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Essay

Backstory: Run Me My Language

By Divinia Shorter, Literary Fellow

December 6, 2018

TIME article ‘This Is What Bae Means’
TIME article “This Is What ‘Bae’ Means

“KAYA: Scaaaaeeerrrrrtt! Say what say what now?”
“MASSASSI: For real though…”
from If Pretty Hurts... by Tori Sampson

“What would America be like if it loved Black people as much as it loves Black culture?”
from Don't Cash Crop On My Cornrows by Amandla Stenberg

Think of words you may deem part of pop culture, words that seem to sprout up on social media, take over your newsfeeds, and then fade out of existence. Think “bae,” “bruh,” “bless.” If someone asked you where these words originated, where would you say? Facebook, Twitter, Vine — maybe just the youth. Before these words joined America’s lexicon, they originated from African American English, or Black English, a language common in Black communities across America. As linguist Taylor Jones describes in his 2015 study “Toward a Description of African American Vernacular English Dialect Regions Using ‘Black Twitter,’” Black English is a “systematic, rule-governed” language with its own unique, complex system of grammar and spelling. As we say in my home, “you right fam.” So when will America catch on?

“Language, in any community, is a bond, a form of sacred yet shared knowledge.”

Black English is recognized enough to make its way into mainstream language, largely in the shape of trendy, “discovered” phrases. In a 2014 Buzzfeed article titled “23 Words Teenagers Love To Use And What They Really Mean,” Black English phrases like “yas,” “turn up,” and “fam” are generically attributed to teens and given grossly simplistic definitions that ignore their use and meaning in Black English. Jones was even unable to include the full depth of Black English in his 2015 study of African American Vernacular English (a specific dialect of Black English) because words “‘noticed’ and borrowed by the white mainstream” had to be excluded from his study due to their more frequent and often inaccurate usage. 

Forever 21 tweet ‘Outfits on fleek’
Forever 21 tweets “Outfits on fleek”

Terms and phrases from Black English that appeal to the masses are popularized without due diligence or credit. But, according to Zeba Blay’s 2015 article “12 Words Black People Invented, And White People Killed,” when that language is in the hands of Black Americans, it’s seen as “inferior…uneducated or unintelligent.” Linguist Geoffrey Pullum elaborates in his 1999 paper “African American Vernacular English Is Not Standard English with Mistakes,” “The majority of English speakers think that [Black English] is just English with two added factors: some special slang terms and a lot of grammatical mistakes [e.g. muhfucka versus motherfucker]. They are simply wrong about this.” Language, in any community, is a bond, a form of sacred yet shared knowledge. Black language is no different, and has never attempted to live within a vacuum separate from America, even if that may be for the better (RIP words such as “lit,” “squad,” and more that died from America’s overuse). Black English shapes the fabric of American culture and society, but the misconceptions of its use, combined with America’s anti-Blackness, crafts a culture that steals and separates Black language from its Black roots while also shaming Black Americans for using it.

“Black language is for us as much as it’s from us.”

Black English holds an even more insidious stigma for Black women, as caricatures such as “the angry Black woman” exaggerate the misconceptions of Black English as a sign of intellectual inferiority and cultural downfall. It is common for Black women to be causalities of men’s advice to “get a Michelle Obama, not a Cardi B,” or a woman who “talks right.” In other words, Black women who use Black English can be perceived as a lesser version of what Black women should be, less desirable, less worth loving, and less beautiful. This false correlation can force Black women to choose between keeping our culture and being seen as ugly stereotypes or rejecting our culture and being applauded for leaving our race behind.

In a prefatory launch into her play, Tori Sampson writes, 

“In a world where Viola Davis is not ‘classically beautiful,’ First Lady Michelle Obama is compared to an ape, Cosmopolitan Magazine places Black women as examples of ‘trends that need to die,’ where Black Lives Matter assertions fade when Black girls go missing, where Lupita N’yongo’s splendor is regarded as an anomaly…In a world where it feels attacking to others for more than one of us to shine at a time, where the phrase Beautiful Black Women feels more like a mantra than a fact…In this world where beauty is placed out of our reach…We Reach, We Reach, We Reach.” 

When I consider America’s reluctance to acknowledge Blackness, as evidenced in part by the mainstream appropriation of Black English, I am reminded of one of the women from Tori Sampson’s play — a woman who is sexually desired but never valued, a standard in the lives of Black Americans that this play ultimately rejects. The world we know today may be one where the merit of Black achievement is measured by the achiever’s distance from their Blackness, where Black language is an influencer but not a credited author, and where Black features are only beautiful when perfect — but Tori Sampson reaches beyond, creating a world where Black language, Black culture, and Black beauty collide without limits. In If Pretty Hurts Ugly Must Be a Muhfu..., as the title declares in its unapologetically Black existence, Black language is for us as much as it’s from us. In Tori’s world, there is no culture without Black culture, no language without Black language, and no beauty without imperfect, non-standard, gorgeous Black women. That’s a world for all of us to reach for too.