another girl: “I can’t stand her. She talk too proper. She think she all that.” The seeming suggestion: Black kids must speak substandard English in order to be authentically black. Excellence—being all that one can be—amounts to little more than selling out.


Kim’s tortured English and her brazen dismissal of linguistic standards as implicitly “white” stunned me. I whirled around in the driver’s seat, craning my neck to make direct eye contact with my opinionated, keeper-of-the-blackness niece nestled in the rear. I took a breath, and then interjected, “What did you say?” Kim repeated herself, haltingly and with less assurance than she had delivered her original remarks.


Hardly letting her finish and barely able to contain my anger, I roared, “I don’t ever want to hear you say that again. Is that clear? Why would you criticize somebody for speaking correctly? You should want to speak correctly.” I fumbled around for an age-appropriate explanation of why what this smug teenager said so unnerved me. I failed. With equal measure of befuddlement and shame, Kim whimpered, unable to assist in her own defense. There would be no real conversation. Instead, silence washed over us, drowning out the tunes pouring out of the Bose sound system in my car.  


My parents viewed educational excellence as the means to virtually any desirable end. For me, speaking properly and writing grammatically have always been central to living up to the standards they set. Viewed benignly, “black English” represented a lack of education, perhaps on account of lack of access or opportunity—a kind of ignorance borne of a lack of formal training. Alternatively, and less charitably, resorting to black English reflected a stereotype-confirming casualness or laziness, or even a desire to maintain a linguistic style separate and distinct from “the man.” In either event, mastery of standard English by whatever means necessary was (and is) a necessary prerequisite to success. Black English, on the other hand, is akin to an unforced error in a tennis match where we are already down a set and a break. We simply cannot afford it if indeed we are in it to win it.


Kim’s gratuitous suggestion that it is just not cool to speak properly or to be smart, presented matter-of-factly and ungrammatically, cut to the quick. The base anti-intellectualism and the embedded self-hatred it reflected (i.e., black people are not supposed to be too articulate or too smart) seemed to me a manifestation of internalized oppression—a caving in to the white supremacist notion that black people, unable to master standard English, crafted an easier, looser, and substandard version of the language.


African Americans through the ages struggled against great resistance to attain access to meaningful education. They refused to allow physical brutality, segregation, and inequities in funding to dash their dreams. How did we regress from fighting and dying for the right to education to dismissing educational rudiments as the white man’s province, something we think diminishes our blackness? Are we witnessing a sort of cultural Alzheimer’s?


Fast-forward to the present. Electronic communications make use of shorthand and jargon more expedient, more public, and more problematic. Using proper English seems passé, and that perhaps should be the least of our concerns. More troubling is the casual and regular use—particularly, though by no means exclusively—among black youth of language that devalues, demeans, and desensitizes—tasteless language that incrementally corrupts and corrodes our culture.


Take a look an excerpt from an online conversation written by a friend’s nephew, “Joe,” a fairly typical African American teenage boy from a middle class background. These posts are both shocking and offensive, not just because of their appalling grammar and syntax, but because of their narcissism.


This is how Joe and his peers communicate. (“Jefferson” is Joe’s high school.)


“Nigga thats not Jefferson”

“Nigga w.e. that shit look extra delicious and Jefferson be having dat wet and soggy and dry and hard shit”

“Whaddd Jefferson aint eatn good”

“Let this shit be in Jefferson cafe IMA get a To -go plate bout dat”

“Told Dat Hoe Ta Lemme Lone i Only Fw Dimes”

“Who gone Shop with me if I start Slang'n them honey Buns”

“Yunno I'm on dat”

“IMA Side nigga…you need one FWM…i got DAT…*no relationship required”


One might write this off as clannish code-speak—the cool, shorthand way teen friends talk to one another. It is that, but with a risky—and perhaps life-altering—twist. This kind of argot used repeatedly becomes ingrained. Even if Joe knows the King's English, switching it on and off at will (i.e., code-switching) becomes increasingly difficult with each usage of black English. In the words of Aristotle: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

The consequences of relying on the street-speak as one’s default communication mode seem to be clear: missed opportunities in education and employment, reinforcement of inferiority myths, and increased ghettoization at all levels. African American youth, already hobbled by myriad negative perceptions and documented disparities, put more at risk when they fail to master fluency in “traditional” English.


This chain of posts is base, so crass and crude that it makes one wonder about Joe’s empathic capacity. He repeatedly uses of words like “nigga” and “hoe.” What does Joe know of the black struggle or the women’s liberation movement, of bondage and objectification, of shared humanity, of the dignity and worth of every individual? Is Joe able to imagine himself as the other, to feel what it is like to be in someone else’s skin?


Perhaps the uncritical use of profane language is limited. Perhaps its use can be limited further still. In any event, words matter, and we need to be aware of the consequences.


Curse words have their place, but vulgarity loses its power with overuse, and overindulgence calls into question one’s vocabulary. Casual references to females as a "hoes" (spelled, incidentally, like the gardening tool) who must be "dimes" (i.e., attractive) to merit attention are shocking, especially coming from such a young person, an ordinary Joe. The contextual use of a variant of “nigger” as a term of endearment, now increasingly common, likewise raises questions. Do the youth who embrace the word so enthusiastically, so cavalierly, have any understanding of the word’s tortured history or its lingering capacity to wound?


Black vernacular and the worldview it reflects should give us all pause. It is antithetical to the kind of maturity, courage, and political sophistication of those black giants we revere: Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T. Washington, John Lewis, Thurgood Marshall, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin, Julian Bond, Jesse Jackson, Angela Davis, Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Maya Angelou, and so on. Those people saw education—including the ability to speak and write articulately in traditional English—as the ticket out of the ghetto, literally and figuratively (i.e., the ghetto of the mind).


My parents saw education as the key to advancement. My father told us on numerous occasions: "You can't be just as good as white students; you need to be better." That emphasis on excellence—not black excellence, but excellence—drove me; it ignited the fire within. The sort of slang illustrated by the shared Facebook posts reinforces of an underachievement mentality that, left unchecked, could become culturally toxic.


In an era in which most de jure limitations have fallen and opportunities abound, this seeming reversion to black English as an acceptable, if not preferred, alternative to standard English should be cause for pause. Words matter, sometimes even more than we imagine. Now is such a time.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: December 10, 2015
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 18829, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 6:04:02 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review